Information and rules for a responsible approach to research freedom and research risks at the University of Konstanz

Based on § 19, para. 1, sentence 1 of the Landeshochschulgesetz LHG (state law on education), the Senate at the University of Konstanz decided to implement the following guidelines and rules for the responsible handling of scientific freedom and scientific risks at the University of Konstanz in its meeting on 22 July 2015.

I. Introductory notes

A. The freedom of research and the responsibility of the researcher

Research is one of the basic principles for the progress of humanity. It serves to increase knowledge, to promote health, prosperity and safety of us humans as well as to protect our environment. A central pre-requisite for this task is the freedom of research which is especially protected by the German Basic Law and can only be limited in order to protect other values that are stated in constitutional law. All research activities have to be in line with basic ethical principles such as equality of humans, freedom, solidarity and justice. From the research design to the dissemination/publication of the results it is important to maintain the autonomy of the person by preventing any form of exploitation, discrimination or behaviour that might lead to stigmatisation. Moreover, the benefits of research as well as any negative possible consequences have to distributed fairly. Moreover, the benefits of research as well as any negative possible consequences have to distributed fairly. As freedom in research is expanded, so must its obligation to meet its social responsibilities and – as a consequence – its transparency in regards to the public.

The successes of free and transparent research, however, don’t come without a number of risks. These risks can directly result from negligent or deliberate misconduct of researchers. But there is also the danger that results, in themselves neutral or useful, are misused by other persons for harmful purposes. These abusive or negligent purposes are called "malevolent use". “Malevolent use” refers to research that, despite harmless intentions and goals, can generate knowledge, products and technology which might be misused, while at the same time accepting this as consequences2. We have to distinguish between the terms "malevolent use" and "dual use". “Dual use” means that the research results can be used for military3 as well as civil purposes. In today's discussions we make a difference between civil versus military, peaceful versus non-peaceful, legitimate versus illegitimate and benevolent versus malevolent use.1

This possibility of malevolent use/dual use makes it very hard, or even impossible, to clearly distinguish between "good" and "bad" research, civil and military research, defence and attack research as well as research for "peaceful" and for "terroristic" purposes. Knowledge-driven basic research has to be conducted with this problematic in mind because the results are often unpredictable and are neither fundamentally good or bad. In this complex are of tension, research at the University of Konstanz is committed to public welfare and the protection of our environment. This is why our researchers have to prevent or reduce, as far as it is possible, direct or indirect harm to humans and the environment. They should not only consider the feasibility of research, but also possible consequences and their controllability. Research at the University of Konstanz does not only have legal, but also ethical limitations.

2. Examples of critical areas for negligent or malevolent use of research include:- Research that provides knowledge, material and technologies that can be adapted for criminal and terroristic activities.

- Research that leads to the development of biological weapons and their distribution.

- Research that contributes to the development or distribution of other weapons, such as chemical, radiological or nuclear weapons.

- Research that contributes to surveillance technologies which negatively affect human rights or civil liberties. This might be the case if they violate personal privacy or limit the freedom of assembly and thus contradict the ethical principles stated above.

- Research that uses data analysis technologies (data merging, data mining) that contradict human rights and the right of freedom (e.g. freedom of speech and the protection of privacy).

- Research conducted on minorities or vulnerable groups as well as research that contains the development of social, behaviour-based or genetic profiling and could lead to stigmatisation, discrimination, harassment or intimidation.

3. Military application includes the use of material, the generation of knowledge and technologies as stated in Annex 1 of the EU-Council Regulation (EC) No 428/2009 as of 5 May 2009 as well as in the Common Military List of the EU (2012/C 85/01). Military business or research partners have to disclose to what extent the development of new technologies, products and the generation of knowledge are direct application areas for military purposes. To be able to fully and freely consent to research purposes, it must be transparent to all parties involved (in accordance with contractual justice) whether or not these parties or business entities cooperate with groups or persons that are actively involved in armed conflicts, or support these actions by providing knowledge, products and technologies derived from research projects.

B. Legal and ethical limitations of research

The limits of research are primarily defined by legal norms. which, in turn, can limit the research freedom, if proportionate, in order to safeguard constitutionally protected interests and objects. Here, the specific regulations have different objectives and approaches: Research goals can be excluded (e.g. the development of atomic and bio-weapons), methods can be regulated (e.g. for certain experiments on humans), the export of knowledge, services and products to certain countries can be prohibited (e.g. in the context of German foreign trade or the EC-regulation 428/2009 on the control of exports, transfer, brokering and transit of dual-use items). These regulations must be strictly observed at the University of Konstanz. Violations may lead to severe sanctions, lengthy procedures as well as to damaging the reputation of researchers, their work areas and the University of Konstanz.

