Bioethics Blogs

Defining dual-use research: When scientific advances can both help and hurt humanity

It’s not always obvious where a new technology will end up. NIH Image Gallery, CC BY-NC

Scientific research can change our lives for the better, but it also presents risks – either through deliberate misuse or accident. Think about studying deadly pathogens; that’s how we can learn how to successfully ward them off, but it can be a safety issue too, as when CDC workers were exposed to anthrax in 2014 after an incomplete laboratory procedure left spores of the bacterium alive.

For the last decade, scholars, scientists and government officials have worked to figure out regulations that would maximize the benefits of the life sciences while avoiding unnecessary risks. “Dual-use research” that has the capacity to be used to help or harm humanity is a big part of that debate. As a reflection of how pressing this question is, on Jan. 4, the U.S. National Academies for Science, Engineering, and Medicine met to discuss how or if sensitive information arising in the life sciences should be controlled to prevent its misuse.

For the new Trump administration, one major challenge will be how to maintain national security in the face of technological change. Part of that discussion hinges on understanding the concept of dual use. There are three different dichotomies that could be at play when officials, scholars and scientists refer to dual use – and each uniquely influences the discussion around discovery and control.

For war or for peace

WWI infantry wore respirators to protect against mustard gas, a chemical weapon that can be made from common solvents.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.