TL;DR: Expertise in engineering physical systems is critically needed for some of the most important and neglected biosecurity interventions, including improved PPE and designing pandemic-safe buildings. If you have that expertise and are interested in getting involved, you should contact me.
Disclaimer: All uses of "engineering" in this post refer to the engineering of physical systems (e.g. materials engineering or civil engineering). Sorry, software engineers.
Historically, the EA-adjacent biosecurity space has been dominated by people with backgrounds in biology, epidemiology, medicine, and public policy. Most of the junior people thinking about working on biosecurity also have these backgrounds. These seem to be the people who the EA community thinks of as having something to contribute to biosecurity.
This makes sense: the creation of biological threats is a political & social problem, and the threats themselves are, well, biological, so people with expertise in biology & medicine seem well-equipped to think about countermeasures. All of these areas of expertise will be needed to tackle the biosecurity threat.
However, many of the most important interventions for reducing catastrophic biological risk are neither biological nor social in nature. Instead, these interventions use physical means to block, capture or destroy pathogens. Such technologies are much more threat-agnostic than most interventions that rely on biotechnology, providing broad protection while necessitating far less dual-use research and infohazardous threat modelling.
Rather than biologists and policymakers, the people best-equipped to drive these interventions forward are materials scientists, building engineers, and others with strong backgrounds in the applied physical sciences. Unfortunately, people with these backgrounds are currently severely lacking in biosecurity.
There are many ways people with applied physical science expertise could have an impact in biosecurity. I've outlined a few of the most important and/or salient for me below; I'm sure there are others I'm not yet thinking of.
(For more on these and other exciting technological interventions, read Appendix A of The Apollo Program for Biodefense.)
Physical protection against pathogens
As mentioned above, the most important biosecurity interventions engineers could work on are those intended to stop disease causing agents getting into people in the first place. In roughly descending order of importance, these include:
- Improving personal protective equipment (PPE): The design of face masks and other PPE has barely changed for many decades, and still receives relatively little attention. PPE that was highly effective, easy to use, and cheap to distribute would be perhaps the single most transformative technological intervention to overcome biological risks, but is currently laughably neglected.
- Suppressing pathogen spread in the built environment: Indoor spaces are far more dangerous than outdoor spaces for transmitting respiratory infections. While not as general or powerful as improved PPE, interventions to reduce transmission in building could significantly slow the spread of severe biological threats. Proposed interventions in this area include improvements in ventilation, far-UVC irradiation, and upper-room UVGI. However, many of these have significant difficulties to overcome before widespread adoption, and relatively little time and money have gone into either implementing these technologies or identifying promising alternatives.
- Improving biosafety in high-containment labs and clinics: As with PPE for general use, the technologies and systems used to maintain biosafety in high-containment labs and isolation wards are decades old and slow to change. While less important than PPE, improving the other technologies and processes used to contain high-consequence pathogens would help prevent accidental release.
- Suppressing pathogen spread in vehicles: Many of the same principles applied to buildings could also reduce transmission in large vehicles, such as planes and cruise ships. This seems much less important than fortifying buildings against pandemics, but still valuable.
All of these interventions share the properties of being very general, relatively cheap, and ridiculously neglected compared to fancy biotechnological countermeasures. In general, we as a civilisation have not tried very hard to make these interventions work – but if we did the positive impact could be immense.
Improving technologies underpinning biomonitoring
While I'm most excited about people with engineering backgrounds working on physical protection technologies, many other biosecurity interventions would benefit significantly from more people with engineering expertise, working alongside life scientists to advance safety-promoting technologies.
For example, implementing metagenomic biomonitoring for early detection of outbreaks is going to need significant hardware advances in many domains, including for reliable and effective environmental sampling, easy point-of-care clinical sampling, automated sample processing, and sequencing technology.
Ultimately, much of the life sciences depends on tools that most life scientists neither deeply understand nor know how to build. Insofar as those tools are needed to detect or combat biological threats, we need engineers and other experts to help build them.
How can I get involved?
If you think you might have the skills and motivation to contribute to any of these interventions, I strongly encourage you to contact me, by email or via direct message on this Forum. I'm especially excited to talk to people who could work on PPE and built-environment interventions, and know many others who would be excited to support this kind of work.
If you aren't one of these people, but know someone who might be a good fit, please consider reaching out to that person about getting involved.
The standard caveats about working in biosecurity apply – it's a small field, with lots of frustrating infohazard and dual-use concerns that make working on solutions more difficult than it would otherwise be. That said, it's also a super exciting area to be working in right now.
If you have the right skillset, and you're willing to put in the thought and care necessary to navigate through those minefields, this could easily be the most good you can do.
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