The concept in a nutshell
There are currently grassroots movements for activists who want to tackle climate change/animal suffering/etc.
However, despite the current salience and vividness of pandemics, no civil society (or “grassroots”) movement around the importance of future pandemics appears to exist.
This write-up is intended as a request for feedback on an early-stage idea: to spawn such a group. In particular, I’m interested to know:
- Are there any groups already doing this?
- Are there people reading this who would be interested in taking part?
- Are there ways that this group could do harm? (Including surmountable risks (i.e. if the group took care there would be no harm) and insurmountable risks (i.e. this group shouldn’t exist))
This is still at the ideas stage.
What do biosecurity experts think of the idea?
I have had informal discussions with several biosecurity experts, including leaders at organisations funded by Open Philanthropy and other academics.
Several were extremely enthusiastic.
Indeed, to give credit where it’s due, the idea came from one of them, not from me.
People in one organisation were very cautious, with caution around (among other things) attention hazards. I’ve created an appendix around attention hazards and another appendix which lists responses from different biosecurity groups.
How would it actually work?
The concept is new and this is intended more as a consultation than a carefully set out plan.
However inspiration can be drawn from existing organisations.
I have some experience of this sort of volunteering: I have done a small amount of volunteering with Results UK and Amnesty, and have heard about The Humane League’s action parties and Fast Action Network. A typical model for such groups involves volunteers coming to events to hear updates, and then they are given relatively easy-to-implement tasks to express their activism. This could include writing letters (which could be as easy as picking up a pre-written letter, signing your own name at the bottom, and posting it), spreading petitions, talking to local politicians, talking to the press, etc. Results UK appears able to have an impact on policy with a smallish (~100) group of volunteers spread across the UK.
An important task is working out which policy asks to focus on and when and how to ask them. This research work is typically done by staff in existing organisations (like Results UK and Amnesty). The No More Pandemics lobbying group would likely also need this to be done by staff (or possibly by dedicated volunteers at first) as it would involve liaising closely with biosecurity experts.
While I haven’t nailed down a precise picture of what this group would look like, I’m more inclined towards a few hundred citizens writing to their representatives with the support of a small staff team (as opposed to, say, hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets). This is partly because of the concerns about attention hazards (see appendix). It’s also because it’s easier to keep the policy asks sophisticated, which I suspect is what we need.
Note that I have used the term “grassroots” in this write-up. Some people have very specific connotations for this term, but all I have in mind is “anyone other than a biosecurity expert”.
Another note on terminology: if someone creates a bioweapon and the pathogen spreads around the world, I would refer to this as a pandemic (I think some might argue that pandemics are only pandemics if they are natural).
Note that there are campaigning groups who focus on other topics who are drawing on the links between their cause area and pandemics. E.g. campaigners interested in factory farming, climate change, conservation all have some common cause with those worried about pandemics. However their asks are likely to be the asks that are relevant to their cause area, meaning that the policy asks biosecurity experts are interested in would be ignored (see, e.g., the policy asks section below).
More on the Task Y concept can be found here. The purpose of this piece is not to discuss the Task Y concept in any depth, however to the extent that this idea is potentially useful, it may be relevant here. You do not need to understand this in order to appreciate the rest of this post.
Could this project do harm?
My impression is that this project involves risks that could be managed if run carefully. (See appendix on attention hazards)
If this project was arranged in close conversation with experts, it could actually reduce risk, because it may pre-empt the formation of another group (who isn’t in touch with experts).
However part of the aim of writing this post is to explore this question.
What has been done thus far?
What I have done
- Mentioned the idea (briefly) to several biosecurity experts, who were largely positive about it
- To test out the concept, I tried emailing my MP expressing my concerns about future pandemics. I did not request a meeting -- every time I’ve written a letter to my MP in the past it’s never resulted in a meeting, and I didn’t expect one. However in this case the MP asked to meet with me. I understand that he does not grant meetings to anyone who asks, so this initial step seems (thus far) to be yielding positive results. (Although this might just be luck.)
