BRUSSELS -- The United States is risking a "brain drain", in which its scientists will flock across the Atlantic, after the EU reached a "historic" deal yesterday on human embryonic stem cells.
A week after George Bush limited federal funds for the highly sensitive area, the EU warned Washington that "disillusioned" US scientists will want to make the most of Europe's more liberal rules.
Stem cell research. Photograph: Martin Godwin/Guardian
Lord Sainsbury, Britain's science minister, said: "There are a group of American scientists who are very disillusioned. In this field we have seen US scientists coming to the UK. If the US continues to take this very negative position I think within this field of regenerative medicine we will see scientists come from America and from other parts of the world, who would have gone to America, to the UK instead."
His remarks came after EU science ministers agreed to allow part of the union's expanded £37bn science budget to be spent on research into human embryonic stem cells. Berlin had attempted to block the funding on the grounds that it did not want its taxpayers' money to fund sensitive research which is subject to strict limits in Germany.
At the end of a passionate debate, which pitted liberal and conservative countries against each other, Germany dropped its objections. Germany backed down after winning an assurance from the European commission that no EU money would be spent on the destruction of human embryos - effectively a stronger statement of the existing position.
Human embryos have to be destroyed to allow the harvesting of embryonic stem cells. The EU rules mean that this part of the process will have to be funded from outside the EU budget.
Germany's change allowed Finland, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, to clinch what it called a "historic" deal. This will mean that individual member states will continue to have the right to decide whether to spend EU money on stem cell research in their own countries.
Lord Sainsbury contrasted Europe's pragmatic position with the inflexible position of Mr Bush who last week vetoed a bill that would have expanded government funding for stem cell research. "In Europe we are moving forward on this front whereas America has taken, as far as the federal government is concerned, a very negative position. That Europe is moving forward is extremely good."
But deep European divisions were exposed at yesterday's ministerial meeting in Brussels. Poland, Austria, Malta, Slovakia and Lithuania voted against stem cell research. They were opposed yesterday by France, Britain, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal, showing that the divisions were not simply between Catholic and non-Catholic countries.
Elisabeth Gehrer, the Austrian science minister, asked: "Do we really want 300-400 fertilised human embryos to be destroyed to create stem cells? This destruction of human embryos to create stem cell lines is not something we can support. We do not want community money, which includes Austrian money, to support this."
In a highly charged intervention, the Portuguese science minister asked his opponents to think of the consequences of limiting funding. Jose Mariano Gago said: "I hope that none of the colleagues will ever need treatment which does not yet exist for dementia and Alzheimer's. These are treatments which could be made possible by research with stem cells. If you find yourself in such a position I hope you would be able to say you did not stand in the way of such research."
François Goulard, the French minister, spoke up in favour of the compromise. "We must not try to prevent very important research ... Across the world we are seeing important scientific progress being made and I am a little bit worried that Europe might lag behind in an area where we absolutely have to be in the forefront."
Germany was in trouble from the start of the day, when Slovenia changed its mind and made clear it would support the deal.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006