Debates over embryonic stem (ES) cells are roiling politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. A few days after U.S. President George W. Bush vetoed a law that would have loosened rules for federal funding (ScienceNOW, 19 July), several European countries opposed to embryo research threatened to block the European Union's stem cell funding program unless rules on ES cell research were tightened. Yesterday, science ministers from the 25 E.U. member countries agreed to a compromise, in which the E.U. will not fund derivation of new stem cell lines from embryos. However, unlike rules for federal funding in the U.S., there are no restrictions on which cell lines researchers can use once they are derived.
In addition to funding available from their home countries, European scientists can apply for money from the E.U.-wide program called Framework. The next instalment, called Framework 7, will spend €50 billion ($63 billion) between 2007 and 2013 on all areas of science. Because E.U. member countries have a range of laws governing embryo research, the topic has long been a sticking point in negotiations over Framework's funding rules.
In June, the E.U. parliament voted to allow Framework 7 to fund research with human ES cells (Science, 23 June, p. 1732), and most scientists who work with the cells hoped that would be the last political hurdle for the contentious issue. But on Monday, a late-forming coalition of science ministers from countries that restrict embryo research threatened to block the entire program unless funding on embryo research was restricted. Poland, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Malta, Luxembourg, and Slovenia argued that they did not want their tax money to fund research prohibited within their borders.
After 5 hours of debate, the science ministers finally agreed to add a statement to the Framework rules that blocks "proposals for projects which include research activities intended to destroy human embryos, including for the procurement of stem cells." But the statement goes on to say that research with human ES cell lines, once they are derived, can be funded.
E.U. Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik argued against the tighter rules, but he stresses that the compromise does not change the status quo, because to date no scientist has used E.U. money to derive new human ES cell lines. Austin Smith of the University of Edinburgh in the U.K., who heads an E.U.-funded project on stem cells, says the decision could have been worse. "It's a compromise one can live with," he says. "The critical thing is that there is no cutoff date" for derivation of cell lines as there is for federal funding in the U.S.
The E.U. parliament still needs to approve the change when it meets again in the fall. Framework 7 is scheduled to go into effect in January, but further disagreements between parliament and the council could delay its start.