Talking With a Biosecurity Professional (Quick Notes)

by AllAmericanBreakfast2 min read10th Apr 2021No comments

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BiosecurityCareer choiceExistential risk
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Today I had a 45 minute conversation with a worker at a biosecurity organization. Since I didn't get their consent to publish notes, I'll keep their name and organization anonymous. Any mistakes are mine. Here's what I learned:

  • As stated on 80,000 Hours, the field is small in human numbers but now has lots of funding through OpenPhil.
  • The field will change and grow over the next few years. There will be plenty of opportunity to get involved. You don't need to laser-target the field to assist in the work.
  • A lot of the information about the field is not published. You have to learn about it through conversations with the people working in it. A good way to do this is just to cold email people and arrange lots of Zoom conversations. Read their publications to get a sense of what their previous projects are, have some good questions to ask, and build up relationships over time.
  • There may be a commission of some sort to investigate the early US COVID-19 pandemic response.
  • A lot of public health/biosecurity professionals are pretty burned out, due to getting protested outside their houses, doxxed, and otherwise attacked during the pandemic.
  • If you're venturing into grad school, it's much better to get a degree in an established field, rather than trying to get a PhD in something like biodefense. Get a degree that everybody understands, then find ways to apply it to biodefense as your interest in the field matures.
  • If you have a social media presence, it's best to keep it focused on your skillset and show up in a scientific capacity in your public-facing persona. However, everybody in the field has the normal strong feelings about politics and personal areas of interest beyond science/biosecurity, and you don't need to be some sort of perfect diplomat to participate in the work. Many diplomats are quite undiplomatic in the way they present in their personal conversations.
  • Working in the field, you don't get a tight feedback loop on what sorts of interventions produce meaningful results. Instead, you think of yourself as a gardener, planting seeds of ideas all over the place and trusting that they'll sprout somewhere. The person I spoke with told an anecdote that a major US politician, with whose politics they strongly disagreed, discovered an idea that they'd shared on the radio and adopted it as his own. He didn't really give the biosecurity worker due credit, but made it appear as his own idea. Nevertheless, the biosecurity worker's colleagues recognized its origin. This is what a win looks like in the field.
  • There is room for many skillsets in the field of biosecurity, and the field will expand, with new biosecurity issues coming to the foreground over time. Outsiders can explore the intersection of their own specialty with biosecurity, and work with established organizations in the field to get assistance in the biosecurity issues. Likewise, established biosecurity organizations look for outside expertise in their own projects. There is not as much of a traditional peer review process, but they try to put together an informal peer review process in this manner.
  • There is full-time work available in the field, and newcomers with good organizational skills, smarts, and a good work ethic are welcome.

Hope this information is helpful to someone.

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