Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC) and the publics’ conception of risks pose a threat to free research. We assessed the awareness of this topic in the scientific community through a global survey and identified a dramatic lack of coherent international terminology. Different understanding due to different educational or scientific backgrounds led to huge debates in the past ultimately resulting in restriction of publications. Thus, we reached out to scientists increasing the awareness of DURC and gaining public trust by effective science communication. Our survey unveiled great need for training the next generation of scientists. iGEM is the ideal platform to provide and establish sustainable training, and to raise global awareness. Starting local, we organized a lecture at our own university, expanded our university library with DURC literature, provided open-source presentation slides, created a podcast, and established a seminar. Mission: Integrate DURC issues and their communication firmly into university education! Additionally, we got in touch with society by participating in the FameLab, performing experiments at street sciences and working with pupils on various occasions.
Dual Use and Dual Use Research of Concern: Between Science Misuse of Science and Science Communication
How it all started: Dual Use Research of Concern and our Project
Recycling metals from electronic waste and returning them to the community as valuable metal resources - that is what our project is about. A highly relevant step in this process is the uptake of metal ions such as copper into bacteria. We found the microorganism Acidithiobacillus ferrooxidans, a bacterium used in the industrial process of bioleaching of copper ores which lives under extreme environmental conditions (Romo, E. et al., 2013). We wanted to transfer and optimize its copper uptake system into the model organism Escherichia coli (E. coli). Together with the other components of our project, our E. coli should be capable of digesting electronic waste and form nanoparticles that could be used for various new applications. But a closer look also revealed the potential for abuse of our project: In the wrong hands our bacteria could theoretically be used intentionally for digesting working electronics although at extremely low rates with very limited capabilities. However, this could be misperceived by the public.
This technomoral scenario derived from our own project idea shows that research results could be used for benevolent and malicious applications alike. We addressed this problem by working with metal ions dissolved in mining drainage instead of recycling electronics. Nevertheless, we got curious and wanted to know how scientists in general deal with similar problems when they appear. During our research on how to deal with such ethical dilemmas we came across the terms Dual Use and Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC). We were quite startled that no one of our team learned about this in their academic education although our team is formed by members of different fields of life sciences. Unfortunately, addressing this issue has shown itself to be far from trivial as we did not even know who to address at our own university as we just got in touch with DURC issues through iGEM. Consequently, we investigated whether other students and scientists deal with similar problems. Therefore, we put a lot of time and effort into education and outreach on ”biosecurity”, “Dual Use”, and “Dual Use Research of Concern” at our university and on an international level.
But first: Let’s get the Definitions straight!
Biosecurity vs. Biosafety
The definition of biosecurity published by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2006 is:“The protection, control and accountability for valuable biological materials within laboratories, in order to prevent their unauthorized access, loss, theft, misuse, diversion or intentional release.” (World Health Organization, 2006)
Due to digitization and big data, we think this definition might be outdated. The term is restricted to laboratories and materials. The definition called “laboratory biosecurity” is incomplete because it does not include the protection of biosecurity relevant information such as important data or protocols. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) also states the Biosecurity relevant information in their definition. We suggest extending the definition of biosecurity as following:
Biosecurity: "The protection, control and accountability for biological materials and their biosecurity-relevant information, in order to prevent their unauthorized access, loss, theft, misuse, diversion or intentional release."
Additionally, it is necessary to clearly differentiate between biosecurity and biosafety as there is a substantial difference:
Biosafety: “Biosafety describes the containment principles, technologies and practices that are implemented to prevent the unintentional exposure to pathogens and toxins, or their accidental release.” (World Health Organization, 2006)
Biosafety focuses on the protection of people within a laboratory and the prevention of unintentional release of environmental or health hazards whereas Biosecurity sets the focus on the protection of laboratory material and relevant information against misuse.
Here you can access a table with all iGEM teams until 2017 that have designed a biosafety system. (Whitford et al., 2018)
Dual Use in the context of science describes the potential of knowledge or technologies to be used by third parties with both benevolent and malevolent intention. (European Commission, 2018)
Dual Use Research of Concern
Dual Use Research of Concern describes scientific work that is likely to produce knowledge, products or technologies that can be directly misused by third parties. (National Institutes of Health, 2018)
The Problem of unclear Definitions
To the best of our knowledge, there is no uniform international definition of biosecurity, Dual Use, and DURC. Different organizations came up with different definitions leading to confusion and different understandings. For example, in chemistry, the term "Chemical Security" is also referring to Dual Use issues. Therefore, it is necessary to establish international uniform definitions on suitable for further education. iGEM is the ideal platform for this purpose as its community is spread all over the world. That is why we are launching a call for international collaboration for uniform terminology within the framework of the competition!
