The importance of 'dual use' research for international biosecurity

Lijun Shang and his colleagues advocate for increased biosecurity education and awareness of the importance of training personnel in ethical reviewing in a letter published in Nature.

Date: 10 October 2022

Dual use research needs international oversight, claims Lijun Shang, London Met Professor of Biomedical Science at the School of Human Sciences, and co-authors Simon Whitby and Malcolm Dando. This argument was put forward in a letter published in the international science and technology journal Nature.

Dual use research is research conducted for legitimate purposes that generates knowledge, information, technologies, and/or products that could be utilised for both benevolent and harmful purposes.

In the piece of correspondence, the authors argue that scientific research requires oversight, especially from universities, institutional review boards and institutional ethics committees. “They play a vital role in providing oversight of scientific research. Their function is, in part, to ensure that biological science research involving teaching staff, laboratory technicians, researchers and students, is conducted safely, in a socially responsible manner, in accordance with regulations and laws, and in compliance with ethical guidelines and standards.”

The time to act is now, they suggest. “We have to ensure that personnel on Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) and Institutional Ethics Entities (IEEs) in the UK and beyond, are in receipt of appropriate training. It is essential that all involved know what to do when they are required to consider research proposals that fall into ‘dual-use’ categories.”

Shang, Whitby, and Dando also set out their main recommendations for the scientific community and review personnel:

  1. Develop a definition of dual use. 
  2. Develop a criterion that triggers IRB/IEE interventions around dual use should inform their deliberations. 
  3. Produce a plan for personnel to know what to do in the event of a dual-use issue being presented to them. 
  4. Ensure that boards/committees are able to provide guidance to researchers that mitigates against risks posed by dual use. 

As part of the Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines for Codes of Conduct for Scientists, the latter being under consideration at the upcoming 2022 Ninth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention, a system of oversight for research of dual-use concern could usefully be introduced on a worldwide basis through initiatives to raise awareness around dual-use and through appropriate training for oversight personnel.

Scientist holding up a vial in a laboratory setting