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.”

Developing Countries and the Dual-Use Debate – Why the Fuss?

Dr Louise Bezuidenhout who completed her PhD on dual-use ethics in Africa discusses the significance of dual-use issues in an international context.   Louise outlines her perspectives on exportation of western  dual-use concerns, and the way in which these concerns are understood and responded to by scientists on the ground.



Developing Countries and the Dual-Use Debate – Why the Fuss?

Dual-use issues relate to the risk that benignly intended scientific research may be utilised in the development of illegal weapons. Most current dual-use discussions tend to focus on scientific research that is conducted in a small number of Western nations such as the USA, UK and Australia.  The majority of regulatory initiatives – including the “web of prevention” model – were spearheaded in these countries, and they have been highly influential in the development of initiatives to counter the dual-use potential of the life sciences.  Furthermore, these countries – particularly the USA – have taken the lead in developing discourse on dual-use ethics and dual-use education for scientists.

In recent years, however, the dual-use debate is increasingly becoming more international as many other countries start considering the dual-use aspects of the life sciences.  Notably, there has been marked movement in many European countries as well as in the Far East.  Nonetheless, despite the efforts of dedicated individuals, there remains very little representation from most developing countries in this growing international dual-use debate.  While, of course, the percentage of worldwide research from these countries pales in comparison to that generated in the West, the amount of research and development coming from these regions has grown and looks set to continue doing so.  In particular, the BRICS countries represented by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa have all recently made massive strides in establishing life science research and development within their borders.

Raising Dual-Use Awareness and Regulating Science in these Regions

In addition to the virtual absence of these developing countries in international dual-use debates, the topic of dual-use remains a moot point in many developing countries’ science regulation policies.   Combined with highly variable degrees of nationally regulated biosafety and biosecurity oversight, formalized biorisk regulation and dual-use education and awareness is low within these countries.

Nonetheless, this does not mean that scientists in these countries do not interact with dual-use regulation.  Indeed, in many of these countries foreign funding and collaborations remain the only possibility for generating research funds in the absence of dedicated governmental funding.  Thus, through funding requirements, collaboration memoranda of understanding, and publication agreements, as well as foreign legislation on exports and imports, scientists in developing countries are regularly coming into contact with concerns relating to dual-use.

But Does it Work?

Despite assumptions that raising dual-use awareness through these channels increases a “culture of awareness and a shared sense of responsibility” amongst these developing country scientists, it seems important to pause and ask: does it actually work?  Are the dual-use concerns communicated through regulatory and legislative channels actually translating into dual-use concern within these scientific communities, or are they in fact (in the absence of adequate education and discussion) alienating scientists from this debate?

Why the Fuss?

Recent empirical work conducted with scientists in a range of African laboratories suggested that increasing dual-use requirements and regulation in their current form were in fact alienating scientists from the debate.  Interviews and focus groups with scientists in these countries strongly suggested that the imposition of foreign regulations and requirements without corresponding ethical discussion led to scientists failing to see value with the content of the dual-use concept.

What Can Be Done?

Although it may be easy to pigeonhole these scientists as “non-progressive” or “non-Western”, further investigation showed the situation to be much more complicated than that.  Two issues in particular were highlighted.  Firstly, the imposition of ethical priorities (such as counteracting bioterrorism) through regulations was often viewed by scientists as “ethical imperialism”.  It was only through sustained discussions about the concept of dual-use and how the misuse of data was understood within a specific research context that this initial rejection could be overcome.

Secondly, it became apparent that regulations often made implicit assumptions about research environments, reflecting a highly Westernized interpretation of scientific research.  In many cases, scientists in developing countries felt alienated from discussions due to the impossibility of correctly applying regulations to their daily research.  Although many commentators have been quick to jump in and say that research should not be done in “insufficient environments”, such statements are binary and uninformed.  Much of the research conducted in developing countries occurs in eminently adequate environments that are, however, less advanced than those in the West.  Without the dedicated core funding to modernize these facilities, it is unlikely that some regulations will be met according to Western standards – but this does not make the research conducted in these institutions unethical.  Such judgments have been observed to increase ethical distress amongst scientists, often resulting in the rejection of dual-use discussions.

To Summarize

Current debates on dual-use need to develop a greater sensitivity for developing countries.  In particular, emerging dual-use ethics and regulations need to be aware of certain issues relating to developing country scientists.

  • Ethical discussions and regulations often reflect an inherent Western perspective with Western priorities.  This may alienate developing country scientists from debates without proper discussion of these issues.
  • Imposing “globally applicable” regulations on research environments that differ markedly from the Western ideal will incorrectly foster perceptions of unethical research being conducted in these facilities and cause considerable distress amongst developing world scientists.