Where can we tie up? - Previous Engagement at iGEM
iGEM does not only mean designing an entire project from scratch. iGEM teams came up with amazing ideas in previous years and developed astonishing systems making the world a better place. We believe that continuing and refining the best ideas is not only a splendid way of honoring those projects but also a necessity, if we really want to accomplish long-term impact in science.
Previously on iGEM: Bielefeld-CeBiTec 2015
We focused on our outreach on the topics biosecurity, Dual Use, and Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC). The team iGEM Bielefeld-CeBiTec 2015 laid the foundation for making a true difference in education and enlightenment of those topics within the iGEM community and amongst life science students in general. We want to build on this and further develop and implement their theoretical approaches. The 2015 team examined the current state and effectivity of education on these topics in life sciences and the iGEM community as well as the legal situation in different countries and regions of the world. All their findings were portrayed in a "Dual Use Report". Now we want to convert their theory into practice. Starting at our university, moving on to national and finally international level, we reached out to scientists and experts - promoting education, preventing misuse and misconception.
What has happened since 2015?
At that time, education on DURC did not happen at our university at all. At first sight, this improved as we have a committee at our university which was founded in 2017. However, the mere existence of this committee does not contribute to a better educational situation in respect to DURC yet. Therefore, we now take actions to support the committee and really improve the knowledge and understanding of students about DURC. (Bielefeld University Press, 2017)
Why all this? - Relevance of Dual Use issues in the 21st century
What Dual Use Research of Concern in the wrong hands could do - two case studies
As the previously mentioned definitions are highly theoretical, we want to present some examples which illustrate what research could cause in the wrong hands. We selected these frequently discussed cases to prevent additional panic by not portraying novel alarming scenarios.
Science provides an example with a publication on the transmissibility of A/H5N1 viruses between ferrets which might be used to increase transmissibility of harmful viruses (Herfst et al., 2012). The research group examined which part of the genomic information of a mutated A/H5N1 virus was responsible for its previously non-present air transmissibility. Theoretically, this could be transferred to any harmful virus - so it is a case of Dual Use Research of Concern. However, it is important to note that the modification of a virus is not a trivial task and would require substantial additional research.
An example from another field of science is a publication on pulmonary drug delivery by customizing large porous particles (Edwards et al., 1997). The publication enables the optimal uptake and medical efficacy, but this works the same for toxins or drugs. This is why this research can also be considered Dual Use Research of Concern as it could be misused to effectively harm somebody.
New challenges in the internet age
In contrast to researchers from previous generations, we have to deal with an additional challenge: the global availability of information throughout the internet. Open access provides lots of chances for science as huge amounts of data can be shared within seconds but at the same moment cause a sensible problem as also sensitive information and panic could be spread rapidly.
But no need to panic!
Despite all these concerns we did not have lots of misuse cases in the last decades. They are actually extremely rare considering the number of scientific projects that are running each year. It should be mentioned here that despite only a few cases, they are nevertheless still present! We as scientists know that in most cases the feasibility of misuse is very low. For example, it is extremely challenging to recreate a virus and there are many easier ways to harm someone - but does the public know, too?
The Public’s Conception of Risks: The Problem of Science Communication
During our research on Dual Use and Research of Concern it became clear to us that it is not the misuse of research itself that poses the only danger:
A great danger comes also from how the public perceives the danger.
Different understanding due to different educational or scientific backgrounds led to huge debates in the past ultimately resulting in restriction of publications. That is why we reached out to scientists gaining public trust by effective science communication of their research.
An Example of failed Communication: ‘Airborne transmission of influenza A/H5N1 virus between ferrets’ by Herfst et al., 2012
A critical publication from 2012 caused a disturbing sensation at this time: A research group examined which part of the genomic information of a mutated A/H5N1 virus was in charge of its previously non-present air transmissibility (Herfst et al., 2012). In addition to the critical content of the publication, communication was also a major problem here. The worrying title “Airborne transmission of influenza A/H5N1 virus between ferrets” alone quickly drew the attention of the media to this publication which led to concerns and much public criticism of scientists. Such cases can rapidly lead to panic to which the government can respond with stricter regulation of science. The limitation of free science poses a real danger in the Internet age as information and panic can spread around the world in seconds. That is why we appeal to you as responsible scientists:
Ask yourselves: How does the public perceive you as scientists?
