When the European Association for Bioindustries invited Mary Harney, Ireland's deputy prime minister and the country's minister for enterprise, trade, and employment, to open its biotechnology conference in Vienna last month, it was a particularly inspired choice.
On Jan. 1, Ireland took over the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union. In her position, Harney presides over the EU's recently formed Competitiveness Council, charged with improving the competitiveness of Europe's industry and business. As it happens, this is also the body that will chart the course of the European Commission's REACH program through to enactment.
REACH, a proposed Europe-wide policy that will cover registration, evaluation, and authorization of chemicals, will have a potentially profound impact on the manufacture of pharmaceuticals and fine chemicals--strong suits for Ireland--as well as on commodity and specialty chemicals.
The biotechnology industry, in particular, has been one of the main components of Ireland's thriving economy. As Harney pointed out at the conference, some 226 companies in biotech-related sectors account for 12% of the country's manufacturing employment and 26% of manufacturing sales.
Hence the Irish government's thoughtful submission--one of thousands received--to the EC's online comment period last summer on a draft of REACH. Many of the submissions were reflected in the reshaping of REACH, subsequently published at the end of October.
However, in an interview with C&EN, Harney stresses that there is still work to be done. "The proposed program was greatly improved, but there is more to do" under the auspices of the Competitiveness Council, she says. "Clearly the [EC's] Environment Directorate will be involved, but it is important that the Competitiveness Council has the lead role."
The council's involvement marks a considerable change in the REACH process. The Environment Directorate originally drafted stringent proposals with only limited input from the directorates dealing with enterprise and economics. As the competitive implications--both regionally and internationally--began emerging, however, those directorates became more forceful in shaping the package of chemical regulations. Now the Competitiveness Council has the clear upper hand in completing the process.
Anticipating further improvements, normal legislative timing, and inevitable delays, she points out that it will not be Ireland that brings the policy into being. "Realistically, it will take 12 to 18 months to get the political agreement needed" for such a huge dossier. In fact, she predicts that REACH will not come to pass officially until probably the U.K. government's turn at the EU presidency, beginning in July 2005. Between now and then, the Netherlands will succeed Ireland, followed by Luxembourg in January 2005.
One new development that Ireland is encouraging: coordination among the governments of these four countries on a variety of topics, including REACH. "We want to coordinate to get uniformity and consistency in our approach" to various programs, she says.
"We have an innovative industry, and we want one that is not hindered by excess bureaucracy."
Environmental activist groups have charged that the EC capitulated to industry--selling out Europeans by watering down the stringent REACH plan originally envisaged. But Harney rejects that charge.
"The thing that was so expensive [about the original proposal] is that there was no downstream benefit," she says. "There were not the beneficial effects one would have expected from a proposal so profound. There has to be a question of balance. If nobody was living in Europe, Europe would be very clean. The chemical industry is not the enemy; it has contributed so much. We have an innovative industry, and we want one that is not hindered by excess bureaucracy."
On a more immediate level, Harney remains responsible for helping to ensure that Ireland's extraordinary growth, as demonstrated over the past decade, continues. Among her plans to support that growth: "We're working with companies to bring their R&D functions to Ireland, not just the manufacturing. We've got the skills, the people. The country's investment in R&D is geared to innovation.
"We have increased our national R&D spending by 10% over the last decade, and we are hoping to leverage that with companies' R&D," she says. The country's national development plan earmarks some $3 billion over the next five years for research and innovation, she adds. And that effort is augmented by the efforts of Science Foundation Ireland, established by the Irish government to attract top scientists to the country.
Moreover, after consulting with companies and industrial groups, Ireland launched a new tax credit for R&D at the beginning of this year.
As she pointed out at the biotech conference in Vienna, "We want to bring the best brains in the world to Ireland. And we want to convert the research into practical products. There is a clear link between the world of research and the world of industry."