Will splashy philanthropy cause the biosecurity field to focus on the wrong risks?

by tessa1 min read30th Apr 201910 comments

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Talking to biosecurity researchers has made me significantly update as to how much a single funder (in this case Open Phil) can influence the direction and focus of a research field. How much should we expect this to be a bad thing?

The link is for an article by Filippa Lenzos (a well-established biosecurity researcher at King's College London) that is skeptical of Open Phil's impacts. It doesn't outline a lot of concrete negatives, but says:

Heavy investments in one area of biosecurity risks may irreversibly transform the field’s collective thinking, scope of inquiry, and policy responses... The speed with which Open Phil has emerged as a significant power-player in international biosecurity policy has, by and large, outrun academic scrutiny of its impacts.

This makes me wonder if it would be valuable for Open Phil to fund some outside analysis of their current and expected impact in biosecurity. In general, people established in a field offering critiques of new EA/philanthropic entrants seems like a very useful thing.

I would break down Dr. Lenzos' concerns (and underlying assumptions) as:

  • Open Phil is funding a narrow set of concerns (GCBRs), causing many researchers to redirect their focus to those concerns (and a diversity of perspectives and research focuses is good for the field)
  • Open Phil is offering large grants to a few carefully-selected parties, giving them outsize impact (and a diversity of perspectives and research focuses is good the the field)
  • Open Phil is a large actor entering the international bio/health security space that is not accountable to state governments (who are at least nominally accountable to their citizens) (and independence of international organizations (like the BWC and WHO) from concerns other than those of state governments is important)
  • Open Phil has become able to influence biosecurity research and policy more quickly than people have been able to produce analysis of their priorities (and it's doubtful that analysis would show that Open Phil's priorities are a good overall focus for biosecurity research and policy)

I'd have liked to see more argument in favour of those assumptions, but I suspect Dr. Lenzos' goal may just be to establish common knowledge that it's possible to criticize Open Phil without negative repercussions.

I'd be interested in what people on this forum think:

  • Does the critique seem reasonable?
  • How important is a diversity of research focuses in biosecurity? What might be lost by directing more attention to GCBRs?
  • Is it important for international organizations to be accountable to state governments? Should the bioweapons convention accept philanthropic donations to cover its implementation costs?
  • Should we generally be skeptical of large funders (such as Open Phil) steering the direction of an already-established research field?
  • Should EAs interested in biosecurity take any different actions as a result of this article?
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Note that Lentzos has also been critical of Bill Gates for drawing attention to the risk of terrorists using bioweapons. She thinks that terrorists are unlikely to deploy powerful bioweapons (because they won't have the capabilities and because they won't have the motivation) and by talking about bioterrorists, Gates might draw attention away from state actors. https://thebulletin.org/2017/07/ignore-bill-gates-where-bioweapons-focus-really-belongs/

She's written more about why she thinks concern about terrorists using synthetic biology to create WMDs are based on myths. Her main points of disagreement with what she calls the dominant narrative:

1. Synthetic biology is not easy.

2. Do-it-yourself biology is not particularly sophisticated. 

3. Building a dangerous virus from scratch is hard. 

4. Even experts have a hard time enhancing disease pathogens.

5. Terrorists aren't interested in making WMD bioweapons.

6. There are serious technical and logistical barriers to creating a bioweapon that's a WMD.

https://thebulletin.org/2014/09/the-myths-and-realities-of-synthetic-bioweapons/

Just to note that there's been some discussion on this on Facebook: https://m.facebook.com/groups/437177563005273?view=permalink&id=2251872561535755

Really interesting read, a few thoughts below. Only skim read article so mostly responding to your prompts. I should also note I advise philanthropists for a living and so am inherently biased!

  • I’ve found Open Phil’s reasoning to be rigorous and thorough, far more so than virtually all of their peers. I also have deep intellectual trust for, so far without exception, everyone I’ve met that works there.

  • from a skim read the OPs arguments feel pretty zero sum. Perhaps the argument should instead be “should open Phil also fund non-GCBR bio work as well”.

  • It doesn’t seem even handed to both portray these researchers as easily swayed by flashy deep pocketed philanthropists as well as lamenting the loss of highly intelligent research talent. If they’re highly intelligent and also updated their actions based on open phils reasoning (albeit also including cash), the OP should probably be humble themselves about the likelihood of being right.