It is important to communicate to the public that every scientist is aware of their research and has carried out risk assessment. The one who works on research must be the one who can best assess the risks of the research and moreover communicate them properly. This is a fundamental part of generating public trust and supporting free research.
Self-Regulation vs. Foreign-Regulation of Science
"Researchers are now facing a dilemma: If they refrained from research whose results could possibly be misused, the scientific progress in medicine and technology would be done for. On the other hand, researchers are due to their expertise responsible for weighing up the risks and the opportunities of their work: “Scientists have the duty to minimize the risks of dual use in their work” says the Robert Koch Institute." – Dr. Manuela Lenzen, Philosophy and Science Journalism
There are two obvious ways of regulating science:
Regulation through politics
Self-regulation by the scientists themselves
Regulation by politics includes the problem that politicians do not necessarily possess enough expertise on science-relevant topics to correctly interpret concrete situations. This could lead to overregulation and restriction of free science as they could overrate dangers and risks due to wrong assessment. In addition, they have to represent the view of the public which can be easily influenced by panic. As they must secure their voters, they speak out more willingly against free science in order to calm the public and gain trust.
The scientist himself can best assess the risks of his own research.
This is why self-regulation by scientists acting as their own experts might be the better solution. But self-regulation only works if every scientist is aware of DURC issues and its communication. This can only be achieved if it is part of their university education. Therefore, we want to underline the relevance of dealing with this topic.
Biosecurity in the Context of iGEM – Relevance
When participating in the iGEM competition, it is necessary to deal with Dual Use and biosecurity issues. Most participants in the competition get in touch with research for the first time through iGEM. That is why iGEM has the potential of being a role model for the scientific community by providing education and raising awareness for biosecurity concerns and the minimization of its risks.Each year, over 45 countries and nearly 6000 students participate in the iGEM competition and thus its influence is enormous (iGEM Foundation, 2018). In addition, all results are open source. Consequently, everybody with an access to the web can get all information about every project. Due to this enormous impact and the fact that all results will be published it is important that all participants are aware of the terms “Dual Use” and “Dual Use Research of Concern” and their communication.
Most attendees, including ourselves, were uninformed about biosecurity when starting their research and heard about this topic the first time when they have already started their project. We think this is way too late.
Legal Situations: Different Areas, different Approaches
Legal Situation: iGEM Perspective
"At iGEM we take the risk that others might misuse our work and resources to cause deliberate harm very seriously. We have robust programs designed to ensure that we help enable local people to address local challenges both safely and securely. Leading technical bodies, such as the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, have suggested that almost all modern biotechnology could be used for both good and for harm." – Dr. Piers Millet, iGEM Vice President of Safety and Security
The iGEM Headquarters (iGEM HQ) strongly emphasizes the importance of biosafety and biosecurity. One problem is the internationality of the competition. iGEM HQ must ensure that US rights are observed but also the teams should be able to successfully participate in countries with different laws. Teams must completely agree on safety and security policies from iGEM HQ to be accepted for the finals in Boston. The high safety measures as for example working with organisms of safety level three or four and using parts from organisms of a safety level of four is completely forbidden. Also, every team has to fill in a safety sheet that requires profound reflection on the topics biosafety and biosecurity (iGEM Foundation, 2018).
Despite most questions dealing with the first-mentioned, the questionnaire also asks about DURC training the iGEM teams might have got. One question also asks about the safety, security and ethical risks the projects might trigger (iGEM Foundation, 2018).This shows indeed that biosafety and biosecurity have high relevance for iGEM but still DURC issues are not considered long-term. It would be useful providing biosecurity material when iGEM teams register. It has not escaped our noticed that our provided presentation slides about DURC could be used for this purpose!
Legal Situation: An Industrial Perspective
How does the life science industry handle biosecurity issues?