What others have done
- Groups like CSER and FHI in the UK have had significant media coverage (Guardian, Economist, Times) in recent months talking about preventing future risks and future pandemics. The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security has also been frequently in the press, mostly on topics specific to COVID-19, although occasionally also on more general pandemic preparedness. I am not aware of any members of the public taking action as a result of this media work.
I’m focusing here on “grassroots” people (i.e. “ordinary” citizens) asking their governments to keep them safe from future (not current) pandemics. There have also been plenty of interactions between expert groups and governments (e.g. some US groups such as Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and Nuclear Threat Initiative have been speaking to their own government and international governments very intensively).
What would next steps be?
If there are signs that a small group of people are interested in being involved, then it would be worth investigating this further.
I imagine us going back to the biosecurity orgs who are interested and probing further on:
- How exactly do they think that grassroots support would help them
- If they had to choose between spending $100k (or whatever it would cost) on (a) this project, or (b) whichever project is next on their list, would they choose (a) or (b)?
- Which policy areas/asks should be prioritised?
- What are their opinions on attention hazards, and how those should best be mitigated?
Once there has been enough thinking to give us confidence that the benefits outweigh the risks sufficiently, other steps include:
- Liaising with other organisations which are experienced at campaigning to get their help
- Taking some actions (such as writing to MPs/representatives some more)
Why pandemics? (using the I-T-N framework)
Having considered several things under the ITN framework (Importance, Tractability, Neglectedness) I’ve found it to be exceedingly rare that something scores highly under all three criteria. However this appears (perhaps?) to apply for grassroots lobbying on the topic of pandemics.
Tackling pandemic risk is likely to be politically tractable
- Now that the world has experienced COVID-19, everyone understands that pandemics could be bad
Grassroots lobbying on the topic is neglected
- While there are some people who talk to governments about bio risks, when I asked bio risk experts about this idea, they also seemed to think that there was no grassroots lobbying on the topic of pandemics/bio risks.
- Linked to this are counterfactual considerations: would governments decide to take action on pandemics anyway, even in the absence of lobbying?
- From what I can gather from having discussed this with various biosecurity experts, governments *are* working hard to respond to the current COVID crisis, but they are not naturally being triggered to think ahead to future potential pandemics and bio risks very much.
- Indeed, the experts I spoke to mostly expressed a remarkable amount of pessimism that governments would respond with an adequate level of future preventative measures
- However it’s possible that their perspective is skewed by their line of work
Importance: Biological risks (including man made bio risks) have a relatively high probability of causing extreme catastrophes, including existential risks.
The above table is from Toby Ord’s book The Precipice. While I don’t advise treating these numbers as totally solid, a key claim is that the probability of a pandemic causing an extreme event is relatively high for the following reasons:
- The technology that enables people to create pathogens keeps improving, making it ever easier for fewer people to create pathogens
- Major military bodies would hopefully realise that unleashing pathogens is a bad idea (although this is not obviously the case: as mentioned in this survey, there seems to be potentially *some* evidence for the claim that some parties are *more* interested in bio weapons post-covid; it’s not clear how seriously to take that claim)
- However it’s still possible that certain extreme groups might be attracted to them.
- Also, major military groups may develop bioweapons and then a lab accident could cause a leakage
I became more convinced of the value of tackling biological risks as a result of the work done for SoGive (an organisation I founded which does charity analysis to support donors). More on this can be found here.
Although I do believe that tackling biorisks is a high-impact area of work, I think it’s very rare for all three of those areas to be rated positively -- sufficiently rare that scepticism is in order. (Is it really true that the topic is tractable in light of COVID, but wouldn’t have happened without lobbying?) Having said that, there is enough of a case to be made in favour of tackling pandemics that I think it should at least be considered as a top area for grassroots lobbyists to work on.
Why pandemics? (as opposed to other topics)
It seems plain that potentially existential risks are clearly the most important ones under certain longtermist views, and are still very good things to work on under most other views. You can find more on this topic in an appendix.
I now run through some other topics that are relevant from a longtermist lens.
