Scientific freedom is a fundamental right enshrined in the constitution. It forms the basis of the Leibniz institutions’ success and is a guarantor of progress in society. However, this freedom is not absolute: in view of the tensions that can exist between the opportunities presented by scientific freedom and the risks of research results being misused, research always needs an ethically responsible balancing of interests. This is because even research that is in principle useful and conducted for the common good can, through misuse, lead to risks for humans, society and the environment.
In view of this “dual-use” problem of security-relevant research, the Executive Board of the Leibniz Association adopted initial rules of procedure for ethics at the end of 2018 – based on the Recommendations for Handling Security-Relevant Research issued by the DFG and Leopoldina – and appointed members of a new Leibniz Commission for Research Ethics. The Leibniz Commission for Research Ethics was restructured and made more flexible in 2022 and an Executive Board Representative for Research Ethics was appointed. Regular networking meetings on issues of research ethics promote an exchange of views and reflection on the topic.
Prof. Jörg Overmann, Leibniz Institute DSMZ – German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures, has been the Executive Board Representative for Research Ethics since 2022. He represents the Leibniz Association internally and externally in matters relating to research ethics and is the contact person for national and international cooperation partners. Another of his tasks, in collaboration with the Leibniz Integrity Advisory Board, is to contribute to raising awareness of security-relevant and ethical aspects of research and, in addition, to contribute to knowledge transfer in the Leibniz Association and to networking activities, continuing professional development and training in this area.
The task of the Leibniz Commission for Research Ethics is to assess security-relevant and ethical risks that arise during the research process and that could impact human dignity, life, health, liberty, property, the environment or peaceful coexistence. These kinds of risk are particularly likely if the research makes use of, or is expected to result in, knowledge, products or technologies that could be misused directly by third parties. In order for the Leibniz Commission for Research Ethics to get involved, the ethical or security-relevant issue brought to its notice must have a demonstrable relevance beyond the individual case in question in a key Leibniz Association field of research.