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uni'wissen 01-2015

Leave it to parliament: The German Ethics Council has recommended allowing lawmakers to determine which research should be regarded as especially dangerous and to appoint an expert commission to assess experiments with biosecurity risks. Photo: German Parliament/Thomas Trutschel/ Researchers are working to develop a vaccine against the Ebola virus, which has recently claimed more than 7000 lives in West Africa. They modify the pathogen, giving it the ability to enter into the human body over the air. Shortly afterwards a terrorist organization breaks into the lab, steals the modified virus, and makes it into a weapon of mass destruction. This might be a fictitious scenario, but it demonstrates a very real risk of conducting free research in a globalized, connected world. However, free research can also lead to great scientific advancements, such as the development of vaccines that save human lives. But who is responsible for deciding, before a potentially dangerous experiment is published or even conducted, whether the possible benefit to science is worth the risk? Who answers the question: “Should this be allowed?” “Allowed” can mean legal, but it can also be understood in the sense of morally grounded or ethically justified. There’s no clear-cut dividing line, says Prof. Dr. Silja Vöneky. The University of Freiburg law professor is using the example of biosecurity to study the role of ethical standards in law. Biosecurity is defined by moral philoso- phers and legal experts as the risk that research findings from the life sciences become subject to misuse for criminal purposes. The related area of biosafety has to do with laboratory safety. However, it is not the courts but rather research funding organizations, scientific organizations, and scientists that decide whether potentially dangerous research receives funding and is actually conducted. “They develop non-legislative regulations in the form of ethical standards and are applying them increasingly to promote self- regulation in research involving potential biose- curity risks. This tendency might be described as an ethicalization of law,” explains Vöneky. Ethics, Law, and Morals From a legal perspective, the Ebola researcher would consider whether he were committing a criminal offense by conducting his experiments. “The Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 prohibits the production or storage of biological weapons. Research on viruses for non-peaceful purposes is prohibited,” says Vöneky. However, she adds, “the agreement does not regulate the risk of misuse of research for peaceful scientific purposes, such as the production of vaccines.” Other regulations, including the German Law on Genetic Engineering, only cover questions of biosafety. At a high-security lab, research on the Ebola virus is legal. Nevertheless, researchers are responsible for their own experiments and will ask themselves whether their actions contradict their morals or ethical principles. The moral perspective, for example, can be formulated like this: Would my fellow citizens or my own friends approve of or condemn this action? Moral philosophers, on the other hand, test moral principles and consider carefully which norms should be applied in the case of conflict: For example, research on the Ebola virus could endanger human lives but would still be ethically justified if it were the only way to develop a vaccine capable of overcoming the disease and thus save many lives. Vöneky endeavors to determine where ethical standards work together with law. She tests 33uni wissen 01 2015 33uni wissen 012015