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1. Introduction

The biosecurity space has promising technical interventions, such as UV-C and metagenomic sequencing. Often, students in college and community-builders are interested in biosecurity, but don’t have an in-depth understanding of the solutions. This is concerning for 3 central reasons:

  1. Poor explanations are presented for biosecurity solutions, and may contain inaccuracies
    1. The reputation of the biosecurity community is damaged
    2. Public perception of biosecurity interventions will be off the mark relative to the intervention’s true effectiveness (e.g. “far UVC will end pandemics by 2025”)
    3. As a consequence, people are turned away from biosecurity
  2. Promising people transition to other fields of work
    1. When someone doesn’t understand the specifics, it’s highly unlikely that they’ll pursue direct work, e.g. building a startup for that technology
    2. Instead, they’ll likely transition to community-building or traditional career paths
  3. Biosecurity culture becomes diluted and can’t attract technically bright researchers or entrepreneurs
    1. Competence is magnetic, and promoting a culture of technical learning and deep dives is crucial to doing impactful work in a domain as challenging as biosecurity

A technical biosecurity program can serve as a way for students to become much more knowledgeable about biosecurity solutions.

2. Context

There have been biosecurity discussion groups run in the past, but most of these groups focus on the top-of-the-funnel content—the introductory information and context that helps to form a foundation. To our knowledge, there doesn’t yet exist a deep dive group, one that specifically aims to equip students with technical understanding of various biosecurity interventions. 

When it comes to precedent, there have been similar discussion and research mentorship programs in the field of AI alignment, including AGISFSERI MATSMLSS, and the CERI Fellowship for biosecurity, nuclear risk, climate change, and AI safety. These programs have been largely successful, providing hundreds of students with hands-on technical experience or in-depth discussions about particular domains of AI safety.

3. Program

About

Our proposal is to establish an online 8-week-long technical deep dive group. This group will explore many crucial aspects of technical biosecurity interventions while ensuring that we maintain an emphasis on defensive interventions. Examples of session topics include far-UVC, SotA for PPE, and the NAO (syllabus). The program will culminate in a research presentation for a chosen aspect of related topics and interventions (more details here). Each group will meet once per week and will have ~5 people. The expected weekly time commitment is 2-3 hours.

There will be a virtual and in-person pilot of this program. Everyone is eligible to apply for the virtual program. The in-person program seminar group will be held at Stanford, though depending on demand we may also run an in-person group at Berkeley.

There are a few reasons for running a primarily virtual program:

  1. It’s important to have an experienced biosecurity person facilitating, which usually limits these interactions to virtual
  2. Virtual programs are much more scalable and flexible
  3. It’s easier to reach a critical mass of students

If you would like to join, please feel free to apply! The application deadline is Friday, Jan 20th, and the program is expected to start in 2-3 weeks. We expect to start by running a few groups in parallel at different times during the week to accommodate those in different time zones. 

Syllabus

This is the syllabus with the content we will be covering. There will also be an optional research poster to be submitted 2 weeks after the end of the course. The best 2-3 research presentations will be awarded a prize of $500 (further details).

Goals

Our goal is to introduce early-career individuals to various technical interventions within the field of biosecurity, and explore the existing literature in depth through groups. We think that many of these interventions have the potential to reduce global catastrophic biorisk by a considerable amount and that the biosecurity community is uniquely positioned to develop these interventions. Ultimately, the hope is that better understanding of these topics will lead to improved solutions communication, focused research, and ambitious projects (and companies!) that aim to bring promising biosecurity interventions to the public.

Eligibility

Because the group will be covering technical content in the field of biology, it’s expected that students applying have at least a foundational understanding of undergraduate biology (e.g. immunology, microbiology, molecular biology, cell signaling, basic lab techniques). There are no geographical or age requirements, given that we will be running the program virtually as well as in-person.

4. Further considerations

Funding

We estimate most of the explicit costs of a virtual program like this to be organizer time. In future iterations, if the program is run in-person on several campuses, costs might include:

  • Textbooks for additional learning
  • Snacks/drinks for seminar sessions
  • Reimbursements for speaker time/travel
  • Stipends for student time and work
  • Organizer/facilitator pay
  • End of program dinner

These costs certainly add up over time (although these numbers are still well within the range of standard Long-Term Future Fund grants). And if this deep dive group is able to provide a solid foundation for even a few students to counterfactually pursue technical biosecurity work, then the impact generated would amount to potentially thousands of lives saved.

Attention and info hazards

Each group will be facilitated by an experienced biosecurity researcher, in order to make sure that the conversations stay on topic and don’t veer off into the weeds. Additionally, all of the content that will be covered will be defensive in nature, and the science is readily accessible through a quick Google Search. The main function of this group isn’t to introduce new interventions, but rather to improve understanding of the biology and physics behind these interventions.

5. Conclusion

This is one of the programs that we’ll be running as part of the SERI Biosecurity Initiative, which aims to drastically improve pandemic preparedness for billions globally in the decades to come. This post lays out our vision for high-quality discussions around biosecurity solutions. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach out at james.218.lin@gmail.com or vwarlop@stanford.edu!

Many thanks to Aman Patel, Sofya Lebedeva, Chris Bakerlee, Dewi Erwan, and many others for their valuable feedback on initial drafts of this program!

Comments11
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:04 PM

Thanks for this, looks great! FYI your current form doesn't allow a free-text answer to the question "What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?" - it's just a single multiple choice option answer key. 
 

Confirming this issue

Hey Ben, thank you for noticing this. The issue has been fixed now!

This looks very promising, thanks for setting it up!

it’s expected that students applying have at least a foundational understanding of undergraduate biology (e.g. immunology, microbiology, molecular biology, cell signaling, basic lab techniques)

For those without an undergraduate background in biology,  are there any recommended readings that cover this foundational knowledge? e.g. the GCBR reading list by Greg Lewis has a section on basic science, is it sufficient?

This reading list is excellent and is certainly sufficient to participate in the course!

Very exciting, looking forward to seeing this happen!

Happy you guys set this up. Apart from the undergraduate biology prereq, curious if it’s recommended one complete the original GCBR curriculum first before joining or not necessarily?

It certainly helps, and we would recommend taking a look through the intro GCBR curriculum. At the same time, the pathway for some biosecurity researchers goes from technical research -> learning about the overview of biosecurity.

In short, these two programs are fairly complementary, and order probably doesn't matter as much as focus/curiosity.

Hello! I couldn't join for the original program, will you run it again? I would be very happy to join, if so.

Thanks for making this possible!

Will add this opportunity to the EA Opportunity board!

Lovely! Thank you for the initiative.

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