Dual use in biology and biomedicine

Background Paper

Published 01/11/2015

The author was commissioned by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics to write this paper in order to inform the Council’s discussions about possible future work on this topic. The paper is intended to provide an overview of key clinical, ethical, social, legal and policy issues, but is not intended to offer any conclusions or recommendations regarding future policy and practice. Any views expressed in the paper are the author’s own and not those of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.


Dr Filippa Lentzos, Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine, King’s College London

The ‘dual use’ concept

In the field of arms control and disarmament, ‘dual use’ refers to technologies intended for civilian application that can also be used for military purposes.

The international treaty banning biological weapons, the Biological Weapons Convention, prohibits the development, production and stockpiling of biological weapons, but does not prevent states conducting research activities for peaceful and defensive purposes. However, distinguishing between permitted and prohibited activities is difficult at the level of basic biological research where the same techniques used to gain insight and understanding about fundamental life processes for the benefit of human health and welfare may also be used for the development of biological warfare agents.

There are four frequently cited trends in biology that are complicating this so-called ‘dual use dilemma:

  • The increasing pace of change in the life science and related fields.
  • The increasing convergence of biology and biomedicine with mathematics, engineering, chemistry, computer science and information theory.
  • The increasing diffusion of capacity in biology and biomedicine around the world, particularly in emerging economies such as China and India, and increasing collaborations not only among researchers in scientifically developed countries and between researchers in developed and developing countries, but among regional networks and increasingly among scientists within developing countries.
  • The increasing opening up of science with new tools like wikis, blogs and microblogs altering how information is gathered, handled, disseminated and accessed; and amateur communities, scientific outreach and educational toys increasing access to hardware for wetwork in the life sciences