As an iGEM sponsor and provider of gene syntheses we asked Integrated DNA Technologies (IDT) about dealing with biosecurity issues. Gene syntheses can potentially be misused to generate hazardous organisms. IDT is one of five founding members of the International Gene Synthesis Consortium (IGSC) and was involved in the development of The “Harmonized Screening Protocol”. This protocol is applied to every sequence order to prevent the misuse of synthetic genes. For their gBlocks Gene Fragments IDT uses this protocol to screen every ordered sequence for regulated and possibly pathogenic sequences. Besides, IDT verifies that their customers are legitimate scientists and ensures that they are involved in beneficial research (Integrated DNA Technologies, 2018).
Legal Situation: Germany
Starting locally, we examined the situation in Germany. Currently, there are no regulations and controls concerning the content of publications here. For this reason, it is important to promote a sense of responsibility from the very beginning of the scientific education. Carelessness of the scientific community could lead to misuse of research. This could entail harsh regulations from the politics and a restriction of free science. If every scientist is accordingly educated and acts in a responsible manner such excessive regulations can be avoided in the future. This issue is very important to protect the society as well as the public trust scientists and scientific institutions rely upon.
First Approaches in Germany: A Commission for Ethics of DURC
In 2014, the German Research Foundation (DFG) published together with the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina recommendations on how to deal with DURC. These recommendations state that research institutions draft ethical rules for dealing with DURC and establish a commission for the ethics of DURC that has an advisory function. It was recommended that these commissions should be established at every research facility by 2017.
By 2019, it will be decided whether these commissions are sufficient to deal with DURC problems or whether more regulations are needed. One restrictive suggestion is that scientists must obtain a license in order to be allowed to publish something - and that would be an intervention in free science (National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina and German Research Foundation, 2016).
Our University, our Commission – our Contribution
Consequently, there was a new committee for the ethics of DURC founded at our university (Bielefeld University Press, 2017).Getting in contact with the head of the commission, we learned that they are in charge of this committee but did not take action to integrate the issues into the curricula yet. This is partly due to the fact that the commissions did only get the goals they need to achieve without any information on how to accomplish this. Further, they are members of the board who already have full time jobs and would provide advice if required.
We want to support this new committee and give some input how students and other members of universities could be educated about this topic. For this reason, we initialized the following steps:
Step by Step Integration of DURC issues and its communication into University Education
1.Step: Starting local: An established Researchers Perspective
At first, we wanted to receive information from experienced scientists of different fields of science like biology, informatics, physics and chemistry about the topics Dual Use and Dual Use Research of Concern. We assumed that they should definitely be aware of the whole topic. We evaluated the current situation at our university. The interviews demonstrated that most scientists have heard about the terms before but have never dealt with them in detail and certainly not integrated them into their lectures.
How should students be informed if these topics are not part of the university education?
During the interviews we presented our further procedure planning to the scientists in order to integrate the education on DURC issues into lectures: For the beginning we planned to provide open source presentation slides that can be easily integrated into lectures or safety instructions. Almost all researchers we contacted agreed to integrate our slides into their lectures.
"Several surveys over the past ten years have clearly documented that the majority of scientists involved in modern life sciences work do not devote a great deal of active consideration to questions of biosecurity, mainly because they have little awareness of possible dual-use implications of their work." - Prof. em. Dr. Kathryn Nixdorff, Joint Committee of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina and the German Research Foundation (DFG) for the Handling of Security-relevant Research
2.Step: Let’s review the Situation – Nationwide Survey
In order to evaluate the situation throughout Germany, we initiated a nationwide survey in the period from June 21st to July 10th about the topics Dual Use and Dual Use Research of Concern and their treatment at university. The results clearly show that the level of knowledge of German scientists as well as the enlightenment at universities about DURC is not sufficient.Key data of the German survey:
-119 participants -26 different universities -10 iGEM Teams
Remarkable Data and Major Problems – Germany
62%: do not know the definition of Research of Concern 51%: do not know the definition of Dual Use 80%: do not know a contact person to ask for questions and concerns 94%: criticize an indifferent or very poor degree of information at their universities 71%: want a more pronounced education as part of their university education
3.Step: A local Beginning - Lecture Evening and Panel Discussion
Based on the results of the interviews and the survey, we organized a lecture evening followed by a panel discussion on the subject „Where does free science end? – Chances and risks of the self-regulation in research“.
We invited the speakers Prof. Dr. Alfons Bora (Faculty of Sociology, Bielefeld University), Prof. Dr. Kathryn Nixdorff (Leopoldina, University of Darmstadt) and Tom Hobson (Bath University). We gave a talk on the topic ‘Biosecurity in the Context of iGEM’ in which we presented among other things the results of our nationwide survey and moderated the following discussion.
