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 competing interests and values. This is because although this very research is in principle useful and conducted for the common good, it can, through misuse, lead to risks for humans and the environment.
In the light of this “dual-use” problem of security-relevant research, the Executive Board of the Leibniz Association adopted rules of procedure 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 rules of procedure were put into force by the Board on 27 February 2019.
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 field of research of the Leibniz Association. The Leibniz Commission for Research Ethics does not replace the function of regular ethics commissions at the individual Leibniz institutions. In addition, the case must not fall under the responsibility of another commission at the member institution or, where relevant, at a collaborating university.
The acting head of the Leibniz Commission for Research Ethics is currently Professor Jörg Overmann (DSMZ). Enquiries can be sent to Leibniz Headquarters.