A Double-Edged Sword: The Implications of Dual-Use Research


Scientific research holds immense value for society, but it can also be a double-edged sword if used for harmful purposes [1]. In the hands of those with malicious intent, there is a risk that scientific knowledge and technology can be inappropriately used with broad health, economic, and social implications [3]. 

Recent scientific discoveries such as gene-editing technology have shown promising potential to improve medical treatment and crop yields [15]. However, these technologies and related biomedical data can pose potential biosafety and international security concerns if they are exploited to engineer diseases that are lethal, infectious, or resistant against antibiotics [2]. 

There is a plausible reason for concern. Take for example, a controversial paper published in 2005 that was intended to offer new insight into novel drug and vaccine development [4]. Researchers described how to reconstruct a virus responsible for the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic — a disease that infected a third of the planet’s population and killed almost 50 million people [4]. However, such knowledge of the virus could be reasonably anticipated for malevolent use, causing potential harm to the research community and public [5,6]. And more recently in 2017, researchers recreated horsepox, a virus related to smallpox, by using mail-order DNA and publicly available information, showing it was possible to construct infectious pathogens without significant financial or time investments [14]. These examples demonstrate the potential wide-ranging security issues surrounding dual-use research [7]. 

While there have not been any known attacks based on dual­-use research, the implications for society if research is misused — either intentionally or accidentally — are serious enough to warrant more attention to research governance [5,7]. And there has been — Canada along with other countries around the world have long regulated nuclear science research as a precautionary measure to avoid creations of weapons of mass destruction [8,9]. 

In spite of these risks, overly rigid censorship of research will not be effective nor productive [7]. As a society that values transparency and freedom of inquiry, imposing restrictions on publications will not only interfere with the right to free speech, but also slow the sharing and progress of important scientific knowledge [1,9]. Concerns around public safety and the potential harmful applications of research and innovation must be tempered with recognition of its numerous benefits for medicine and society [10]. 

In light of this, what can be done? 

  1. Promote shared responsibility. 

There is no single discipline or institution who holds the sole responsibility for addressing the challenges of research with dual­-use implications. Rather, it is a multi-faceted problem that traverses the domains of public health, ethics, security, and policy [3]. Managing the risks of dual­-use research thus requires a coordinated approach — one likely involving both institutional and government actors — across all sectors to ensure appropriate management of research with dual-use potential [6,7]. 

  1. Increase dual-use awareness.

The key to this effort will also be increasing awareness of dual­-use research [9,11]. Students, researchers and research ethics board members can participate in programs to learn about the responsible conduct of research, as well as the implications of conducting high-risk, dual-use research [9,12]. Whether implemented on a mandatory or voluntary basis, educational means will be important for understanding how risks associated with open dissemination of research can be managed appropriately through common approaches [7]. 

  1. Clarifying the meaning of dual-­use. 

Current efforts to define and understand dual-use research tend to have a narrow focus on the military applications of life sciences and lack input from bioethics [5,10]. Broadening the meaning of dual-use research to include other disciplines, such as social sciences and humanities, as well as emerging technology in systems biology, can ensure that the full scope of risk is considered [13]. Recognizing the significant ethical nature of dual­-use research will also help identify research with dual­-use potential, as well as delineate what types of research society deems morally permissible. 

Scientific research and innovation have undoubtedly improved our lives for the better, but as stewards of knowledge, with great power comes great responsibility. We must think critically about the potential applications of scientific research while engaging with difficult moral questions to ensure research continues being a force for good.



[1] Frankel, M. S. (2012). Regulating the boundaries of dual-use research. Science, 336(6088), 1523–1525. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1221285..

[2] DiEuliis, D., & Giordano, J. (2018). Gene editing using CRISPR/Cas9: Implications for dual-use and biosecurity. Protein & Cell, 9(3), 239–240. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13238-017-0493-4.

[3] Selgelid, M. J. (2009). Governance of dual-use research: An ethical dilemma. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 87(9), 720–723. https://doi.org/10.2471/BLT.08.051383.

[4] Tumpey, T. M. (2005). Characterization of the reconstructed 1918 spanish influenza pandemic virus. Science, 310(5745), 77–80. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1119392.

[5] Kuhlau, F., Eriksson, S., Evers, K., & Höglund, A. T. (2008). Taking due care: Moral obligations in dual use research. Bioethics, 22(9), 477–487. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8519.2008.00695.x.

[6] Baskin, C. R., & Zelicoff, A. P. (Eds.). (2016). Ensuring national biosecurity: Institutional biosafety committees. Elsevier/AP.

[7]  National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (U.S.), National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (U.S.), & National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (U.S.) (Eds.). (2017). Dual use research of concern in the life sciences: Current Issues and controversies. The National Academies Press.

[8] National Research Council (U.S.) (Ed.). (2004). Biotechnology research in an age of terrorism. National Academies Press.

[9] Selgelid, M. J. (2009). Dual-use research codes of conduct: Lessons from the life sciences. NanoEthics, 3(3), 175–183. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11569-009-0074-y.

[10] Kuhlau, F., Höglund, A. T., Evers, K., & Eriksson, S. (2011). A precautionary principle for dual use research in the life sciences: A precautionary principle for dual use research in the life sciences. Bioethics, 25(1), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8519.2009.01740.x

[11] Bezuidenhout, L. (2013). Data sharing and dual-use issues. Science and Engineering Ethics, 19(1), 83–92. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-011-9298-7.

[12] National Research Council (U.S.), & National Academies Press (U.S.) (Eds.). (2011). Challenges and opportunities for education about dual use issues in the life sciences. National Academies Press.

[13] Forge, J. A Note on the Definition of “Dual Use”. (2010). Sci Eng Ethics 16, 111–118.