National law, however, can not completely and effectively standardise risks and misuse possibilities in research. Potential misuse can not be prevented by regarding all research with general suspicion and imposing extensive state regulations. Even detailed state regulations could never sufficiently take account of the differentiated and ever-changing global problems and area-specific risks.Furthermore, they might come into slight conflict with the freedom of research guaranteed by the constitution.

Individual researchers therefore must never be satisfied by merely observing legal regulations – they also must consider ethical principles. They should use their knowledge, expertise and abilities to recognise and assess the risks of harming humans and the environment. In critical cases they have to personally decide about the limits to their work and decide responsibly in the context of their freedom of research. The consequence might be that projects, even though they are not legally prohibited, can only be carried out in a modified form or not at all.

The Senate and the Rectorate of the University of Konstanz have set out the following rules to support our researchers in implementing these principles. They are not enforceable state law. They are in fact designed to provide an ‘ethical guideline’ via self-assessment in order to reduce the risks and prevent the abuse of research. At the same time, they offer researchers a procedure which helps them to solve ethical dilemmas better, and thus prevent any accusations of unethical conduct or practice.

II. Rules for a responsible approach to research freedom and research risks at the University of Konstanz

A. General objective and area of application

1. Objective

The rules are designed to provide, for the purpose of self-regulation, an ethical guideline in order to prevent potential risks and the misuse of research. They establish a procedure which helps our researchers to more easily solve ethical dilemmas and thus prevent any accusations of unethical conduct or practice.

2. Area of application

These guidelines apply to all persons working at the University of Konstanz or using its means for research outside of the university. Researchers should also follow these guidelines if they perform advisory functions outside the University of Konstanz. The status of the different researchers (professor, junior professor, head of a junior research group, academic staff, doctoral candidate, visiting scholar) and the non-academic staff has to be taken into account when applying these guidelines. The freedom of research and the authority to issue instructions may depend on the status of these persons.

3. Relationship between these rules and other regulations

Relationship between these rules and other regulations Legal regulations have priority over the rules mentioned here and other self-regulating measures.

B. Legal limits to research – personal commitment

German law applies to all researchers at the University of Konstanz. Additionally, international law must be observed.4 Legal provisions only apply if they do not violate higher-ranking or overriding law (particularly international human rights).

Every researcher is responsible for observing the applicable legal regulations. They have to make sure they are aware of and follow the regulations that apply to their area of research. In general, ignorance of current legislation does not relieve researchers of responsibility.

The University of Konstanz helps researchers to comply with the relevant rules (compare to D.2 below).

Beside the legal provisions, we ask our researchers to also observe the guidelines and other regulations the University of Konstanz has issued to ensure that scientific risks are handled responsibly and misconduct of researchers can be prevented. They should view the commitments of the University of Konstanz as their own commitments and guide for their personal actions.

4 E.g. the protection of human rights, international humanitarian law, the international laws of war, the prohibition of torture and violence, the international Convention on Biological Diversity.

C. Principles of ethically responsible research

1. General principle

Research at the University of Konstanz serves to develop and share knowledge and is committed to public welfare and the protection of our environment. Therefore, our researchers have to prevent or reduce, as far as is possible, direct or indirect harm to humans and the environment. Our researchers do not only have to comply with legal provisions, they also have to comply with ethical principles when making research decisions. They must be aware of the potential danger of others misusing their research. In critical cases they have to make a personal decision about taking on the responsibility for their research.

A responsible approach to research that could be misused includes the following measures: recognising and minimising research risks, dealing carefully with publications, documenting risks, as well as taking measures relating to education and training. These measures, however, should not unduly obstruct research and are therefore subject to applicability and proportionality. The principle of proportionality implies that every measure has a legitimate goal. The measure has to be proportionate to the research goal. Competing values, rights and interests of individual people and groups have to be taken into account.

2. Risk analysis

In order to carry out responsible research it is essential to first identify the potential risks. Consequently, a key precondition for avoiding, or at least controlling risks in research – in both basic and applied research – lies in developing awareness of the respective dangers. For this reason, researchers should, as far as is possible, contemplate the consequences as well as the potential uses and misuses of their work, and take into account their controllability. Research projects that are potentially risky require that we first assess the potential risks for human dignity, for the life or health of humans, for the environment and for other important goods that are protected by constitutional law. Identifying and evaluating research risks applies not only to the risks involved in one’s own conduct. Our researchers also have to consider the consequences of research they carry out for neutral or useful purposes, but whose results might then be misused by others for malevolent purposes. Risk analysis and impact assessment thus require open-mindedness, far-sightedness, and responsibility.

