Leopoldina Menü

Leopoldina Home

Joint Committee on Dual Use

Information on Selected Security-Relevant Research Topics and Case Studies

Nuclear Research

Nuclear research as a field of the physical, chemical and technical sciences is the classic example of security-relevant research, i.e. research associated with considerable security-relevant risks for human dignity, human life, health, freedom, property, the environment and peaceful coexistence.

The discovery of the nuclear fission of uranium in the 1930s, for which Otto Hahn later received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, is seen as a milestone in the natural sciences and technology which opened up large-scale opportunities for the carbon-neutral generation of energy. The same is expected of nuclear fusion, which was also discovered in the early 20th century and is currently regarded by many as a beacon of hope for a safe and clean energy supply in the future. Nuclear research also, of course, led to the development and deployment of nuclear weapons of mass destruction. Intensive debate on the responsibility of researchers was triggered in particular by the hydrogen bomb tests of the US on the Bikini Atoll and the resulting radioactive contamination. The debate produced, among other things, the Russell-Einstein Manifesto and the Göttingen Manifesto in which scientists spoke out against nuclear arms while supporting the peaceful application of nuclear energy. More recently, the possible use of radioactive isotopes in so-called “dirty” bombs has put the issue back in the public eye.

Einstein Manifesto (PDF)

Göttingen Manifesto

The history of the Pugwash movement in Germany (PDF)

Robert Lorenz: Protest of physicists. Göttingen Declaration of 1957. Bielefeld 2011 (PDF)

Chemical syntheses

Chemical syntheses and the resulting products, such as detergents and fertilizers, medication and plastics, surround us in our everyday lives and greatly contribute to the prosperity of our society. Research in this field is necessary for the sustainable further development of chemical syntheses and the development of new chemicals. Many of the basic chemicals that are widely used in industry could also be used directly to cause harm or form the basis for the more or less sophisticated synthesis of chemical warfare agents. An example here are the more than 60 billion tonnes of chlorine produced every year to treat water, in the production of plastics and in the production of drugs. As an asphyxiant gas, however, chlorine can also be used directly as a chemical weapon.

Building on the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) of 1993, an expert group of chemists from 24 countries presented ethical guidelines in 2015 guided by existing codes. These guidelines, known as The Hague Ethical Guidelines, are addressed to chemical practitioners from research and industry and call for responsible conduct to guard against the risks of misuse. The community is urged to foster a culture of greater awareness so that chemical products and/or their intermediates are not used as weapons, and to apply the highest ethical standards.

Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)

The Hague Ethical Guidelines

German export law implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)

Information from the Federal Office of Economics and Export Control on the CWC

Collection by the OPCW of existing Codes of Ethics and Conduct on the CWC from 2015 (PDF)

Artificial intelligence and robotics

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a field of computer science that deals with the research and development of autonomous intelligent behaviour and machine learning and is one of the leading forces in advancing digitalisation. The wide spectrum of possible applications ranges from virtual opponents in computer games, to the autonomous processing of incalculably complex volumes of data, and autonomous robots and vehicles. These controllable AI systems harbour a huge potential for misuse. Autonomous robots could, for example, be used by terrorist groups in terrorist attacks and AI algorithms could be misused for autonomous disinformation campaigns and the autonomous hacking of computers. In 2018, a project group of researchers from the universities of Stanford, Yale, Oxford and Tohoku and developers from Microsoft and Google published the report “The Malicious Use of Artificial Intelligence: Forecasting, Prevention, and Mitigation” underlining the concrete risks of using AI, that is already available or soon will be, to do harm. In two open letters, a group of researchers working in robotics and artificial intelligence called for a primarily social and beneficial use of their developments and warned against an arms race of autonomous weapons systems. In October 2017, the Joint Committee held a workshop on “Freedom and Responsibility in IT Sciences” which probed the security-relevant aspects of research into artificial intelligence.

