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Taking the initiative

Don’t dismiss the voice of European citizens

Stop Vivisection, the latest European Citizens’ Initiative to arrive in Brussels, has caused trepidation and considerable debate among scientists.

The ECI, which calls for a ban on all biomedical and toxicological research on animals in Europe, received its required 1 million signatures within a year of its launch. The proposal will now be considered by the Commission, which is obliged to explore the feasibility of a policy proposal that would address the concerns of the petitioners.

One of Us, an initiative to ban embryonic stem cell research, did not draw a firm policy proposal from the Commission, and Stop Vivisection may not either. But the arrival of two successive petitions that threaten aspects of scientific research has driven some research groups to wonder whether some adjustment is required to inject scientific arguments into the system, which is up for review in the spring.

The most forceful critique, from the League of European Research Universities, suggests that proposed ECIs are vetted in advance for their scientific feasibility. A requirement for scientific evidence in ECIs would weed out proposals that abuse the system, the group suggests.

The idea of ECIs is to give European citizens a way to directly influence policy-making, to put forward proposals and to have their wishes acknowledged—if not acted upon. In short, the system sets out to move a little bit of decision-making away from the elite and back to the people.

The system already requires ECI petitions to be vetted to ensure that they align with EU values: a mechanism intended to exclude, for example, racial discrimination or capital punishment, from consideration. Leru is effectively calling for an extension to preclude ‘anti-scientific’ petitions.

Great care would have to be taken to ensure that any such vetting did not undermine the entire exercise. The public forms its opinions based on many factors, not just science. Personal preferences, religion, social values and historical factors all play a part. And ethical decisions on, for example, animal experimentation or stem cell research need to be made by society as a whole—not just by the scientists who want to do the research.

Taking a look at the dozen or so ECIs that have been registered in the past 2 years, it is clear that all manner of people and problems are represented. Some, such as End Ecocide in Europe, smack of Utopianism. Others, such as Right2Water, which opposes water privatisation, and the European Initiative for Media Pluralism, address important civic concerns.

The fact that many people are engaging with the ECI system is a good sign in itself. The young initiative has already enjoyed a modicum of success in public engagement. The system will continue to evolve over time, and it is important that scientific organisations make their voices heard during this process. The most valuable contribution that they can make is to try to ensure that signatories are not given blatantly false information, and that citizens are as well informed as possible.

That is not the same thing as giving scientific leaders a veto on the discussion of contentious topics such as animal experiments, on which many scientists—as well as members of the public—would like a fuller and more nuanced debate.

This article also appeared in Research Europe