You can see the complete speech of our team member Irina Rais here:
Also, we were able to include other teams in the discussion of DURC issues: iGEM HSHL 2018 and iGEM Duesseldorf 2018 attended the event and gave great input! Their presence was a step forwards to increase the reach of education on DURC issues.
Why this lecture?
We wanted to support the new commission for ethics of DURC issues with input as the head of the commission from our university attended and introduced the committee at the beginning of the evening. In our talk we showed how the education on DURC issues could happen and presented our next steps. Our central message to the 80 participants of the lecture evening can be summarized as follows:
Freedom needs responsibility - raise awareness!
4. Step What does the international situation looks like? – International Survey
We extended our perspective to get an international look on the level of knowledge and prepared an international version of the German survey. The survey covers the topics Dual Use, Dual Use Research of Concern and their imparting at universities. Since the survey is still active we are still looking for more participants to get a better international view!
-249 participants -39 countries -86 universities -63 iGEM Teams
We also designed a world map with all countries that participated in the survey highlighted in green. Our goal is to see the whole world marked green!
Remarkable Data and Major Problems – Worldwide
71%: do not know the definition of Dual Use Research of Concern 61%: do not know the definition of Dual Use 60%: do not know a contact person to ask for questions and concerns 63%: criticize an indifferent or very poor enlightenment at their universities 78%: want a more pronounced enlightenment as part of their university education Here you can view the detailed evaluation!
We believe that actually even less people know about Dual Use and Dual Use Research of Concern. The survey was mainly done by other iGEM teams thus motivated students interested in the topics which does not depict the situation for the whole student community. On the other hand, the poor results may also be due to the fact that no official, uniform definitions for Dual Use and DURC exist. Different organizations come up with different definitions leading to confusion and different understandings.
Conclusion: Interpretation of the Surveys - what can we learn from them?
We used the survey results to identify crucial problems in the DURC area and tackle them accordingly. We isolated following major problems:
Most scientists do not know the definitions of Dual Use and Dual Use Research of Concern
Education about Dual Use, Dual Use Research of Concern issues and their science communication is not part of the university education
Scientists do not know the existence of the responsible committees and who to contact for questions
There are no international and uniform definitions of the terms Dual Use and Dual Use Research of Concern
Problems entail Risks
The insufficient education of scientists on DURC issues harbors three major risks:
Loss of public trust in scientists due to poor science communication
Strict regulation of scientific research in response to unconsidered publications with DURC content
Unwitting publication of critical content due to a lack of education and contact persons
These mentioned risks will always be present if the education on DURC issues and science communication does not improve!
5. Step: How can we avoid it? Long-Term Prevention!
"The goal must be to confront every bioscientist with the dual-use problem and biorisk management from the beginning of his career and to achieve that a bioscientist is not satisfied with the compliance with the legal regulations but recognize and accomplish this special ethical responsibility." – Dr. Carsten Roller, VBIO Department Manager Training and Career
Our goal is to integrate DURC issues and their communication firmly into university education worldwide. Only through long-term integration into the curriculum can an effective sense of responsibility be established. For this reason, we have taken some steps to achieve these goals.
Prevention measures: Let’s avoid Incidents in the Future
1.Let’s start at our university: Expansion of the Library Selection
As we would like to provide comprehensive information about Dual Use Research of Concern we think books about this topic are a great way to inform yourself. Given that, we were even more surprised that we could not find any literature at our university library about these highly relevant topics. We think this is not acceptable and miss these important issues in the inventory of our library. Therefore, we initiated and achieved the purchase of current literature about DURC, which can also be integrated into educational courses. We are proud to announce that these three books are now included in our university library
Dual Use Research of Concern in the Life Sciences: Current Issues and Controversies ISBN: 9780309458887
A Survey of Attitudes and Actions on Dual Use Research in the Life Sciences: A Collaborative Effort of the National Research Council and the American Association for the Advancement of Science ISBN: 978-0-309-12510-9
Gene Drives on the Horizon: Advancing Science, Navigating Uncertainty, and Aligning Research with Public Values ISBN: 978-0-309-43787-5
2. Let’s get international: Open Source Presentation Slides for Everyone
We want to make it easier for lecturers to integrate Dual Use and Dual Use Research of Concern issues into their lecture and courses. That is why we prepared a concise set of slides with further explanations and instructions in the presentation notes. These contain clear definitions for the terms Dual Use and Dual Use Research of Concern. The aim is to lower the threshold for integrating these topics into lectures or safety inductions since lecturers themselves do not have to prepare anything. As already mentioned, many researchers at our university already announced to incorporate these slides into their lectures. We prepared different versions for the research areas of biology and chemistry each in English and German. The provided slides are open source and can be effortlessly used by everyone without our explicit permission. We are happy about acknowledgement though.