- Seems less likely to be politically tractable (few MPs/representatives likely to take it seriously, and few members of the public are interested as well)
- If the cause did get taken up by a broader population, it would likely get confused with less catastrophic/non-existential risks associated with AI
- Less clear what to ask for (a vague ask isn’t helpful)
- Creating more noise could lead to unhelpful unintended consequences (e.g. politicians introduce reactive and ineffective regulation to demonstrate that they are responding to popular demand)
- Already has lots of activism happening (e.g. Extinction rebellion in the UK)
- Less likely to cause severe (extinction-level) catastrophes than bio risks
- Already has lots of activism happening (e.g. CND)
- Less likely to cause severe (extinction-level) catastrophes than bio risks
Natural risks (e.g. asteroids of supervolcanoes):
- Seems less likely to be politically tractable (because people feel more responsibility to sort out the problems that humanity has caused)
- Less likely to cause severe (extinction-level) catastrophes than bio risks
- More likely to be a “wonky” ask; less likely to appeal to a broader public, whereas something more tangible would probably appeal more, especially pandemics given the current COVID situation
- The proportion of people who place equal value on those in the far future seems to be low (for example, in this earlier piece of research conducted by SoGive, the proportion of respondents who appeared to place roughly equal value on future lives as present day lives was roughly 15%(ish)).
What sort of policy asks could the group make?
I list here several potential policy asks, without trying to assess each one carefully. The intent is to demonstrate that there *are* several promising-sounding asks, not to suggest that these are the best.
- Provide more funding to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC)
- The BWC came about in the 1970s, in the midst of the Cold War
- This meant that the BWC was created with no “teeth”
- This continues to have implications today: the BWC remains underfunded
- The Chemical Weapons Convention was created in the 1990s
- The BWC receives c$1-2m pa; for chemical weapons it’s $80m
- Provide more funding to the WHO to tackle pandemics
- Recent US threats to pull funding for the WHO has been extremely damaging
- Note: while this was being drafted, the UK decided to increase its funding to the WHO; unclear whether this will be sustained after 4 years from now
- Initiate a global commitment to funding pandemic work, (cf the 0.7% ODA commitment)
- Create a code of conduct for biologists (this is expected to come up at the next BWC meeting in Nov 2021)
- Create a mechanism for biologists to communicate the risks around a virulent pathogen safely
- e.g. if a scientist discovers that a pathogen is particularly risky, we need a way for them to let other scientists know; however simply publishing this information poses info hazards
- Introduce stronger lab security requirements
- Create an IAEA for biology labs handling pathogens
- The International Atomic Energy Agency works to make nuclear power safer by reducing the chance that nuclear energy is used for nuclear weapons and also improving the security of nuclear power plants.
- Implement the country’s own existing biological security strategy (e.g. this document published in 2018 in the UK, or the equivalent in the US which I believe is this document)
- I haven’t reviewed these documents in any detail myself, but have been told by a biosecurity expert that these are good strategies, and certainly good enough that we would have been well-prepared for COVID if they had been implemented
Appendix: Summary of comments from biosecurity orgs
I have raised this discussion with a number of biosecurity organisations, typically as an add-on in a meeting on another topic (i.e. typically not in any depth).
I summarise here my impression of their opinion on the idea. I have anonymised their comments, because I didn’t ask them if they were willing to be quoted on this in the public domain.
Most (but not all) of the organisations quoted here are either funded by Open Phil, or recommended by Founders Pledge or SoGive, or otherwise EA-adjacent. Most of the individuals that I spoke to had leadership roles within their organisation.
