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image European Research News Centre > Pure Science > The revolution revs up
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image image image Date published: 07/11/02
  image The revolution revs up
RTD info 35
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  'Take increased investments, evolution in the legal framework and a new culture, and you have a so-called Old World able to compete with the United States.' It was in these terms that in May this year the American Time magazine painted a decidedly optimistic picture of the biotechnology sector in Europe. Although the United States has experienced an unrivalled boom in this field over the past decade, today there are unmistakable signs of a European awakening – among policy-makers, researchers and investors – based on the dynamics of rapprochement between the fundamental life sciences and their applications.
   
     
   

An inseparable pairing of science and technology, a series of discoveries and a spirit of innovation have resulted in the biotechnologies providing a constant source of new applications in the fields of health, agriculture and the environment. They are enabling several traditional industrial sectors to regenerate and, more spectacularly, they are spawning new and innovative companies which already employ 87 000 people in the European Union. As stressed by European leaders at the Lisbon (2000) and Stockholm (2001) summits, as a result of their commitment to the acquisition of new knowledge, biotechnology companies are a vital element in Europe's accession to a knowledge-based economy.

This is a sector which reveals the true value of the European Research Area. 'European biotechnology can only compete with the rest of the world if we maximise research co-operation and minimise useless duplication. High-level researchers, whether working in the private, public or academic sector, must be the first to benefit from this quest for synergy,' stressed Philippe Busquin, European Commissioner for Research, at the major Biovision Forum held in Lyons (France) in February 2001. But the battle is not being fought in the scientific field alone. There is also a need to create an economic environment which encourages the creation of innovative companies or 'DNA start-ups', as they are sometimes called, which have doubled in number in Europe over the past five years.

The stakes are high with a European biotechnology market expected to be worth over €100 billion by 2005. Encouraging and training researcher-entrepreneurs, granting them access to financial resources through more open and abundant venture capital, and providing Europe with more coherent regulations on the marketing of biotechnological products are the main lines of the new strategy which the Commission – after wide-ranging consultation with scientists, economists and politicians – has just proposed to the Member States and European Parliament (see Decision time for the Union).

In forging ahead in this way the greatest attention must also be paid to the heated public debate about this ongoing 'revolution'. How can progress in the life sciences be reconciled with the concerns of society? EU countries and the Commission have already taken initiatives to this effect, such as their commitment to giving clear priority to consumer protection and to considering the interests of the most vulnerable groups. New ethical questions have also caused the Commission to prohibit any funding of research on human reproductive cloning. These measures must be further strengthened as 'commitment to fundamental ethical values will be crucial in creating confidence and winning public support for the new biotechnologies', as Commission President Romano Prodi stated at the Lisbon Summit.

 

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