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 Will Germany lead in stem cell research?

 
  
 
30.11.2001 
 
 After President Bush decided to limit federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, it turns out that stem cell research has important support in Germany. This is what the Barons magazine reports in an article dated 29/01/02
Now it seems that President Bush's half-baked promise to fund embryonic stem cell research could export billions of dollars worth of venture capital in the field of technology - to Europe.

In an effort to promote the next phase of EU enlargement, the governments of Germany and Poland recently hosted a week-long "traveling press conference." The foreign reporters, including the writer of these lines, were invited to a rich series of meetings with first-rate German and Polish leaders, including Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller.
Naturally, these meetings did not amount to efforts to expand the European Union, and the conversation turned to other, more distant issues, such as the question of the future relevance of the NATO alliance, and to what extent Germany would support the international efforts to capture Osama bin Laden.

Sometimes, the conversations even drifted into more familiar topics, such as the stock market, the economy, science and technology. This brings us back to the future of stem cell research in Europe in general, and in Germany in particular. Well, after President Bush decided last year to limit federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, investors in science and technology stocks correctly guessed that some of the private funding in this field would migrate overseas, to places with a long tradition of medical research and drug development.

Great Britain openly promoted President Bush's tidings, as did Germany, because both would greatly benefit from gaining an advantage in some area over the United States. This is not to say that the issue of stem cell research was not a heated ethical issue in Europe, especially in Germany, where the memories of the human research carried out by the Third Reich still haunt the public consciousness, and set the social agenda of the 21st century. The Green Party, a partner in Chancellor Schröder's center-left coalition, is fundamentally opposed to biotechnological engineering. Even the Catholics from the more conservative regions of Germany, such as Bavaria, oppose it.

But biotechnology is big and important business in Germany, and the controversy over stem cell research is right at the center of one of Germany's fastest growing economic sectors. The German government has pumped billions of marks into biotech start-ups over the past five years in an effort to create new jobs, as part of a strategic effort to disperse a labor force concentrated in low-tech manufacturing plants controlled by trade unions. About 20% of European corporations in the field of biotechnology are concentrated in Germany, which makes it the leading player on the continent in this field.

Chancellor Schroeder, who ended the long reign of his predecessor, Helmut Kohl, in 1998, using a platform of "the economy first", is steadily building a position in favor of stem cell research. But during our visit to his postmodern office in the New Government Building in Berlin, Schröder was already unreservedly supporting such research.

The affable Chancellor stated that he expects the German Bundestag to begin a comprehensive discussion on stem cell research at the end of this month, from a point of departure of an extreme gap between those who seek to completely ban such research, and those who support it. "I am of the opinion that we need this kind of research," says Schroeder, "and I think it should be allowed to make diagnoses before carrying out organ transplants in fetuses."

Schröder became the seventh chancellor of the Federal Republic, based on his promise to fix the economic situation, and create new jobs. But in the face of the Sisyphean effort of raising the former Second World economy of Eastern Europe to the standards of West Germany, and in the face of the fundamental weakness in the world economy that is reflected in the recessions that plague the USA and Japan, Schroeder's efforts were largely like grinding water. 4.3 million Germans are expected to be unemployed at the end of this month. The unemployment rate actually increased during his tenure - to more than 10%.

Therefore, the chancellor does not intend to stop the operation of the growth engine which is one of the only ones left for the German economy, biotechnology research. Besides, by taking a clear stand on the merits of stem cell research, the chancellor can further differentiate himself from his main political rival, Bavarian Chancellor Edmund Stauber. Stauber has indeed championed an economic recovery in his home state – largely thanks to growth in information technology – and the unemployment rate in Bavaria is almost half the rate for Germany as a whole. But his Catholic-conservative coalition imposes on Stober the same restrictions that the Christian right places on President Bush in the USA, when it comes to the engineering of human cells without limits.

As it sounds, the chancellor is going to throw his full weight into deciding this issue. "We are talking here about curing diseases. It will be a conscientious vote, and no one will be able to align with his party just like that," he says. Schroeder is confident that he will win this fight over stem cell research. And what if he fails? "We are still ahead of Britain in this area", he finds solace.

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