Speech at the EU Preparatory meeting of the Third World Congress for Freedom of Scientific Research

Minister Bonino,
Honourable Members of the European Parliament,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to participate in this important event on freedom of scientific research. I would like to thank the Honourable Niccoló Rinaldi, Professor Simona Giordano and Mr Marco Cappato for their kind invitation.
We are here today to discuss about science and research and the need for freedom of research. Who is science and research for? How can citizens benefit? And I am most impressed by the eminent scientists here who can share their views with us on this issue.

From my point of view I would claim that if there is one area of research that can deliver direct benefits to Europeans this is medical research. Advances in medical science and research lead to new treatments, new medicines, better healthcare. For people this translates into better quality of life, longer lives. It can even make the difference between life and death.
Think of HIV/AIDS. Only a couple of decades ago, it was a life sentence. Now, thanks to scientific advances, it is not. Thanks to scientific research, people are living longer and longer, leading gradually to a new society were being “old” becomes the rule rather than the exception. The health sector is driven by scientific innovation and research. Medical research and health policy are closely linked and interdependent disciplines. Medical research and innovation in medicine and the health sciences enable us as policy makers to ‘translate’ scientific knowledge into health policy so that citizens can benefit from it – to live longer, healthier lives.

The European Commission seeks to ensure that health policy reaps to the fullest extent possible the benefits of medical research and of innovation. This is why the health related research is at the forefront of the European Union research programmes and we seek to build close synergies between health policy and research. I believe health lies at the centre of our social model, our research and education policy and also our own economic policy and welfare state model. This is why the European Commission treats health issues in a horizontal, cross policy and integrated manner to allow for synergies and to promote multiplier effects, wherever possible.

Allow me now to raise some of the key issues we are facing and the actions we are taking to address them. Health is attracting ever greater attention – across the European Union and, indeed, across the entire world. But massive challenges lie ahead – the ageing population; the rising tide of chronic diseases; the increasing demand for healthcare; the growing expectations of citizens. All of these factors, and more, put the health systems of EU Member States under heavy and growing pressure. Ever expanding medical knowledge and the development of new, innovative health technologies can help us address these challenges. For this we also need a competitive pharmaceutical and healthcare industry.

Yet as policy makers we are keenly aware that, science and innovation also cost money.
Indeed it is a matter of great concern that, for the first time in decades, healthcare expenditure is actually declining in many European Union Member States – largely as a response to the need to cut public expenditure. Health systems in Europe absorb some 15% of all government expenditure. If nothing changes, this share is projected to increase by almost one third by 2060. Clearly, such an increase would not be sustainable.

There is however another side to the coin. Health is a value in itself. Health is a building block towards a better and more prosperous society. Our actions and reactions must not amount to short-term fixes but must work towards solid, efficient and sustainable models, encouraging and making the most of innovative solutions. The health sector has been built on innovation – and indeed innovation will be central to its future success. New health technologies and new medicines have the potential to:
– increase the efficiency and sustainability of health systems;
– improve the quality and availability of healthcare; and
– support patient-centred health systems.

We all agree on the need to provide safe and high quality healthcare for all. So the question arises – how can we do this without increasing health budgets? The answer is – rather than spending more, we need to spend better. This inevitably involves co-ordination, greater focus on cost-efficiency of care, on prevention, with more promotion of healthier lifestyles, as well as developing better technologies and fostering research and innovation.

As I have mentioned, health is a value in itself. It is no surprise therefore that our health regulatory framework is geared towards ensuring universal access to high quality care and products, patient choice and empowerment, effective disease control and disease prevention.
Recent initiatives on patients’ rights in cross border healthcare; the on-going revision of legislation on clinical trials; and the recent decision on cross border health threats are just a few prominent examples.

Our action does not stop here. The Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing is an excellent example of the potential in Europe to leverage demand-driven innovative solutions in health while improving people’s health and their quality of life. This Partnership brings together around 1.000 stakeholders, to implement actions on the ground that span from research on ageing to deployment of eHealth solutions.

Our stakeholders are implementing concrete innovative solutions which contribute towards our target of increasing by 2 years the average number of healthy life years of European citizens by 2020.

Let me come back to one of the questions I raised at the beginning of my speech – freedom of research. One of the factors limiting freedom of research is the lack of an appropriate regulatory framework to facilitate the uptake of research results into health policy. We all recognise how important this issue is and I am sure our discussions today will focus on this topic. Clearly we need to constantly monitor upstream research and innovation developments so as to provide the necessary regulatory framework to facilitate the translation of research results into policy.

One such example is our proposal for the revision of the Clinical Trials Directive. Clinical trials are an indispensable part of clinical research to develop and improve medicinal products. The number of clinical trials conducted in the EU has decreased by over 20% in the last 5 years. At the same time, the current EU Clinical Trials legislation in force since 2004 is criticised for having increased administrative burdens in conducting clinical trials. This is why, in July 2012, the Commission adopted a proposal to revise our EU Clinical Trials legislation, which aims at making the carrying out of clinical trials in Europe more competitive, while ensuring a high level of patients’ safety, patients’ rights and reliability of data. The proposed rules would maintain a high level of patient protection, cut red tape and facilitate multinational trials, which are essential, for example, in research on rare diseases or to develop personalised medicines. We need to ensure that Europe is an attractive place for clinical research, where public health and innovation can place patients at the centre of our actions.

Ladies and Gentlemen, let me conclude by expressing my whole-hearted support for the initiative of this Congress for freedom of scientific research towards advancing the cause of health research and health education, and towards bridging the gap between medical research and health policy. I wish you a fruitful and successful discussion. Thank you.