Researchers may consider it especially important to inform themselves about the context of the research project, the research sponsors or cooperation partners, or about their contracting bodies.

3. Risk minimisation

Our researchers and all parties involved have to minimise, as far as is possible, the risks their work might have in regards to human dignity, life, health, freedom and properties as well as the environment. These measures to minimise the risks should be considered and carried out before and also during a research project. The result might be that security measures are implemented or physical, organisational and personal protective measures as well as improved computer security are used to protect the confidentiality of research results. Such security measures and access restrictions do not conflict with the transparency principle, since this does not require research findings to be accessible to all people at all times (see also C.4).

In the case of research that is open to misuse, staff members as well as cooperation partners should be chosen carefully and their reliability and sense of responsibility should also be duly considered.

In so far as state authorities are responsible for safety and security checks, there should be appropriate cooperation concerning security-related research, for instance where there are risks of proliferation.

Taking measures to minimise risks may also mean that individual research projects may only be carried out for, or with, specific cooperation partners. Even though international cooperation is a basic principle of successful research, it might be advisable in individual cases to restrict international cooperation or to carry out the project without a partner or colleague from certain states so as to be able to minimise potential risks. National and international regulations and lists of export restrictions provide a guide about nations where there is reason to suspect or fear the misuse of certain research results.

4. Publications

A timely and responsible review is recommended – already before the start of the project – of possible consequences the publication of results may have. This applies especially when the research results can be easily implemented without additional knowledge and without sophisticated realisation and application processes, potentially leading to specific threats or severe damage. In these cases, security interests collide with the University of Konstanz’s principles of transparency, the free exchange of information and, especially the publication of research results. The principles stated above also apply for members of the University of Konstanz who publish journals or books. In such positions they should see to it that the publication of research results and the policies of the publishers they support are compatible with our principles. The exchange and publication of such results are important factors for scientific progress. In many areas of risk, the publication of results also enables the development of protective measures (e.g. vaccines in healthcare or anti-virus programmes in computer science). Suppressing research results, on the other hand, can mean that we miss the chance to develop protection measures against misuse by totalitarian regimes, terrorist groups, organised criminals or individual criminals. The requirement for transparency and communication does not rule out that researchers have to minimise certain research risks by modifying communication and the publication of their results. They might also consider to delay the publishing of their research results. In the case of research with results that have a high potential of misuse, one should consider a partial publication without the results that might be misused. The researchers may also consider sharing individual research results, in special cases, with specific persons only. Not publishing and communicating the research results at all is the last resort. It is only justified in very special cases – eventually for a certain amount of time only. Research that, from the very outset, is comprehensively classified as secret and indefinitely restricted in terms of both content and time, is incompatible with the ethical standards and the self-perception of the University of Konstanz. 

5. Last resort: giving up research that is irresponsible

The primary aim of risk analysis is the responsible execution and communication of the research project. In individual cases the researcher may indeed, as a last resort, make a responsible decision not to embark on a specific research project because it involves an incalculable and disproportionate risk potential, even though it may not be explicitly prohibited by law. For research that may have both positive and negative effects it may be very hard to determine and apply criteria for limitations, particularly in the area of dual use research. The ethical evaluation of remaining risks, which is required after defining possible protective measures, can however be supported by subsequently asking whether the potential harm outweighs the potential benefit of the research. When balancing the pros and cons, you have to take into account: the amount of the potential damage, the likelihood of the damage occurring, whether the research results can immediately be used for harmful purposes or if complicated processes are required before they can be implemented, and whether the use of the results is controllable. The identity of the research cooperation partner, contracting body, user or funder, may also influence any final decisions. If other bodies without security standards or with malevolent intentions are suspected to be interested in carrying out a certain research project that could be misused, it would be acceptable to conduct the research project independently without their participation in order to avoid such danger or to minimise potential harm.

6. Documentation and communication of risks

If there are potential risks to human dignity, for the life or health of humans, for the environment and for other important goods that are protected by constitutional law, our researchers have to document and weigh the pros and cons of these risks well as the measures taken to minimise these risks before and during the project. In the case of projects with such risks, we ask our researchers to present their documentation before beginning the project to the Commission for Responsibility in Research or the Vice Rector for Research. Research applications to the University of Konstanz and other funding institutions should include references to the potential risks involved and the measures to minimise them. The envisaged measures should be described. The planned measures should be described.