Research Priorities for Robust and Beneficial Artificial Intelligence: An Open Letter

Autonomous Weapons: An Open Letter from AI & Robotics Researchers

Report: The Malicious Use of Artificial Intelligence: Forecasting, Prevention, and Mitigation

Documentation of the workshop “Freedom and Responsibility in IT Sciences”

Statement of the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies on Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Autonomous Systems (PDF)

Life sciences

Life sciences have, without a doubt, improved our lives in many ways. Molecular genetic research has revolutionised drug development and the production of essential nutritional supplements and other valuable biological substances. Most infectious diseases have now been understood thanks to pathogen research and with the discovery of antibiotics and vaccines no longer present anywhere near the threat they once did. Critics of pathogen research fear that pathogens used or created in research could escape from the high-security labs through negligence and come into circulation and cause further damage. There are a number of regulations in place designed to ensure an optimal level of biological safety (biosafety). The knowledge made available to the world at large through the publication or research methods and research findings is regarded by some as another potential threat as it could be used to make biological weapons for bioterrorist attacks. In the last few years, gain-of-function experiments to investigate the transmission of highly pathogenic influenza viruses, avian flu type H5N1, have repeatedly attracted public attention. Another leading international point of debate in this context is the potential for misusing research into gene drives – genetic constructs thought to spread particularly efficient in the wild animal population.

Assessing the Security Implications of Genome Editing Technology: Report of an international workshop (2018)

Gene Drives on the Horizon: Advancing Science, Navigating Uncertainty, and Aligning Research with Public Values (2016)

Recommendations for the Evaluation and Oversight of Proposed Gain-of-Function Research (2016, PDF)

Statement of the academies “Opportunities and Limits of Genome Editing” (2015)

Gain of Function: experimental applications relating to potentially pandemic pathogens (2015)

Statement of the German Ethics Council “Biosecurity – Freedom and Responsibility of Research” (2014)

DFG Code of Conduct: Working with Highly Pathogenic Microorganisms and Toxins (2013, PDF)

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine: Governance of Dual Use Research in the Life Sciences: Advancing Global Consensus on Research Oversight: Proceedings of a Workshop (2018)

Case Study 1: The production of synthetic, infectious smallpox viruses – a guide for the construction of biological weapons?

A research group wants to produce infectious horsepox viruses by introducing a synthetically produced horsepox genome into cells infected with an innocuous rabbit virus. The innovative value of this project is primarily the realisation of a complex technical process of synthesis, as the theoretical feasibility of this kind of experiment has long been accepted. The researchers argue that new vaccines could then be developed using this procedure. The main risk of the project is that the technology can be used for the production of human pathogenic smallpox viruses. As the smallpox virus has been eradicated since the 1980s and good vaccines have long been developed, the viability of the researchers’ argumentation is questionable. On the other hand, as the project requires an extremely high level of expertise and technology, the experiment cannot be readily copied.

Noyce, R. S., Lederman S. und Evans, D. H. (2018) Construction of an infectious horsepox virus vaccine from chemically synthesized DNA fragments. PLoS One, 13(1):e0188453

Case Study 2: AI methods to identify and rectify software vulnerabilities – a help for criminal hackers?

The proposed research project aims to systematically identify vulnerabilities in computer programmes, particularly in the operating systems of wireless routers, smartphones and laptops using AI methods and to develop automated defensive measures.83 The results of this research project would come in useful everywhere where these computer programmes need to be monitored and updated regularly. At the same time, the results would allow the identification and exploitation of these vulnerabilities in numerous devices that are not regularly monitored and updated. A notable example in this context is the ransomware WannaLaugh. It is constantly updated with new vulnerabilities and used to blackmail users of vulnerable IT devices. The results of the research project could undoubtedly be used to make WannaLaugh even more damaging.

Report „The Malicious Use of Artificial Intelligence: Forecasting, Prevention, and Mitigation“

Case Study 3: Detecting the sexual orientation of humans by photos using deep learning algorithms – tool for illegal invasions of privacy?

