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

by tessa 7mo30th Apr 20191 min read10 comments


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?