Horizon 2020, which is backed by the European Parliament, implements the EU's research funding commitment of €80 billion over the next seven years. Starting this year, it does not explicitly fund human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research and it excludes funding the creation of new cell lines or for research that destroys human embryos. However, the funding framework supports research into diseases, such as Parkinson's, and this research may involve the use of hESCs.
The petition brought by One of Us attracted 1.8 million signatures and was the second to qualify to be heard under a system introduced two years ago called the European Citizens' Initiative. The Lisbon Treaty, a governing treaty of the EU, requires that any citizens' initiative that gains over one million signatures be brought before the European Parliament.
The Commission is not obliged to take any action by accepting such initiatives; however it must reach a formal decision within three months and justify that decision in writing. The conclusion was that the existing rules under Horizon 2020 are appropriate.
The EU's research commissioner, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, said in a statement: 'We have engaged with this Citizens' Initiative and given its request all due consideration, however, member states and the European Parliament agreed to continue funding research in this area for a reason. Embryonic stem cells are unique and offer the potential for life-saving treatments'.
'The Commission will continue to apply the strict ethical rules and restrictions in place for EU-funded research, including that we will not fund the destruction of embryos', she added.
From 2007 to 2013, the EU spent €156.7 million on 27 collaborative projects in health research involving the use of hESCs. The total amounts to 2.6 percent of the overall EU spending on health research during that period.
Laws governing the use of hESCs in research varies among EU Member States; being permissive in Belgium and in the UK, but imposing a prohibition in Poland and Lithuania. Research is eligible for Horizon 2020 funding only if it is legal in the country where it takes place and has passed a scientific and ethical review.
One of Us considers this arrangement too liberal and quoted the ruling by the European Court of Justice in Brüstle v. Greenpeace (reported in BioNews 630), which it says 'indicates that fecundation is the beginning of human life and in the name of human dignity excludes the patenting of any procedure that involves or supposes the destruction of a human embryo'.
The Commission stated that the case is not relevant to science funding, however, as the ruling was limited to the patentability of biotechnological inventions and not whether such research can be carried out or whether it can be funded.
One of Us said it is considering appealing the Commission's decision to the European Court of Justice.