Dr Louise Bezuidenhout is currently a Research Fellow at the University of  Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her main research interest is  the development of ethical discourse – including dual-use issues – amongst  scientists in developing countries.

Out of the Lab and into the Ethics…..

Nelly Brewer, a PhD student  at  Rothamstead Research who studies wheat pathogens, writes about her experiences attending a Society of Biology ‘Policy Lates’ event on dual-use issues for the first time. Her comments include reflections upon the normality of biosafety protocols within her own work, her desire to better understand dual-use issues as well as the bureaucratic pressures on modern scientists.

Rice crop infected with Magnaporthe grisea 'Rice Blast'- It is estimated that this crop alone destroys enough rice to feed 60 million people every year-  IRRI images

Rice crop infected with Magnaporthe grisea ‘Rice Blast’- It is estimated that this crop alone destroys enough rice to feed 60 million people every year- IRRI images

Each morning, before entering the building where I do much of my research, I step into a shower-like cubicle and am blasted with cold air from all angles. I then sign in, recording the pressure within the building, wash hands, don a lab coat and blue overshoes. I repeat the process backwards on the way out, removing my overshoes before stepping over the threshold and back into the air shower.

To me this is logical – I work with fungal plant pathogens which infect some of our most important crops, so it’s important that I and my colleagues keep the microbes we work with contained, and at the same time prevent other pathogens and insects from contaminating our experiments. What’s been occurring to me recently though, is that our research, the way we conduct it and the measures we take to limit any risks, form part of a wider discussion on biosecurity and dual-use issues in scientific research.

When invited to share my views on dual-use and related issues, something that sprang to mind was that it’s hard to work out what your views are on a subject about which you know relatively little. As an early career scientist working within an infrastructure put in place for me by my superiors, I actually lack full appreciation of how dual-use policy impacts on the research I’m permitted to do, and how I’m permitted to do it.

Some light was shed on the matter recently when I attended a Society of Biology ‘Policy Lates’ event on the subject, hosted by the Society of Biology. Invited speakers and floor contributors included active scientists, policy makers, citizen science project managers and even FBI agents, bouncing around their thoughts on how to guard against misuse of research material and findings, without impeding useful, sometimes essential, research. While the main examples were drawn from the recent debate around research and release of data on respiratory-transmissible H5N1 (bird ‘flu), crop pathogens did get a mention, which brought home the relevance of the debate to my own research career. Indeed, targeting your enemy’s food source is not an unheard-of war tactic, so the misuse of pathogens which infect staple food crops is not an unreasonable concern.

Gruniard Island was the site of offensive and defensive research into anthrax (which affects cattle as well as humans) during the 1940's by the UK government. The island remained contaminated until a clean-up operation in the 1980's. Offensive research into pant, animal and human pathogens is now illegal under international law.  -Image Père Ubu

Gruinard Island was the site of offensive and defensive research into anthrax (which affects cattle as well as humans) during the 1940’s by the UK government. The island remained contaminated until a clean-up operation in the 1980’s. Offensive research into plant, animal and human pathogens is now illegal under international law.
-Image Père Ubu

While the debate was thought-provoking and enjoyable, it was also frustratingly superficial. An evening is hardly long enough to even begin to scratch the surface of the issues surrounding dual use policy. Much was made of the importance of allowing bona-fide researchers to do their work unhindered, by both policy makers and scientists. However there were also worrisome examples of perhaps overzealous safeguards, some which prevent researchers obtaining research material such as live pathogens or viral DNA sequences, others which allow only ‘established researchers’ to carry out research with a dual-use aspect. The latter is particularly concerning since it felt at odds with the need for ‘fresh blood’, less established researchers with novel viewpoints, who have undoubtedly driven scientific discovery throughout the millennia. And I wondered, even for established group leaders, how much time was spent on license applications, renewals and justifications for research, which might otherwise have been spent at the lab bench, or even down the pub, inspiring their less established charges.

Much as the Policy Lates debate only scratched the surface, I feel that I, too, am only just beginning to grasp the concept of my research as a dual use risk, and the impact that associated policies will have on me. I suspect, should I continue down my current research track in crop pathology, I might have something more to say.


Welcome to our website, which is currently under development.

The Biochemical Security 2030 Project  brings together academics and policy makers in order to improve science and technology review processes within the biological and chemical weapons conventions.  Our projected outputs include a series of policy briefs as well as academic publications on a range of topics within this issue area.

The project is funded under the  RCUK Global Uncertainties initiative as part of the Science and Security Programme.

The original project was designed and submitted by Dr Alexander Kelle (University of Bath) whom is currently seconded to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.  The principle Investigator on the project is Professor David Galbreath, supported by the work of Brett Edwards.

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