  • the OP seems to present philanthropy as this potentially negative steering force. Even if the field is zero sum (gov funds less as a result / too little talent to use extra funds wel), are we to believe that altnerate funding sources apply no directional pressure?

  • whilst voting keeps governments relatively aligned with the populace’s needs, it has only a small alignment with global needs and global public goods. The short time frame (4 years) also seems to result in shorter-term thinking. Future generations can’t vote. Philanthropy seems uniquely well positioned to be reasoning and funding in areas poorly tended to by the democratic system and markets.

  • a bunch of the arguments wouldn’t seem intuitive if re-applied to other more familiar causes like climate change or global poverty, reasons for difference should be highlighted and then the extent of the OPs arguments capped respectively.

What do you mean by zero-sum in this case?

OP = original poster?

Perhaps this is why Open Phil are called Open Phil and not OP...

This seems like a reasonable piece to me, laying out the basic groundwork for more future scrutiny on philanthropy's impact on the biosecurity field, but not more than that. ('Establishing common knowledge' seems like a good summary to me.)

A large influx of money can significantly change a field, and generally speaking, it is much harder for sudden big changes to improve the state of affairs than to make them worse. That said, sudden large changes, even if net positive overall, will often have some negative side effects, and I would expect more money for a 'do good-ing' field to lead to more good overall.

Something that might be interesting to see would be a survey of top people in the biosecurity field how this has changed their field and whether they view this change as positive. Generally speaking, I would expect them to have a much better grasp of empirical prioritisation questions in biosecurity than a few people at a large foundation, no matter how careful they are and how much work they put in. The more work large foundations put into being in touch with people in the field, the less concerned one needs to be I think.

Similar criticisms also exist in other fields, e.g. about the Gates foundation drowning out primary health care work by focusing on vaccinations and specific diseases and inadvertently causing some harm this way. I have not investigated the merits of this criticism, but it seems like a worthwhile thing to do.

Talking to biosecurity researchers has made me significantly update as to how much a single funder (in this case Open Phil) can influence the direction and focus of a research field.

I'm assuming you mean here that you updated towards the view that a single funder can quite strongly influence the direction and focus of a research field - is that right? What, generally, did you learn from these conversations and how do they compare to Lentzos' view?

Yes, I have updated towards the view that a single funder can strongly influence the direction and focus of a research field.

I notice I feel reluctant to give any detailed description of what I learned in those conversations in this entirely public forum; I'd like people to feel as if they can share their opinions with me without those later being broadcast.

My broad, stitched-together impression (which could be as much my interpretation as the opinion of those I spoke to) is that people are excited about the emergence of a major new funder, but leery of the sudden change in what research is most easily able to get funded. In addition to bringing new people into the field, Open Phil granting has redirected some established researchers to focus on GCBRs, and I think there is a view that GCBRs are a valid concern, but not so singularly important that they should overwhelm other research agendas.

What are some reasons people think GCBRs deserve less attention (relative to how Open Phil prioritizes this work)?

I'd be interest to learn more about reasons beyond "a diversity of perspectives and research focuses is good for the field", or background on why diversifying outside of GCR might be really important for biosecurity in particular. (E.g., "demanding that biosecurity researchers demonstrate relevance to GCBR is likely to stunt more basic or early-stage research that's also critical for GCBR, but at a greater temporal and causal remove"; or "GCBR is a bad way of thinking about the relationship between GCR and biosecurity, because the main GCR risks in this context are second-order effects from smaller-scale biosecurity incidents rather than e.g. global pandemics".)

The main object-level argument in Lenzos' article seems to be that GCBR is "extremely unlikely":

Biosecurity covers a spectrum of risks, ranging from naturally occurring disease, through unintended consequences of research, lab accidents, negligence, and reckless behavior, to deliberate misuse of pathogens or technology by state and non-state actors. The scenarios all have different likelihoods of playing out—and risks with potential catastrophic consequences on a global scale are among the least likely. But Open Phil dollars are flooding into biosecurity and are absorbing much of the field’s experienced research capacity, focusing the attention of experts on this narrow, extremely unlikely, aspect of biosecurity risk.

If this argument can be made in a compelling way from a perspective that's longtermist and focused on EV, I'd be really interested to learn more about it.

Lentzos has written about elsewhere about why she thinks terrorists using synthetic bioweapons is so unlikely. I quickly summarised in this comment: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/Kkw8uDwGuNnBhiYHi/will-splashy-philanthropy-cause-the-biosecurity-field-to#QupzPSJLmjoF2A4pN