Do life scientists have moral responsibility when their research can be used not only to do good (like preventing pandemics) but also to harm others (like developing biological weapons)?

It could be tempting to think that researchers’ only responsibility is the advancement of scientific knowledge. The use and practical application of that knowledge is the responsibility of others.

The September 11 attacks made that idea much less tenable. Since then, the security sector has pushed the scientific community to take more extensive responsibility for research that could be used to develop, for example, biological weapons.

Do scientists have such a responsibility for how others might use their findings? If they do have responsibility, how is it most appropriately approached in practice? These questions are investigated by Frida Kuhlau at CRB in a dissertation that she defends on March 23:

Kuhlau argues that researchers do have a moral responsibility for research with dual use and she tries to specify the content of that responsibility. It includes, for example, always considering possible negative implications of one’s research; reporting activities of concern; being prepared to occasionally delimit the dissemination of results.

How is such responsibility best approached in practice? The traditional way of taking ethical responsibility for research is by imposing ethical regulatory systems (guidelines, codes, ethical review).

Like Linus Johnsson who defended his dissertation last Saturday, Frida Kuhlau doubts such bureaucratic attempts to ethically regulate research. Researchers need to shoulder the responsibility themselves, learning how to deliberate and take action concerning research with dual use.

Shouldering responsibility does not mean, however, doing it alone. Individual researchers normally don’t have all the competencies needed to reasonably assess possible risks of research. The scientific community and the security sector are dependent on each other. What is required to take proper responsibility, Frida Kuhlau suggests, is therefore an ethic of conversation and deliberation.

Taking moral responsibility for research with dual use presupposes ongoing communicational processes. These processes need organizational support, platforms. A novel suggestion in the dissertation is that ethical review boards could function as such platforms.

Rather than only reviewing, as ethical review boards normally do, these boards would support an ethical culture of conversation and deliberation about dual-use research.

For more information about this important dissertation, see News from Uppsala University. If you are in Sweden and want to visit the public examination, it takes place in Auditorium Minus, Museum Gustavianum, Uppsala, Saturday, March 23, 2013, at 09:15.

Pär Segerdahl

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