Export control and dual-use for academia

Research activities need to comply with the provisions of export control and dual-use. Researchers must not only consider sanctions and embargos – with an intended worldwide enforceability – but must also review law requirements when exporting certain products, technology or knowledge. Especially export control with respect to exports into non-EU Member States have become an integral part of international scientific cooperation.

test tubes

© unsplash/National Cancer Institute

“Science is not grown up until it takes responsibility for its consequences.”

Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker

What is export control in the context of research?

Export control regulates the export of goods, software, technology and even knowledge. Although the movement of goods, services and payments is basically free, there are prohibitions and restrictions that are supposed to serve the protection of all our security and the fight against international terrorism. For academia and research organisations export control regulations are becoming increasingly important within international cooperation. The responsibility for compliance with the regulations lies with the exporter.

What is the purpose of export control and how can it be achieved?

The purpose of export control is to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the uncontrolled transfer of conventional military equipment. At the same time, sensitive goods are to be prevented from being used for internal repression or other serious human rights violations or from being supplied or otherwise made available abroad for the promotion of terrorism.

This also includes goods that are usually used for civilian purposes but can also be used in the military sector. The latter are referred to as dual-use goods. Since they are predominantly used for civilian purposes, their potential for misuse is often not apparent at first glance.

Export control processes are country specific

Export Control and Academia Handbook (German Federal Office for Economic Affairs and Export Control (BAFA), Germany)

Every country has its own export control rules and processes. Export control in research organisations and universities is a specific challenge, especially for the scientists. In Germany a good best practice example is the Export Control and Academia Handbook (2nd edition) of the German Federal Office for Economic Affairs and Export Control (BAFA). It is primarily aimed at the science and research sector, their representatives and employees, but also scientists as private individuals. Universities and research institutions are to be made aware of the objectives of export control and supported in the application of foreign trade law.
The handbook consists of different modules which provide detailed information like licensing requirements and prohibitions, procedural facilitations, listed goods, exceptions for fundamental research, responsibilities for export control, and the Internal Compliance Programme.

Read more:

BAFA – Academia – Handbuch Exportkontrolle und Academia (2. Auflage, 2022) (Available only in German)

Export Control in Science & Research (version 2019 in English)


Guidance “Export controls applying to academic research“ (Export Control Joint Unit, Department for International Trade, and Department for Business and Trade, United Kingdom) 

Another example for export control specific for academia is the Guidance “Export controls applying to academic research“ from the Export Control Joint Unit, Department for International Trade, and Department for Business and Trade of the United Kingdom. The Export Control Joint Unit (ECJU) administers the UK’s system of export controls and licensing for military and dual-use items.

Read more:

Export controls applying to academic research – GOV.UK (2021)

Export Control Joint Unit

Export goods from the UK: step by step – GOV.UK


Recommendation on dual-use items (European Commission)

At the end of 2021, the European Commission published a recommendation on internal compliance programmes for controls of research involving dual-use items under Regulation (EU) 2021/821 of the European Parliament and of the Council setting up a Union regime for the control of exports, brokering, technical assistance, transit and transfer of dual-use items. The recommendations are a uniform, legally non-binding guide for the a standardised, non-legally binding EU guide for the science and research sector.

Read more:

EUR-Lex – 32021H1700 – EN – EUR-Lex (europa.eu)

COMMISSION RECOMMENDATION (EU) 2021/1700 of 15 September 2021 (english version)

What challenges exist for science and research?

A significant challenge for science and research within the area of export control is to assess the risk of dual-use or dual-use research of concern. Dual-use describes the principle usability of technologies or goods for civilian as well as military purposes. It has become very challenging to balance our perception what might be a dual-use risk and what might be not. In some cases it almost impossible to exclude a dual-use risk. In almost every discipline security-relevant research risks might occur.

WHO definition of dual-use research of concern”

The World Health Organization defines dual-use research of concern (DURC) as “research that is intended to provide a clear benefit, but which could easily be misapplied to do harm. It usually refers to work in the life sciences, but the principles are also applicable to other fields including engineering and information technology. It encompasses everything from information to specific products that have the potential to create negative consequences for health and safety, agriculture, the environment or national security.

The possibility that research might be misused, either intentionally or accidentally, is a long-standing concern of science. It can have implications in ethics and wider societal issues, and involves not only research communities and public health, but also donors, scientific publishing and public communication.“ (WHO, 13 December 2020)

Read more:

What is dual-use research of concern? (who.int)

The Joint Committee on the Handling of Security-Relevant Research (Germany)

It is not trivial for scientists to judge if their research can be misused and could be security-relevant. Ethical commissions should give advice in order to evaluate the potential risks. In Germany, The Joint Committee on the Handling of Security-Relevant Research is a body established by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) and the Leopoldina to raise awareness of the dual-use of research results, the responsible handling of security-relevant research, and the self-regulation of the sciences in this regard in the long term. The committee supports the implementation of the corresponding recommendations of the DFG and Leopoldina on “Scientific Freedom and Scientific Responsibility”. This includes in particular the establishment and work of local Committees for Ethics in Security-Relevant Research at German research institutions. DFG and Leopoldina call on researchers not to be content with complying with the legal regulations only. They have a special ethical responsibility due to their constitutionally guaranteed freedom, their knowledge and experience, they have a special ethical responsibility that goes beyond legal obligations. The research institutions must create the framework conditions for ethically responsible research for their respective fields. (Gemeinsamer Ausschuss zum Umgang mit sicherheitsrelevanter Forschung von DFG und Leopoldina: “Tätigkeitsbericht 2022”, p.13)

Read more:



Horizon Europe: Guide on “Ethics self-assessment”

In the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation “Horizon Europe” an ethical self-evaluation with regard to possible risks of misuse of the research project for endangering humans, animals and the environment is obligatory. The associated guidelines also recommend the establishment of advisory bodies for related ethical issues.

Read more:

EU Grants – How to complete your ethics self-assessment, Version 2.0, 13 July 2021