UK physicist Stephen Hawking, who has motor neuron disease, has described the recent decision on European Union (EU) funding for human embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research as a 'fudge'. Last week, European Ministers agreed the latest draft of Europe's €54.5 billion (£38 billion) 2007-2013 research budget, the 7th Framework Programme (FP7). Following attempts by a German-led coalition to ban all EU funding of ES cell research, the agreement was reached after Ministers added the condition that no money would be given to projects that involve the destruction of human embryos. The amended budget proposal is now set to go back to the European Parliament for a second reading in November 2006.
Professor Hawking has said that stem cell research is the key to developing cures for motor neuron disease, and other degenerative conditions such as Parkinson's. Following last Monday's European Council decision, he told the Guardian newspaper that he hopes that this 'fudge' will place no practical limits on stem cell research. 'As I understand it, as long as the creation of new stem cell lines is paid for from private funds, or national budgets, EU money can be spent on research using these lines', he said, adding 'we throw away many embryos in IVF and no one objects. Isn't it better to use a few embryos to save lives?'
The UK's Royal Society said it was glad that Ministers had reached an agreement on the EU research budget, but said it was 'disappointed' by the decision to introduce new restrictions on ES cell research. 'It remains to be seen what impact these limitations will have on stem cell research given that they impose greater restrictions than currently exist for EU research funding', the society said in a press release. Developmental biologist Professor Robin Lovell Badge said that although the 'strange compromise' wasn't helpful, it was 'not too drastically against what we would hope'.
UK science minister Lord Sainsbury said that because of the situation in the US, the European decision could trigger a limited, reverse 'brain drain' - with 'disillusioned' American scientists moving to the UK. President Bush recently vetoed proposed legislation that would have expanded federal funding for ES cell research, a move that has attracted widespread criticism from many scientists and patient groups. 'In Europe we moving forward on this front whereas America has taken - as far as the federal government is concerned - a very negative position', said Lord Sainsbury. However, Professor Austin Smith, co-ordinator of the EuroStemCell project, pointed out that Bush's veto will not prevent US states such as California from continuing to fund ES cell research privately.
The Vatican has condemned the EU funding agreement, calling it 'the macabre product of a twisted sense of progress'. L'Osservatore Romano, a Vatican newspaper, was especially critical of Italy's decision to support the funding of ES cell research, when it had previously joined Germany and several other member states in calls for a complete ban.