The rather euphemistic term “dual-use research” has been around for some time. It is the name given to research that could just as easily help or harm humanity – for example think of a revolutionary new chemical manufacturing process that could create chemical weapons or fertilizers.

The cliché is the innocent scientist whose radical invention is perverted by the state and used for evil.  For those who miss the reference in the title of this post, check out the following video on YouTube –

In reality, the funds poured into military research are often more likely to yield “helpful” results than the other way around.

The US military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) has been working on rapid diagnosis of germ or chemical warfare poisoning. It has reportedly developed a blood test that could detect Coronavirus as early as 24 hours after infection. This is well before people show symptoms. It is also several days before a carrier is considered capable of spreading it to other people. And around four days faster than current tests could detect the virus.

According to the head of Darpa’s biological technologies office, Dr Brad Ringeisen, it has the potential to be “absolutely a gamechanger”.

But this still leaves the ethical debate about dual-use research. The US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity provides advice on regulating “dual-use research of concern.” This is considered to be any life sciences research that could be misapplied to pose a threat to public health and safety, agricultural crops and other plants, animals, the environment or material.

The challenging ethical question is finding an acceptable trade-off between the benefits created by legitimate uses of dual-use research and the potential harms of misuse.

If you are interested in the ethical debate about dual-use science, the following article is a good read – “Defining dual-use research: When scientific advances can both help and hurt humanity.”

I’m sure that even Professor Death would be applauding the recent announcement from Darpa. Whether he would approve of the agency is another question.

Ashley Smith

Ashley Smith

Ashley is Infonetica's Account Manager, who makes sure that all our clients continue to get the products and support they need - especially during the pandemic. As one of the longest standing members of the team he has worked in most parts of the business and so understands how all the products fit together into a coherent package. Ashley likes to listen to music, especially his favourite group: Orbital.