iGEM Athens 2018 also even spread awareness by presenting our slides at the Molecular Virology Laboratory of the Hellenic Pasteur Institute.
We thank every team for their openness to look at your project from a different perspective. We are looking forward to every next team that comes along!
3. Dual Use Awareness Button – A Seal of Quality for Awareness Worldwide
As an incentive for iGEM teams to use the slides and to deal with the topic, we designed a Dual Use Awareness button which we sent every team that has dealt with our slides. It is supposed to be a ‘seal of quality’ through which the teams could express that they take DURC issues in concerning their own project seriously and are well informed about the topic. The button is uploaded to the iGEM servers and can be easily integrated into their wikis.
4. Let’s go a little deeper: Detailed Slides for Everyone
Additionally, we developed detailed slides which can serve as a lecture to get a deep understanding of Dual Use and Dual Use Research of Concern. These slides contain all the relevant definitions related to DURC and suitable examples from different fields of research. They enhance the understanding for this topic and make it easier for students to distinguish between the conceptions. Imparting awareness and developing a sense of responsibility for DURC issues and their communication is the major aim!
5. Establishing a Seminar – Anchoring Awareness
In order to further strengthen the awareness of DURC on a long run we incorporate scientists of various expertises who are willing to present their point of view on DURC in a seminar.
Part of our novel seminar is Jun.-Prof. Dr. Alexander Grünberger who is keen to discuss the slides in the study program Molecular Biotechnology. He is a professor for Multiscale Bioengineering and will represent the view of bioprocess engineering.
Prof. Dr. Kristian Müller is professor for cellular and molecular Biotechnology and was the first PI to supervise a German iGEM team. Therefore, he is one of the German PIs with many years of iGEM experience. He will talk about DURC in synthetic Biology.
Moreover, Prof. Dr. Alfons Bora who is a professor for sociology of law and technical assessment will give a lecturer in this seminar. He was a member of the German Ethics Council from 2012 - 2014 and since 2014 he is a member of the Joint Committee of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina and the German Research Foundation (DFG) for the Handling of Security-relevant Research.
Psychologist Dr. Lilian Streblow is from the faculty of Educational Sciences and a member of the ethics council of Bielefeld University.
Prof. Dr. Marie I. Kaiser studied biology and philosophy and is a professor for Philosophy of Science at Bielefeld University. She is interested in the philosophy of biology and in the metaphysics of science.
We were also able to win Prof. Dr. Ralf Hofestädt for our seminar: He is a professor for Bioinformatics and a specialist in petri nets.
The seminar should take place at Bielefeld University as a long-term course where students get insights into different views about DURC and biosecurity. Our provided detailed slides serve as our contribution from the iGEM team Bielefeld-CeBiTec 2018 to the seminar to fill the first slot. As we could see in our survey many students do not know the meaning of DURC. We think it is time to change this, so the seminar is an important step to spread awareness!
6. Listen! - A Podcast all about the topics Dual Use and Research of Concern
Together with our campus radio station ”Hertz 87.9”, we produced and broadcasted an English podcast. Our team members Matthias Otto and Irina Rais presented our motivation, discussed the issues of Dual Use Research of Concern and its communication and introduced our prevention methods. The podcast is yet another way to reach the general public.You can listen to the podcast here:
7. Outreach via Social Media
We utilized different channels to raise awareness on Dual Use Research of Concern, among them social media e.g. Facebook and Twitter. Through social media, we initiated and participated in discussions about this topic. With the huge iGEM community, other science-enthusiasts and friends we reached several thousand users and got valuable input from different experts and institutions.
