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Handling Security-Relevant Research

Conflicting priorities between Scientific Freedom and Scientific Responsibility

In nearly all research areas, scientific findings which open up great possibilities can also be misused. The DFG, together with the Leopoldina, published recommendations on this problem – referred to as the "dual use" problem – in June 2014 and created an advisory panel with a "joint committee" to deal with it.

In the joint recommendations "Scientific Freedom and Scientific Responsibility", from June 2014, the research organisations respond to the need for science to develop ethical principles and mechanisms in order to deal responsibly with research freedom and the risks of research. The recommendations deal with the conflict between research freedom, which is protected under article 5 of the Basic Law, and the danger that research findings can be misused for malicious purposes. In concrete terms, the recommendations are directed at individual researchers who need to be aware that there is a danger that their research might be misused. In critical cases, each individual must take a decision on what is responsible while weighing up the opportunities for research against the risks to human dignity, life and other important aspects protected by the constitution. The second section addresses research institutions, which must create the framework conditions for ethically responsible research. This includes raising awareness of possible risks and providing necessary information about the legal limits imposed on research. The institutions should draw up ethical rules for dealing with security-relevant research which go beyond the legal requirements.

After publication of the recommendations, the Leopoldina and the DFG further encouraged discussion in the research community with a symposium held jointly with the German Ethics Council in November 2014. The central questions here were: "Do the research possibilities justify the risks?" The aim of the event was to increase awareness of the problem of the possible misuse of research results.

Finally, in March 2015, the "Joint Committee for the Handling of Security-Relevant Research" was appointed to address this issue for an initial period of three years. It was set up to aid research institutions in the effective and permanent implementation of the recommendations on "Scientific Freedom and Scientific Responsibility" drawn up in June 2014 by the DFG and the Leopoldina. To this end, it monitors the implementation of the recommendations at research institutions and supports institutions in the implementation process. Ideally, a commission on ethics in research will have been established at every research institution in Germany by 2017. These commissions will enable institutions to deal with cases arising from their own work objectively and responsibly and to take decisions on their outcome independently. Should it on occasion not be appropriate to take a decision locally, the Leopoldina can deploy ad-hoc working groups to work closely with the joint committee to undertake a risk-benefit assessment of the research content.

Contact person at DFG Head Office

Contact person at the Leopoldina