Correspondence

Nature 424, 369 (24 July 2003) | doi:10.1038/424369a

Military-funded research is not unethical

Daniel S. Rizzuto1, Boris Breznen1 & Bradley Greger1

  1. California Institute of Technology Division of Biology, MC 216-76, Pasadena, California 91125, USA
    Although none of the authors is currently a direct recipient of DARPA grants, each has used DARPA funds in the past.

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The key is to ensure that it is the military rather than the scientists who are regulated.

Sir

Of particular interest in your News Feature "Remote control" on the state of neuroengineering research (Nature 423, 796–798; 2003) is the discussion of the ethical issues and views attributed to Professor Martha Farah, that any researcher who accepts funding from the US Department of Defense without agreeing with the goals of the programme compromises his or her ethics.

First, the goal of the programme (http://www.darpa.mil/dso/thrust/biosci/bim.htm) is the development of new computational and microsystem tools to study biological systems. It is hard to see how these goals pose ethical problems for researchers. However, looking beyond the officially stated goals of the programme to the broader issue of military funding, your News Feature says that some scientists feel using money from the military is ethically problematic. This view ignores the historical and social context of military research. If having a well-regulated US military is both necessary and ethically sound, given the current state of the world, then there is no reason to believe that supporting this capacity in the form of basic research poses an ethical dilemma. The key is to ensure that it is the military who remain 'well-regulated' rather than the basic scientists.

The main argument against these ethical concerns, however, is the nature of knowledge itself, which has neither good nor evil attributes. Currently, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is funding basic-science researchers in a non-classified capacity precisely because the principles on which a robust neural-control signal might be based are not yet known. Only the real-world application of such natural principles, once discovered, will enable good or evil to occur. In the case of neuroengineering research, the knowledge being generated clearly has the potential for a large positive impact on society. Decoding neural-control signals from paralysed or locked-in patients could allow them to regain physical function or the ability to communicate.

Many technologies funded by the US military have led to positive and even revolutionary changes in society. As a case in point, the Internet was originally conceived and funded by the previous incarnation of DARPA. The immense positive social impact of the Internet makes it clear that the presence of DARPA funding does not necessarily provide an accurate indication of how technology created from basic research will be used, and as such, has no relevance to ethical debate. The neuroengineering community serves the best interests of society quite well and we encourage a thorough and open debate of the applications built upon neuroengineering research.