8. Statements: Different Experts - different Perspectives
We sought various experts from ethics, security and industry to broaden our perspective on DURC issues. The different points of view helped us a lot to look at the problem differently. We were able to win the following experts for a statement:
The number of steadily growing reports of work involving dual-use research of concern (DURC) in the scientific literature have generated much controversy and debate in the scientific community and in the general public. The nature of the debates about the potential biosecurity risks involved in such research points out the need for carrying out life sciences work in a responsible manner. Several surveys over the past ten years have clearly documented that the majority of scientists involved in modern life sciences work do not devote a great deal of active consideration to questions of biosecurity, mainly because they have little awareness of possible dual-use implications of their work. The CeBiTec Group Bielefeld is a refreshing exception. For example, through research carried out in connection with their iGEM-Projects over the past several years CeBiTec Teams have dealt extensively with the issues surrounding biosecurity-relevant research in the life sciences and related fields. In carrying out dual-use biosecurity risk assessments of their projects, they have demonstrated that they are indeed working responsibly as young scientists. However, they have not stopped there. Members of the iGEM Team 2018, along with volunteers from the biotechnologische Studierendeninitiative (btS) are also at present actively engaging in projects to raise awareness among those studying and working in the life sciences and related fields about dual-use biosecurity issues of concern. In particular, the group is exploring how best to integrate these issues into the curriculum at universities. It is clear to most experts in the biosecurity community that creating a culture of responsibility among those working in biosecurity-relevant research areas through education about dual-use issues is one of the most effective ways of mitigating risks that may be involved in this work. I am extremely impressed to see that young academics have taken the initiative themselves to promote awareness-raising from the bottom up. This should set an example for all young academics; the CeBiTec Bielefeld Group are to be heartily commended!
Life sciences findings can be misused – even when they were determined in good faith. VBIO therefore do not take dual-use problems or biorisks lightly. Everything has to be done to prevent individuals, society and environment from or accidental or malicious misuse of life sciences. On the other side bad will, crime and terrorism always can elude even the best laws or legal prohibitions. Therefore awareness of the involved scientists is of crucial importance. Proliferous introduction of new regulations, structures, licensing procedures and administrative processes will prevent dual use risks only to a certain extent. Effort and benefits would be out of proportion with the associated disabilities and delays of life science research. Therefore VBIO stands against demands of the “Deutscher Ethikrat” (German Ethics Council) for stricter legal regulation. In the sense of an appropriate risk strategy we support awareness-raising measures at all levels of the science community, within universities and research institutions, within scientific societies, within companies and last not least within study and teaching. Supported by the “Konferenz Biologischer Fachbereiche” (KBF, German Conference of Biological Departments) VBIO had achieved that the topics of biosafety and biosecurity were implemented in study reference frame “Fachkanon_Biologie” and the study plan of “Fachspezifisch ergänzende Hinweise” (FEH 10) of the accreditation agency ASIIN. Thus all life science departments in Germany are asked to implement biorisk management aspects in all of their bachelor and master degree programs. The goal must be to confront every bioscientist with the dual-use problem and biorisk management from the beginning of his career and to achieve that a bioscientist is not satisfied with the compliance with the legal regulations but recognize and accomplish this special ethical responsibility. In individual cases, this can also mean the temporary or final abandonment of a research project. In line with the “Gemeinsamer Ausschuss zum Umgang mit Sicherheitsrelevanter Forschung” of the DFG and Leopoldina (joint committee on dealing with safety-relevant research), the VBIO requires universities and research institutions to create financial, organizational and time-related spaces that enable their employees to conduct risk-responsive, risk-averse analysis. These include regular training, exchange and counseling services. A further step is the establishment of “Kommissionen für Ethik der Forschung” (KEF, Research Ethics Committees) which are the first contact points for all scientists. In addition, beyond the institutions, all opportunities must be exploited to raise awareness of the dual-use problem in research networks, organizations and associations, without paranoidly exceeding the target. Therefore with a sense of proportion, VBIO always likes to help the topic of biorisk management not to a maximum, but to lead to an optimum.
