European Responses to Biotechnology: Research, Regulation, and Dialogue

By Laget, Patrice; Cantley, Mark | Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

European Responses to Biotechnology: Research, Regulation, and Dialogue


Laget, Patrice, Cantley, Mark, Issues in Science and Technology


Real differences exist between U.S. and European public opinion, but the foundation for a policy convergence is in place.

Modern biotechnology is the fruit of a massive surge of knowledge about the structure and functioning of living entities that has taken place over the past few decades. The surge continues unabated with the sequencing of human and other genomes at ever-increasing speed and declining cost. The knowledge spreads around the globe--available, irreversible, pervasive, and subversive--its accessibility and influence amplified by the tools of informatics that have also advanced rapidly during this period. It presents opportunities to scientists, and it poses challenges to policymakers. It arrives, often uninvited, in the in-boxes of the ministries of research, industry, agriculture, environment, education, health, trade, and patents in countries rich or poor and makes its way onto the agendas of the international agencies.

That multifaceted set of challenges has elicited various responses in national capitals and in the institutions of the European Union (EU). Maintaining some degree of coherence or coordination among the numerous responses has been a persistent concern of the European Commission (EC) for almost two decades. The price of sugar, the patentability of genes, and the ethics of stem cell research are among the many issues related in some way to biotechnology but typically addressed by different parts of the machinery of government.

In spite of the proliferation of international exchanges and communication in recent years, most intensely across the North Atlantic, the responses to the challenges raised by biotechnology seem to have diverged. With respect to research, the EU and the United States are following similar paths; but in the regulatory arena, the differences in approach are large and, in the view of some observers, increasing. This need not be so. Increased dialogue across the Atlantic that builds on the agreement among scientists and includes a broader mix of representatives from both sides can close this gap.

A positive attitude

Europe is not against science. As the debate over biotechnology has heated up in recent years, particularly in Europe, some Americans have begun to view the Europeans as antiscience because of their sometimes vociferous questioning of the safety of biotech techniques and products. The reality is that European investment in biotechnology research is comparable to that in the United States: over $2 billion per year. Although there has been determined opposition to some biotech applications, Europeans are in general very supportive of science and appreciative of its benefits. In fact, Europeans have expressed no objection to the use of biotechnology to produce new medicines, and some early genetically engineered food products were popular in Europe. Besides, attitudes change.

For example, opposition to biotechnology had become so intense in Switzerland that a national referendum to severely limit genetic engineering activity was scheduled for 1998. In the two years leading up to the referendum, the scientific community conducted an ambitious education campaign with extensive public discussion. The result was that two-thirds of the voters rejected the restrictions. Ten years ago, Germany faced serious opposition to biotechnology, but it is now a technology leader. Similar controversies have broken out in many countries, including the United States. Although they have not blocked the development and application of the technology, they have served to underline the need for public trust and credible regulations.

Americans and Europeans do disagree on some issues pertaining to the exploitation of science, and the European system of performing research and some aspects of European regulatory approaches differ from those of the United States in significant ways. For example, European regulation of food extends throughout the entire food production system from farm to table. …

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