This research project wants to further develop a deep learning algorithm to identify patterns in facial images. The project plans to train the algorithm using photos of open homosexuals and heterosexuals so that it can analyse other portrait photos to predict sexual orientation.84 The benefit of the project according to researchers is to find out how deep learning algorithms connect data and what reference points it selects to make predictions. Purported additional benefits are furthering our understanding of the physiological origin of human sexual orientation and the limits of human perception. The risk of malicious application lies in the possible illegal acquisition of sensitive personal data using the biometrics of individuals, for example in countries in which homosexuality is criminalised. This research also opens the doors to racial profiling and is reminiscent of racial hygiene research under National Socialism using physiognomies. Highly developed deep learning algorithms of this kind could also be used to group people according to their consumer or voting behaviour or according to their criminal history.

Wang, Y. und Kosinski, M. (2017) Deep neural networks are more accurate than humans at detecting sexual orientation from facial images. PsyArXiv

Other published security-relevant research

Production of a particularly lethal mousepox virus
Jackson, R. J. et al. (2001) Expression of mouse interleukin-4 by a recombinant ectromelia virus suppresses cytolytic lymphocyte responses and overcomes genetic resistance to mousepox. Journal of Virology 75: 1205-1210. doi: 10.1128/JVI.75.3.1205-1210.2001

Production of a synthetic infectious polio virus
Cello, J. et al. (2002) Chemical synthesis of poliovirus cDNA: generation of infectious virus in the absence of natural template. Science 297: 1016-1018. doi: 10.1126/science.1072266

Third generation uranium enrichment
Snyder, R. (2016) A Proliferation Assessment of Third Generation Laser Uranium Enrichment Technology. Science & Global Security 24 (2): 68-91.

Increasing the pathogenicity of the Vaccinia virus
Rosengard, A. M. et al. (2002) Variola virus immune evasion design: expression of a highly efficient inhibitor of human complement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 99: 8808-8813. doi 10.1073/pnas.112220499

Reconstruction of the influenza virus of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic
Tumpey, T.M. et al. (2005) Characterisation of the reconstructed 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic virus. Science 310: 77-80. doi: 10.1126/science.1119392

Changing the host spectrum and increasing the transmissibility of the H5N1 influenza virus
Herfst, S. et al. (2012) Airborne transmission of influenza A/H5N1 virus between ferrets. Science 336(6088):1534-1541. 10.1126/science.1213362

Imai, M. et al. (2012) Experimental adaptation of an influenza H5 HA confers respiratory droplet transmission to a reassortant H5 HA/H1N1 virus in ferrets. Nature 486(7403): 420-42. doi: 10.1038/nature10831

Changing the host spectrum of the Canine distemper virus
Bieringer, M. et al. (2013) Experimental Adaptation of wild-type canine distemper virus (CDV) to the human entry receptor CD150. PLOS One, 8(3): e57488. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0057488

3D printing of microbe genomes
Boles, K.S. et al. (2017) Digital-to-biological converter for on-demand production of biologics. Nature Biotechnology 15(7): 672-675. doi: 10.1038/nbt.3859

Office

Joint Committee on the Handling of Security-Relevant Research, DFG and Leopoldina

Office c/o ABC Business Center (4. OG)
Friedrichstraße 79
10117 Berlin

Dr. Johannes Fritsch

Dr. Johannes Fritsch

Head of the Office

phone: +49 (0) 160 9121 2676
email: johannes.fritsch@leopoldina.org

Lena Diekmann

Lena Diekmann

Project Coordinator

phone: +49 (0)170 79 206 49
email: lena.diekmann@leopoldina.org

Dr. Anita Krätzner-Ebert

Dr. Anita Krätzner-Ebert

Scientific Officer

phone: +49 (0) 175 293 3935
email: anita.kraetzner-ebert@leopoldina.org

Dr. Katarina Timofeev

Contact at the German Research Foundation

phone: +49 (0) 228 - 885 2591
fax: +49 (0) 228 - 885 713 320
email: dual-use@dfg.de

Dr. Ingrid Ohlert

Contact at the German Research Foundation

phone: +49 (0) 228 - 885 2258
fax: +49 (0) 228 - 885 713 320
email: ingrid.ohlert@dfg.de