Joint Committee on the Handling of Security-Relevant Research, DFG and Leopoldina
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The term dual-use items is generally used for items that have both civilian and military applications. This term now also includes items that can be used for criminal and terrorist purposes. In the field of research, dual use usually refers to research findings or methods that can be used for peaceful and beneficial purposes but also misused with intent to harm society or the environment.
Based on the common understanding of dual-use research of concern, the German Ethics Council defines such research as “work in the life sciences that can be reasonably anticipated to provide knowledge, products, or technologies that could be directly misapplied by others to cause damage to public health and safety, and the environment” in its statement “Biosecurity – Freedom and Responsibility of Research” (2014). In the opinion of DFG and the Leopoldina, the dual-use dilemma extends far beyond the sphere of the life sciences, affecting almost all fields of science. Both organisations thus prefer to speak more generally of “security-relevant research”.
As stipulated in the model statutes for KEFs (Committees for Ethics in Security-Relevant Research) presented by the Joint Committee in its progress report of 2016, researchers should consult the KEF before conducting a research project that carries “significant risks for the security of human dignity, life, health, freedom, property, the environment or peaceful coexistence. Security-relevant risks arise, in particular, in research which produces knowledge, products or technologies that could be misused directly by third parties.”
In theory, the research findings and methods of almost all subject areas could conceivably be misused for malicious purposes by third parties. In addition to the well-known dual-use concerns in nuclear and pathogen research, materials research and nanotechnology, for example, could also be used to develop offensive weapons. Research findings on industrial robots could be used for the construction of combat robots. Analyses of molecular plant genetics could enable targeted attacks on seeds. Work on protection against computer viruses could be used to trigger the dissemination of the same and to advance new forms of cyber warfare. Psychological, medical and neurobiological research could assist in the manipulation of persons or in aggressive interrogation methods and torture. The optimisation of the collection, association and analysis of personal data could be used to violate personal rights and be used to manipulate public opinion. Behavioural and social sciences research into the radicalisation of terrorist groups could be used to create the basis for new terrorist recruiting strategies. Linguistic research in speech recognition systems could also be used for abusive communications monitoring. Scientific findings on the still poorly understood triggers of buying and selling waves in stocks could be used for a targeted manipulation of the stock markets. The list is almost endless.
The Joint Committee on the Handling of Security-Relevant Research was established by the DFG and Leopoldina to raise awareness amongst researchers of dual-use issues in security-relevant research and to further develop and foster both a responsible approach to security-relevant research and self-governance within the research community. In accordance with the decisions made by the Leopoldina Presidium and the DFG Presidium, the Joint Committee has the following mandate: “[...] to promote the effective and sustainable implementation of the recommendations of the DFG and the Leopoldina on ’Scientific Freedom and Scientific Responsibility’. The Joint Committee shall monitor and proactively advance the status of implementation at research institutions and support them in properly implementing the recommendations by drafting sample texts, for example. This applies in particular to the establishment of the Committees for Ethics in Security-Relevant Research (KEFs – German acronym) as outlined in the recommendations. [...]”
KEF is the German acronym of “Kommission für Ethik sicherheitsrelevanter Forschung” – Committees for Ethics in Security-Relevant Research. In their recommendations on “Scientific Freedom and Scientific Responsibility”, the DFG and Leopoldina advised every research institution to establish its own KEF to advise both researchers and the respective research institution on the security-relevant aspects of their research.
To address the basic conflict between the freedom of science and the duty to avoid causing harm, researchers can request assistance from the KEF to discuss and evaluate the ethical and legal aspects of security-relevant research projects. Security concerns could arise from the subject matter of the project itself and its potential consequences, as well as the background of collaboration partners and external funders. A KEF should also work to foster awareness of security-relevant aspects of research and a culture of responsibility within its organisation. Depending on the position of the KEF in the structure of the individual research institution, it could also assume further tasks such as reinforcing good scientific practice and the responsibility for ethical issues in research on humans and animals.
A KEF ensures, among other things, that researchers have a contact point within the institution that provides advice and assistance in addressing both expected and unexpected security-relevant risks in their research. The consultation process with the KEF may also conclude that there are no security-relevant risks associated with the respective research project. In the event of an unexpected security-relevant incident, a KEF can also function as a crisis management and crisis communication tool for the research institution.
Research institutions and their KEFs and under no obligation to report to the Joint Committee on their work. Information provided by research institutions on how they handle security-relevant research is entirely voluntary. Nevertheless, the Joint Committee is grateful to receive information on the work of the KEFs in appropriately aggregated and anonymised form. The Joint Committee analyses all reports it receives with the aim of further improving its impact to sustainably increase the responsible conduct of security-relevant research at German research institutions. The Joint Committee also intends to publish these reports in anonymised form in order to document how German research institutions are managing the risks associated with their research. Publishing these reports can also help other KEFs in their work.
In this event, researchers would ideally at least have informed the competent KEF of their research project and the associated security risks in advance. In the ensuing consultation and evaluation process, the KEF would only have approved the research project if the security-relevant research was established to provide a significant potential benefit. If the institution or the researchers are then made responsible for the damage incurred, by the media, for example, they can show that, in advance to the research project or publication of the research findings, they had acted to the best of their knowledge and that the potential benefit of the research may, in future, compensate for the damage incurred.
This depends on the implementation of the recommendations on “Scientific Freedom and Scientific Responsibility” (2014) of the DFG and Leopoldina in the respective institution, a process which the Joint Committee also supports and provides advice on. The Joint Committee maintains a list on its website of all the contact persons and committees in Germany responsible for ethics in security-related research in order to facilitate contact and exchange of information between the individual institutions. The Joint Committee also regularly invites contact persons and KEF members to workshops and symposia to build awareness and competence in addressing the security-related risks of research, and to share experiences. Furthermore, the Joint Committee regularly requests information from the KEFs on their progress and works to further develop the concept of self-governance for the responsible handling of security-relevant research.
Where these ethics committees are able and have sufficient resources to provide consultation on security-relevant research projects as well as fulfilling their mandate set down by law or by its statutes to provide consultation and make decisions on research projects involving humans and animals, they can take on the role of a KEF within the meaning of the recommendations of the DFG and Leopoldina on “Scientific Freedom and Scientific Responsibility” (2014). In a number of cases, existing ethics committees (with very different competences) have taken on the tasks of a KEF. The advantage of using an existing committee is that it will generally already have processes in place and experience.
According to the information of the Joint Committee, in the last three years in Germany there have only been a handful of cases in which a KEF has actually advised against conducting a research project. However, in line with the precautionary principle observed in Germany, researchers and research institutions should be in a position to deal with security-relevant cases even if these are rare and unexpected in order to minimise risks. Furthermore, an important part of the work of a KEF is to build awareness among researchers of the security-relevant risks of their work so that researchers are able to identify such risks in the first place. This includes informing researchers that in case of doubt they can turn to a KEF. In addition, ethical aspects are becoming increasingly important in the award of external funds for potentially security-relevant research projects by the DFG and the European Commission.
The German Research Foundation (DFG) and Leopoldina believe that the opportunities and risks of scientific freedom can only be controlled to a very limited degree by legal regulations. Research methods and contents are continuously changing, and it is almost impossible to predict scientific findings and their future application. The DFG and the Leopoldina constantly work to ensure that ethical principles in the sciences and mechanisms for a responsible approach to scientific freedom and research risks are further developed and upheld.
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