- Organisation 1: Highly enthusiastic; indeed it was their idea, not mine. Made comparisons with other areas (e.g. climate change, nuclear, etc) and wished they had the same support from the voting population
- Organisation 2: Also highly enthusiastic, and (unprompted, I think) made comparisons with other movements (i.e. similar to the comments made by org 1)
- Organisation 3: Also highly enthusiastic, and has been offering some time to help me prepare for my meeting with my MP
- Organisation 4: Seemed positive. Did not express very obvious enthusiasm, although I think that reflected a pensive personality (as opposed to hesitation about the concept)
- Organisation 5: Seemed positive, but also mentioned that achieving any kind of change in this area is difficult. Although it’s not clear whether that comment was intended to be specific to a lobbying group or more general; also I don’t think the comment was meant to be comparative (i.e. I don't think they were saying that achieving traction with biorisk is harder than anything else)
- Organisation 6: One person at this org was very hesitant. Said they could imagine a version of this project they were happy with, but overall gave a very circumspect reaction. Interestingly also said that they weren’t clear on what upside they would get, which seemed at odds with other organisations who had done lots of working with governments and who said that it would really help. When I made this comment, the response was that they stood by their opinion, weren’t surprised that others might disagree, but also said that their opinion was non-resilient. I mentioned this to another person at this org and they raised a concern about attention hazards (see separate appendix)
Nobody appeared to think that another group was already doing something in this space.
With none of these organisations did I discuss exactly what this campaigning group would look like. I didn’t want to have an in-depth conversation about it with them before I know that there are some people who are interested in being involved.
Appendix: Attention hazards
Attention hazards refer to the risk that more public awareness of biorisks could encourage or enable malicious actors to use or develop harmful biotech. (The language has a parallel with the term “info hazards”)
However greater attention has potential benefits too.
Biorisk organisations appear to believe that the benefits can outweigh the hazards, as evinced by the facts that:
- Most biorisk organisations, when asked, have stated that they believe a grassroots movement would be a positive (although this might be because the conversations have been brief and they hadn’t considered it carefully enough)
- As mentioned in the above section “What has been done thus far?” several biorisk orgs are already talking to national press about biosafety.
- COVID already increases attention, so it’s unclear how much further difference a campaigning group would make, especially if the group focuses on policymakers.
- Hence it seems plausible that with careful thought and consideration of what information goes public and through consultation with experts the risks could be largely mitigated.
Indeed, it is plausible that starting such a group could help mitigate information hazards
- it pre-empts someone else who is not worried about information hazards form starting such a group
- some of the asks (like supporting Secure DNA [link: https://www.securedna.org/main-en]) would help manage information risks
Importantly, the *type* of lobbying group matters.
- A group of 100,000 rabble-rousing protesters overrunning the streets may carry material attention hazards.
- A group of 300 sober letter-writers is unlikely to attract the attention of anyone other than the political representatives they are writing to.
In order to give attention hazards a bit more thought, I considered how different sources of bio risk will be affected by more attention/public awareness. Note that I have given this a fairly cursory level of consideration, however my thoughts are below.
- The size of the impact of more attention is shown in bold in the table above
- The impact referred to is intended to cover the “pure” attention effects; i.e. it includes effects such as “how do people behave differently when there is more cultural awareness of biorisks” and aims to exclude the main intended benefits (e.g. the lobbying results in policy changes which results in improved outcomes). That said, disentangling the two is hard.
- The sizings of the effects given in bold in the table above are highly subjective
- On balance, it appears to me that the benefits are similar in scale or even outweigh the hazards
It is possible to disagree with the assessments that I made in the table above.
Appendix: Targeted, urgent longtermism, patient longtermism, and Task Y
A recent 80,000 hours podcast sets out the following types of longtermism:
- Patient longtermism
- Broad urgent longtermism
- Targeted urgent longtermism focused on existential risks
- Targeted urgent longtermism focused on other trajectory changes
The No More Pandemics campaigning concept is most compelling for those inspired by type 3 longtermism (bold and underlined above).
It’s also reasonable to argue that this project could contribute to patient longtermism as well. One might believe this if you thought this project was a candidate for “Task Y”. In other words, involving people in this project could
- help people get involved in *doing* something EA-related (as opposed to just reading things)
- while still not asking for a big commitment (such as giving away lots of money or changing career).
Hence you may believe this to be a high-impact project from a movement building perspective.
The links to the other two types of longtermism are more tenuous.