Research assessment and international collaborations

Function and role of KEFs

According to the joint “Recommendations on the Handling of Security-Relevant Research” of the German Research Foundation and the Leopoldina, research institutions should define their own ethical rules for the handling of security-relevant research. To advise on matters arising from the implementation of these ethics rules, KEFs should be available to all researchers in an advisory capacity, be able to mediate in relevant disagreements, and make recommendations on the conduct of research projects. The powers and actions of the committees must be consistent with scientific freedom. 

Security-related work of concern is only a rare exception in academic research. KEFs are sometimes primarily concerned with the compatibility of research and constitutional foundations or the basic regulations or guidelines of the respective research institution, and they address issues involving data security, sustainability, and export control. They also assess security-related risks associated with research funding from military-associated funders and risks that may arise from cooperation with military-associated partnerships. 


The model statutes are intended to provide guidance for the establishment of KEFs at German universities, other research institutions and research societies. They identify the issues which, in the opinion of the Joint Committee, need to be regulated and which are to be adapted in detail to the respective local circumstances. Insofar as another commission is additionally entrusted with the task of a KEF, the proposals refer to its activities in the field of security-relevant research. 

Key questions for the ethical assessment of security-relevant research

The following key questions have been compiled by the Joint Committee based on feedback from KEFs on their own work and public checklists and guidance documents on dealing with research risks. In the Joint Committee’s view, the respective responses of researchers and KEFs, as well as any consequences derived from them for questionable work, should always be case-by-case considerations under the respective individual conditions on the ground for research and teaching. The Joint Committee does not wish to provide any generally applicable ethical criteria or “red lines”, but rather to use the guiding questions primarily to help sustainably strengthen the self-responsible handling of security-relevant research risks in the sciences.

2.1 What concrete objectives and purposes are the researchers and any sponsors involved pursuing with this research project?

2.2 Is the required expertise available to make an informed assessment of the research project in regard to its potential risks or does additional expertise need to be brought in?

2.3 Is it possible to adequately specify and weigh up the benefits and risks of the known and potential research findings with the information currently available?

2.4 Are the security-relevant outcomes and resulting risks of the research project new or could they also arise from previously published work?

2.5 How likely is it that the security-relevant findings will be disseminated and that this will lead to a direct[1] concrete misuse in the above-specified meaning of security-relevant research of concern?

2.6 In the event of an intentional harmful application of the findings through third parties, what would be the scale of the potential damage and are any suitable countermeasures[2] available?

2.7 What are the potential harmful consequences[3] of not carrying out the research project?

[1] To be considered here are e.g. the necessary capabilities, specialist knowledge and technical equipment for misuse.

[2] E.g. measures of recovery and traceability and damage limitation.

[3] Can the absence of certain innovations result in additional damage, for example, in the course of ongoing military conflicts, in the course of climate change, in naturally emerging waves of infection?

3.1 Can the research project produce knowledge, products or technologies that could very likely be misused directly by third parties to cause significant damage of the above-specified legal interests?

3.2 Should the project be reassessed by the KEF at a more advanced stage when the security-relevant risks can be judged more easily?

3.3 Are the research project and its objectives and purposes compatible with the constitutional principles and the basic code or guidelines of the research institution?

3.4 Can the security-relevant risks be sufficiently reduced by imposing certain conditions on the project (e.g. usage agreement or alternative research strategy) or by adapting the publication?

3.5 How can the researchers involved in the research project be made aware of the ethical aspects of security-relevant research so that they consider the direct and future consequences of their work?

Frequently asked questions about security-relevant research and the KEFs can be found in our FAQs.