"With a knife, you can cut bread or slit another person's throat: that's "dual use". Originally, the term comes from the export control and stands for technology, machinery and software that can be used not only peacefully, but also for military purposes. In the current discussion about dual use, it is often also about the misuse of such goods by terrorists. They are subject to special export controls or restrictions and are listed in various national and international lists. Sometimes "dual use" also very generally refers to any harmful, immoral or dubious use of technology, such as when learning pattern recognition programs are used to monitor or manipulate humans. Technologies, machines, software: these are products that usually start with scientific research. Research is free and in basic research, unrestrained curiosity is not only allowed, but desired. However, researchers need to think about what they are developing, whose hands their results could reach, and what might become of them in the worst case scenario. This applies not only to the developers of centrifuges, which can be used in medicine as well as for the production of nuclear bombs, or for chemists who work on substances that could be used for chemical weapons, but for all researchers, including e.g. findings of psychology on the manipulability of humans. Presumably, no scientific discipline can fundamentally be dismissed from these considerations. In 2011, researchers from the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam changed avian influenza viruses so that even mammals could transmit them, thus triggering a debate: May science have to do that to better assess the risk of pandemics? Or does it unintentionally help bioterrorists? In 2017, Canadian researchers rebuilt the extinct horsepox virus. A dispute over the question of whether such research results should be published followed. Is full disclosure always the best way for everyone? The dual use problem is also very present in artificial intelligence (AI) research. Since its inception, AI research has been and continues to be heavily promoted by the military. (Partial) autonomous weapon systems, ambulance or reconnaissance vehicles, assistance systems that carry loads, data glasses, exoskeletons, programs that evaluate the data of drones or surveillance cameras, as well as the field of cyber-attacks, defense and espionage: the military has many applications for what AI research is developing. With regard to autonomous weapon systems, researchers are already talking about the third revolution in military technology after the invention of gunpowder and the development of the atomic bomb. In 2017, several researchers and CEOs of AI corporations signed an open letter in which they warned of an arms race with autonomous weapons. Others pointed out that now that this technology was introduced one has to assure not to fall behind other states: this is the logic of the arms race. Researchers are now facing a dilemma: If they refrained from research whose results could possibly be misused, the scientific progress in medicine and technology would be done for. On the other hand, researchers are due to their expertise responsible for weighing up the risks and the opportunities of their work: “Scientists have the duty to minimize the risks of dual use in their work” says the Robert Koch Institute. To support researchers in fulfilling their duty, the German Ethics Council, the German Research Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina published recommendations in 2014 on how to deal with dual use risks. Their research institutions, the experts emphasize, should support the researchers."
"At iGEM we take the risk that others might misuse our work and resources to cause deliberate harm very seriously. We have robust programs designed to ensure that we help enable local people to address local challenges both safely and securely. Leading technical bodies, such as the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, have suggested that almost all modern biotechnology could be used for both good and for harm. Over the years, we have had fantastic examples of teams engaging with these issues and finding practical ways to better understand and address such concerns. We are proud to enable and champion that engagement. This is another example of how our communities are engineering solutions to real-world challenges. iGEM believes that we all share a responsibility to maximise how biological engineering can make our lives better whilst minimising any potential for harm. That is why iGEM teams are asked to think about and manage any risks from their projects - both during the competition and should their project ever be fully realised. We understand the important role that instructors, advisors, and PIs can play - both in ensuring the work is safe and secure but also in building a culture of responsible research and engineering. More broadly, the iGEM communities capture this though our shared values. We work to translate this into effective action. For example, iGEM continues to be at the forefront of building better ways to identify and manage risks, including dual use concerns. After iGEM also provides a powerful platform by which members of iGEM communities can continue to work on these important issues as their careers progress. For example, in December 2017 five members of our community participated in and briefed the annual meeting of the Biological Weapons Convention, at the United Nations Office at Geneva."
Spreading Awareness – A long-term Mission
All these steps to bring the Dual Use and Research of Concern topics closer to scientists were just the beginning of something that we definitely want to continue after iGEM. We would also be pleased if following teams pick up on our activities and further spread and develop them!
iGEM - A Role Model for the (Scientific) Community
iGEM has the potential of being a role model for not only the scientific community: With its international reach and huge community, iGEM can be a trailblazer for education. Due to the interdisciplinary nature of the competition, it has great potential to mediate between society and science. Within the framework of the iGEM community we hope to promote a sense of responsibility in dealing with DURC problems but in particular to teach and practice science communication in the area of DURC to generate public trust in the future.
Open Source: Because it is Everybody’s Business
As we put a huge focus on free accessible science, we published and will publish our project and future results on Research Gate – with the goal of reaching as many people as possible.
A Promising Outlook: Our DURC Homepage - A Place for Future Work
The end of this year’s iGEM competition and the Wiki Freeze are by no means the end of our initiative - but rather a springboard for future activities. For this reason, we have created a website that will continue to provide information about our plans in the future.
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