2nd Forum for the committees for ethics in security-relevant research (KEFs)

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2nd Forum for the committees for ethics in security-relevant research (KEFs)

The objective of the second KEF Forum of the Joint Committee on 2 September 2019 held on the island of Riems was to facilitate communication and exchange of experience among the KEFs. The idea was to examine specific security-relevant research projects that the KEFs had already conclusively consulted on and discuss related topics such as export control.

After a tour of the high-security facilities of the Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut (FLI) by the FLI President, the Joint Committee chairpersons gave an introduction into the problematic issues of security-relevant research, the legal framework for research and the work of the Joint Committee. A representative of the DFG, responsible for dual use issues in funding allocation, explained the funding guidelines and requirements of the DFG regarding DURC. Last year, for example, the DFG received a funding application for a research project from the field of materials research. As the project was linked to a military research institution in China, the local KEF was asked to provide a statement, which ultimately gave the go-ahead for the project under some minor conditions including a usage agreement.

A representative of the University of Greifswald and the chair of the Biorisk Committee of the FLI presented the work of the Biorisk Committee. The committee has been focusing on the ethical considerations around work to produce synthetic filoviruses, which are classified at the highest biosecurity level 4. The key question is whether unknown viruses, which may have a very high-risk potential and of which we only know the genome sequence from the tissue of dead bats, may be “awakened to life”. After weighing up the security-relevant concerns of the project, the committee decided to allow this kind of filovirus to be synthetically produced and analysed so that we can learn more about the naturally occurring variations of the virus. However, the committee also requested another ethical assessment on the potential for misuse prior to publication of the project’s findings.

A member of a university-based KEF presented its consultation procedures on two research projects that would be carried out with funding from the US Ministry of Defense in one case and from a foundation with military ties in the other. In the first case, the KEF issued an obligation to publish the findings in order to ensure that findings of military relevance would not be kept secret. In the second case, the project was rejected on account of late submission and a poor risk-benefit analysis.

The scientific director of the Leibniz Institute DSMZ (German Culture Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures) presented the work of the two commissioners for ethical aspects of security-relevant research at DSMZ. The commissioners hold training courses for employees and visiting scientists and review orders related to pathogenic agents. They said that this complex procedure was not suitable for a KEF to manage as an ad-hoc response was often required. DSMZ has developed an individual Code of Conduct for this purpose that has been adopted across the Leibniz Association. Since February 2019, the Leibniz Association also has a Committee for Ethics in Research that is responsible for all Leibniz institutes and addresses overarching security-relevant issues that cannot be solved by a regional KEF.

The general discussion at the end of the KEF Forum showed that the growing number of applications to the KEFs with an international perspective and questions regarding export control and compliance with the regulations of the BAFA present major challenges to the research institutions. If this trend continues, they will probably need to establish export commissioners and compliance offices. In some fields of research, a marked lack of awareness of the potential for malicious application of research findings and methods has been noticed, as ethical aspects have only rarely featured in study courses until now. The Association of North German Universities is already responding with a vibrant discussion on developing specific teaching methods and content on this subject.