Research and the law: What does science have to do with export controls? Free University of Berlin

What is the university’s relationship with foreign trade? Answer: More than you might initially think. After all, science produces and exchanges: knowledge, research results, and products. Researchers exchange scientific materials, techniques, and equipment with each other internationally, work together in laboratories and societies, and use software and data together. This is done in the interest of science and in the interest of academic freedom. But where are the limits? How can academic freedom be protected? Who is responsible when research is misused or manipulated? Professor Benedikt Kaover, a virologist in the Department of Veterinary Medicine at Freie Universität Berlin, is the Vice-Chair of the Ethics Committee in Security Related Research, KEF for short, which is currently being established jointly with Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin and Freie Universität Berlin. Veterinarian and Doctor of Laws Andreas Schuberth, Head of the Legal Office at Freie University, explains the dimensions of the subject of export controls at the Free University of Berlin.

Professor Cover, Mr. Schuberth, what is the “Export Watch and Academia” media event on May 11th?
Schubert: The aim of the event was to be an introduction and to educate all university employees on the subject of export controls. Most members of the universities will likely not have dealt with foreign trade and export controls.

This leads us to the question: What do Freie Universität and its employees have to do with foreign trade and export controls?
Schuberth: Freie Universität Berlin is an international networked university and maintains connections all over the world. For example, if the virus strains developed in the Department of Veterinary Medicine are sent abroad, the university participates in foreign trade. Or: We welcome researchers and educators from all over the world to our campus who have access to our laboratories and knowledge. If the research conducted there is related to security, it can be subject to the export control regime. Even if the search results can only be used in two ways, i.e. civilly and at least at least militarily, and in an aggressive manner, such as certain chemicals, machinery, technologies and materials, but particularly software, this may be appropriate under the Export Control Act.

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Kaover: That’s one side. On the other hand, there is academic freedom: because in order to make progress as a human race, researchers have to share their knowledge. If there is no connection, the search output will be lost. Knowledge sharing is a very important aspect.

Schubert: It’s a good trade-off between science and law. Export controls should not prevent search. However, it is important to ensure that research moves within the legal system and cannot be misused by third parties for non-peaceful purposes. The Committee on Ethics in Research Related to Security, chaired by Benedict Kaover, also deals with this area of ​​tension.

Andrew ShuberthPhoto: Bernd Wannemacher

What exactly is KEF’s mission?
Kaover: The KEF is made up of twelve members from various disciplines and institutions, headed by Professor Suzanne Michel of Charité. We support researchers in an advisory capacity and can examine what is ethically justified in sub-legal research. We advise. Because legal experts cannot always judge whether a research object on a particular topic is closely related to security or not. Basically, whatever has already been posted is no longer subject to export controls. The same applies to basic research. However, in these areas, there is a dimension of scientific ethics: for example, should the source code of a strongly usable software tool be made publicly available? This is exactly what KEF has to deal with as well.

Are there items at Freie Universität that could be specifically linked to export controls?
Schubert: Veterinary medicine has already been mentioned, and the same is true for the fields of biology, chemistry, and pharmacology. Then mathematics and computer science: AI tools can be used in two ways: as a face-recognition program — or to equip armed drones that are supposed to recognize specific people. Or take the Earth sciences department: If the hardware developed there is delivered to NASA and sent to the Moon, that applies to export law. Another example: the laser developed and shipped in the physics department.

What other organizations or persons at Freie Universität have to deal with export controls?
Schubert: The HR department when hiring employees and approving business trips abroad, when it comes to who’s going to which country and with what technology. Post Office when it comes to sending devices to overseas research partners. Central purchasing, when it comes to the purchase of scientific goods from abroad and the flow of funds to companies suspected of under the Export Control Act, for example from Iran, Sudan, Cuba, Russia, China or North Korea. International and Research Departments in relation to guest researchers on our campus.

Who at Freie Universität is responsible for compliance with foreign trade regulations?
Schubert: The advisor is responsible for the organization. This is supported by the legal office. However, the subject matter is a cross-cutting issue and runs across the entire university – researchers and staff in management can be affected. This is why it is so important that everyone is informed. It is envisaged that in the medium term, contactable persons will be named in the administrative departments and organizations who can be contacted if there are questions.

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