7. Training and education

The University of Konstanz should communicate the basic principles of, and set the example for, how to responsibly handle research risks in the context of working groups and during the training of young researchers. Training should include the specific rules for risk-minimization used in the relevant research area. Our researchers should also encourage and spread awareness for these questions and concerns if and when they give lectures at other universities or institutions. It is a good idea for students at various levels of study to seriously address the relevant ethical questions surrounding research. This could be carried out by promoting appropriate courses or by encouraging mentors to address these issues with their doctoral students.

D. Organisational rules

1. Responsible persons

Initially, the researcher responsible for the project has the duty to assess whether the planned research complies with legal regulations, self-regulation measures and ethical principles. The respective superior person is responsible for activities that are subject to their directives. They are also obliged to inform their colleagues, the doctoral students they supervise, and student assistants at the time of their application, or at the latest at the start of their assigned activities, about any existing research risks and the individual ethical responsibilities involved.

The participating researchers should first report any committed or potential legal violations, or any ethical concerns to the responsible researcher, and if necessary, also to the head of an institution, the head of a department, and in special cases the Vice Rector for Research without suffering any consequences or disadvantages.

The principles stated above apply accordingly when researchers evaluate other researchers' projects as reviewers. In such positions they should see to it that the publication of research results and the policies of the publishers they support are compatible with our principles.

Every member of the University of Konstanz working in research can contact our Division of Legal Affairs in case of questions on legal limits to research, and our Commission for Responsibility in Research in case of questions on ethical limitations. They can also contact the ombudsperson in these matters. We have established rules to protect whistle-blowers.

If research violates legally binding regulations, the Rectorate will take the necessary steps.

2. Ombudsperson

The Senate appoints an ombudsperson. The ombudsperson advises persons who expect certain risks in specific research projects.

3. Commission for Responsibility in Research

To consult on matters relating to these rules, a Commission for Responsibility in Research will be set up. This commission provides advice on research ethics, mediates between researchers in case of differences of opinion and can give recommendations on how to carry out research projects. The commission will try to reach a consensus in conflict situations. They may carry out a mediation procedure to this purpose with the assistance of third parties, if necessary.

The commission has six members,

including one lecturer from each faculty, an academic staff member, a student and the ombudsperson in his or her advisory capacity.

The Senate appoints the members of the commission based on the proposals of the deans or the Senate representatives of the corresponding group. An alternate representative will also be appointed for each member. The term of office is two years, while that of the student member is one year. In the individual research project evaluation processes, the dean of the corresponding faculty will also be a member of the commission. In justified cases the commission may also decide to include a representative of the non-academic staff as well as subject experts.

The commission may invite (non-voting) experts to join their consultations. If a matter needs to be clarified, the commission may demand information and interview suitably informed individuals in person or in writing.

If a matter needs to be clarified, the commission may demand information and interview suitably informed individuals in person or in writing. If there are doubts whether a research project is compliant with these ethical guidelines, the Rectorate may also refer the matter to the commission. The same applies to every researcher, staff member, doctoral candidate and student of the University of Konstanz, as well as external cooperation partners, if they have a justified interest in the matter. In the case of anonymous informants, the commission decides whether to initiate an investigation procedure.

Each of the responsible researchers must be immediately informed about doubts concerning the compliance of their research with the rules contained here, and they must be heard by the commission. They have the right to deliver a written or oral statement as well as the appropriate records in so far as they are needed for the statement. The commission must inform the relevant researchers about important steps in the investigation procedure. They may participate in hearings and interviews. They must be informed immediately about the commission’s final recommendations, and the reasoning behind them, through the commission’s written statement.

A recommendation on compliance or non-compliance of research with these rules has to be approved by the majority of commission members. In case of a tied vote, the chairperson casts the tie-breaking vote. The same applies if the commission gives recommendations on how to carry out a research project or when it recommends to not to have it carried out at all. In the event of this happening, each member is entitled to give a dissenting opinion.

The commission can formulate its decision in the form of a written statement (including email) if the rapporteur recommends that it be done so and the person(s) concerned previously had the opportunity to respond to the recommendation made by the rapporteur.

The Senate will determine the rules of procedure for the commission within the framework of these regulations.

The commission prepares an annual report for the Senate.

The text is based on the Max Planck Society's "Information and Rules on the Responsible Use of Scientific Freedom and dealing with Scientific Risk” published on 19 March 2010.