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Stem cell debate threatens EU research fund

Entire budget hanging by a thread

A €9bn (about £6.1bn) injection of research funds into information technology research over the next seven years hangs in the balance, as an ethical debate about whether the EU should fund stem cell research threatens to delay the approval of the whole €54bn (£37bn) research budget, people close to the debate said yesterday.

The research budget for the next seven years may not be approved in time for the beginning of next year if Slovenia carries out its threat to join a blocking minority of countries opposed to the inclusion of stem cell research in the overall spending package.

The spending program, called "framework program seven" or FP7, devotes the largest amount of money ever to information and communication technology research. Projects to benefit from the public funding include the Galileo satellite project, which aims to offer a more accurate alternative to the US GPS (global positioning system) currently in use worldwide.

Previous research programs have played an important role in the development of technologies, such as the GSM (global system for mobile communications) mobile phone standard and the ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) broadband standard.

Until now, the ethical debate over the use of stem cells in research has been less intense in Europe than in the US, where President George Bush Wednesday vetoed federal spending on stem cell research. But that could be changing.

"The Slovenian government has raised worries about including stem cell research in the budget at recent meetings," said Timo Haapalehto, councillor for research at the Finnish permanent representation to the EU Finland currently occupies the six-month rotating EU presidency.

Meanwhile, the Italian Parliament debated the issue of stem cell research late Wednesday and yesterday agreed not to stand in the way of devoting European research money to stem cell research.

Italy is one of seven countries that signed a declaration at the end of last year calling for the exclusion of stem cell research from European spending. The other six are Malta, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Poland and Slovakia.

However, when the government of Silvio Berlusconi lost to the centre-left coalition headed by former European Commission president Romano Prodi last month, Italy withdrew from the declaration. The debate in the Italian Parliament on Wednesday made no changes to this revised position.

Although Slovenia carries less voting weight than Italy, it would still create a blocking minority along with the other six countries, said Haapalehto. "It would be possible to block any decision, even without Italy," he said.

If science and research ministers fail to sign off on FP7, the European Parliament will not have enough time to hold a second debate on the shape of the budget agreed to by national governments later this year, said Antonia Mochan, a spokeswoman on science and research topics at the European Commission.

More information about FP7 is available here.

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