Dr. Heidi Seibold

Research for military / dual use - a dilemma

Published 7 months ago • 3 min read

Can and should we pursue all research? Can and should we stop progress of research that can be used to kill or suppress people? And what is the role of Open Science in all this?

This morning I listened to a podcast episode (11km: Chinas Quantentrumpf .... made in Germany?) that talked about a Chinese quantum physicist, who used to work in Germany and then started to support military work in China. There are strong indications that this work is or will be used to further suppress a Chinese minority.

The podcast asks questions like "Should we support research with German research funds that can be used in this way?" or "What is the responsibility of the German University that hosted this researcher?".

Similar stories and questions come up over and over again. The story behind the development of the atomic bomb, for example, has been in popular awareness recently due to the Oppenheimer movie. I personally had the possibility more than once before to work on research connected to the military (machine learning dual use research and military medicine).

I have always tried to keep my distance to research projects that can be used for hurting people, but it's not as straight forward as you would think. For example, most machine learning methods can be used for various purposes and most can be seen as "dual use". The same holds true for a broad range of biological science research or - as discussed in the podcast - in quantum computing research.

So how do we make decisions? Can we stop research that can hurt or suppress people? My guess is, no. I mean, I can make the decision as a person to not support certain research, but there will be researchers who will choose differently and certain countries or other players will invest money into using the research that we thought harmless for doing harm.

Heidi, why do you write about this in your newsletter about Open Science?, you might ask. Well, I think there is a connection to Open Science here.

Many people argue that keeping research hidden may help preventing unwanted use. But I would actually argue the contrary: If we make our research publicly available, we make it available also for the people, NGOs, and initiatives out there who have no access to large amounts of money to invest in research. These less-funded groups are more often than not the ones who do good with knowledge.

The military in most countries we worry about does not have a funding issue and will find a way to get access to knowledge they desire. Also, if there is a problematic new technology, at least we might all have it at the same time and, because of that, run into a situation where nobody uses it (see e.g. the game theory on mutual assured destruction).

I am going to be honest: writing about this makes me sick. At the same time we cannot avoid talking about these things.

  • Quantum computing can help us fight climate change and at the same time it can help us hack and spy on people.
  • Machine learning can help us understand and cure diseases as well as kill people with "smart" weapons.
  • Biological research can help us develop new treatments as well as new biological weapons.

There is no easy solution and there is no way out of this. I have made my decision: I try to support well intentioned researchers, who aim to do good with their work. With the Open Science mindset, we can support a world that becomes better over time rather than more cruel. No decisions are perfect and all we can do is our best.

I have no clear and easy answers in this post, sorry. But I am looking forward to hearing your opinions and maybe we find a path that works for our understanding of ethical and open research.

All the best,


P.S. If you're enjoying this newsletter, please consider supporting my work by leaving a tip.

Heidi Seibold, MUCBOOK Clubhouse, Elsenheimerstr. 48, Munich, 81375
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Dr. Heidi Seibold

All things open and reproducible data science.

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