Bird Flu and Dual-Use: What Can Bioethics Bring to the Table?

This article addresses several key themes related to the way in which academics, and particularly, philosophers can engage with dual-use issues. This includes questions  about expertise, disciplinarity and the  philosophical processes of unraveling complex issues. This piece also reflects the historical neglect of dual-use issues in academic fields that address the ethical implications of new and emerging technologies.  This article is written by Nicholas G. Evans, an Adjunct Research Associate at The Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, Charles Sturt University, who spends his time split between research into dual-use in the life sciences, professional ethics, and military ethics.

Being asked to write about dual-use issues as a ‘bioethicist’ is quite a daunting task. This is in part due to the fact that the ‘field’ of dual-use bioethics is nascent and sparsely populated. The field is also a broad church which includes, but is not limited to,  scholars with backgrounds in theology, law, medicine, sociology, anthropology, and history. Many of these scholars also work in very different national contexts in which culture and legislative framework vary. These differences relate to how the life sciences are funded, practiced and regulated as well as  how innovation is orientated within states to promote human health and security.

I’m also hesitant to talk about “bioethics” because philosophers do not represent the majority of bioethicists. Examination of  how constructed norms inform scientific practices; work on codes of conduct in different countries; and historical analysis  of the relationships between the life sciences, and national and security establishments may all plausibly be called bioethics. However,much of this research comes from a place that isn’t philosophy.

So with that in mind, I’d like to talk about the role of philosophers in bioethics and dual-use as I see it evolving—or at least, as it is playing out in my research. This perspective had its genesis in a long and most enjoyable argument  which occurred on a balmy evening in Bristol in 2010[1], during a trip I made to the UK under the Wellcome Trust-funded grant “Building a Sustainable Capacity in Dual-Use Bioethics.” Though I may be guilty of some self-justification, it is important understand why philosophers play a part in the dual-use debate, and what they’ve contributed so far. In this, I can only speak for myself, though I’ll try to present ideas in a way that I hope my colleagues can endorse. This is despite sometimes feeling—as an Australian philosopher studying dual-use issues—as strange and out-of-place as the animals that are emblematic of my country.

A Perspective on the Role of Philosophy

The ethics that philosophers are typically charged with practicing tends to be caricatured as studying and posing comprehensive theories of right and wrong, but that’s not all we can (or should!) do. At its core—at least as far as I’m concerned—moral philosophy deals with enquiry into the way that acts, as well as the  motivations and consequences of acts relate to values. This can occur in a number of ways, but I want to pick up on  two which are important to the study of dual-use. First, philosophers can describe the types of values promoted by certain acts with an eye to sketching out the ethical landscape in areas that are ethically fraught. Second,  philosophers can do more than just describe and engage in critical reflection about particular choices, informed by evidence, and show where certain lines of reasoning succeed or fail to produce the arguer’s conclusions.

Dual-use, ultimately, requires both types of engagement. Dual-use deals with radically uncertain states of affairs; particular pieces of research have the potential to enable  some act of bioterrorism. These are problems not open to easy quantification, much less resolution. Concepts such as academic freedom, rights to freedom of speech, security, and even human health are so contested—essentially so—that parsing what different conceptions of these terms mean for our arguments and policies is vital. Dual-use is fundamentally a question of values, and it is here that philosophers can make important contributions.


To show what I mean, consider the controversy surrounding the publication of “gain of function” research on highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza. Two groups of scientists submitted research for publication in Nature and Science; both pieces of research had produced modified strains of H5N1 which were transmissible between ferrets (used in research as experimental models for humans). The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity initially recommended that the research not be published, but later changed its recommendations in light of revisions to the submitted papers.

Scientists, including but not limited to those involved, claimed that the research raised awareness of the significant threat of H5N1 to public health, was useful in promoting disease surveillance and would assist in the development of vaccines. More significantly, these claims were used as, or as part of, justifications for why the research should be published— that is to say, why the benefits of the research outweighed the risks of misuse.

ASMBiodefense 2012 - H5N1 Research Discussion(Photo by Chris Condayan)

Fouchier ASMBiodefense 2012  H5N1 Research Discussion(Photo by Chris Condayan)

Examining and questioning these claims is in part an empirical task; one pursued by people such as Paul Keim and Michael Osterholm. But these are also fundamentally ethical claims that rely on certain assumptions about what is or is not valuable, and the structure of particular values. Those that advocated  the publication of the research made appeals involving claims about the value of certain scientific advances, and we should judge their position based on the merit of those appeals.

Importantly, arguments based on the public health benefits of the H5N1 studies eschewed important aspects of the ways that public health gains are distributed. The virus on which Ron Fouchier’s team (who published in Science) conducted their research was of Indonesian origin; Indonesia has in the past been brutally honest about its concerns that the benefits derived from research on Indonesian strains of flu never make it back home. Appealing to the public health benefits of research into H5N1 should, on some level, acknowledge that those benefits depend on a lot of other factors. Understanding how health benefits and risks are distributed, and what distributions are acceptable, is an important consideration that was overlooked by those touting the benefits of the H5N1 dual-use research.

Moreover, while advocates claim this research will improve disease survailance, these methods are not necessarily widely available in the countries most affected by H5N1. This, again, introduces questions about  access and equity into relation to claims about the benefits of dual-use research. These questions are important, because claims about risks and benefits should be sensitive to who is benefiting. If those most in need are those least likely the benefit, there is an issue of equality at play; if those who, like the Indonesians, help us better prepare for public health emergencies but are themselves left vulnerable, this issue of equality becomes an issue of fairness.

Writers on dual-use can at times be criticized of catastrophising the outcomes of particular types of research. Yet sometimes those advocating for dual-use research suffer the opposite problem, by presenting problematically ideal outcomes from the beneficial uses of their research. Who is most likely to be helped or harmed matters, because commitments to fairness are important. Different people have different conceptions of what is fair, and how much that matters relative to other considerations, but few would deny that an unfair transaction is problematic.

Dual-Use, Bioethics, and Philosophy

Dual-use issues involve radical uncertainty, and conflicts of value. These observations all point to complex ethical questions about the balance between freedom to publish and security, how we ought to measure the benefits of scientific research, and the proper role of medical research in promoting public health. This is most certainly a job for the field  bioethics,  which  has historically addressed questions about the appropriate function of medicine and medical research- but neglected dual-use issues. It is also a job in which philosophers can play an important role.

Philosophers are not the only people who play a role in interrogating these values and their underlying assumptions, but our familiarity with understanding and conceptualizing value can usefully contribute to larger debates about how we ought to make decisions. We’ve commented on the balance between openness and security; how appeals to the value of scientific research are dependent on certain contingent assumptions about the world; about the value of freedom of inquiry as it pertains to scientific self-regulation; and the way that claims about security are tied to other hidden claims about value. Looking into the future, philosophers should be encouraged to engage with other experts on resolving dual-use dilemmas.

For further discussion of the role of ethics in dual-use issues why not check out the Building a Sustainable Capacity for Dual-use Bioethics project website?  This website has a series of monographs on the nature and prospect of the ethical governance of dual-use issues.  

[1] Yes, I’m an Australian referring to the weather in Bristol as “balmy.”

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