From my understanding of a recent Hear This Idea podcast, a key problem with regulation of research which poses pandemic risks is that the rules and laws surrounding the research can be too complicated for scientists to understand.


This seems solvable - EA funders could pay for additional biosecurity officers at universities with BSL-2, BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs, whose jobs can be focused on advising virologists on:

  1. Whether proposed research adheres to the rules set out by governments and funders.
  2. Whether proposed research would be ethical from a pandemic risk perspective.
  3. How proposed research ideas could be modified to minimise pandemic risk.


Other parts of the job could involve:

Being involved in ethics committee decisions for virology-related research.

Carrying out biosafety inspections with a specific focus on minimising pandemic risk.




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This seems like a good idea, in principle, if the biosecurity officers could have any real power to do inspections, evaluate safety, and enforce compliance.

In my opinion, the only real way to get universities to take biosecurity risks seriously is to make them legally liable for damages if there's a harmful leak -- and to force them to take out insurance policies to cover the expected costs of such damages. In other words, use the legal system to force universities to 'internalize' the likely 'externalities' they're imposing on the rest of the world.  This would require coordination between university ethics committees, biosafety inspectors, University Counsel/legal officers, insurance companies, and upper administration.

Of course, this might make certain kinds of biological research prohibitively costly -- but if the expected value is negative (given the biosecurity risks), then it should be prohibitively costly.

Are universities legally liable for research that doesn't go through IRB? It seems at least in principle possible to have a system that's taken seriously without needing or at least primarily relying on the full force of the law.

(I agree that mandatory insurance for GCB outcomes has a lot of theoretical appeal and do not seem clearly infeasible)

I'm not sure about legal liability issues for university research, with or without IRB approval. (I'm not at all a legal expert, just a concerned faculty member.) 

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