Open Philanthropy is seeking proposals from those interested in contributing to a research project informing and estimating biosecurity-relevant numbers and ‘base rates’. We welcome proposals from both research organizations and individuals (at any career stage, including undergraduate and postgraduate students). The work can be structured via contract or grant.

The application deadline is June 5th.

Background

How likely is a biological catastrophe? Do the biggest risks come from states or terrorists? Accidents or intentional attacks? 

These parameters are directly decision-relevant for Open Philanthropy’s biosecurity and pandemic preparedness strategy. They determine the degree to which we prioritize biosecurity compared to other causes, and inform how we prioritize different biosecurity interventions (e.g. do we focus on lab safety to reduce accidents, or push for better DNA synthesis screening to impede terrorists?).

One way of estimating biological risk that we do not recommend is ‘threat assessment’—investigating various ways that one could cause a biological catastrophe. This approach may be valuable in certain situations, but the information hazards involved make it inherently risky. In our view, the harms outweigh the benefits in most cases.

A second, less risky approach is to abstract away most biological details and instead consider general ‘base rates’. The aim is to estimate the likelihood of a biological attack or accident using historical data and base rates of analogous scenarios, and of risk factors such as warfare or terrorism. A few examples include:

  • Estimating the rate at which states or terrorist groups have historically sought biological, chemical, nuclear, or radiological weapons.
  • Forecasting the risk of great power war over the next 50 years (combining historical data with current geopolitical trends).
  • Estimating the rate at which lab leaks have occurred in state programs.
  • Enumerating possible ‘phase transitions’ that would cause a radical departure from relevant historical base rates, e.g. total collapse of the taboo on biological weapons, such that they become a normal part of military doctrine.

This information allows us to better estimate the probability of biological catastrophe in a variety of scenarios, with some hypothetical concrete examples described in the next section.

The biosecurity team at Open Philanthropy (primarily Damon) is currently working on developing such models. However, given the broad scope of the work, we would be keen to see additional research on this question. While we are interested in independent models that attempt to estimate the overall risk of a global biological catastrophe (GCBR), we are particularly keen on projects that simply collect huge amounts of relevant historical data, or thoroughly explore one or more sub-questions.

One aspect of this approach we find particularly exciting is that it is threat-agnostic and thus relevant across a wide range of scenarios, foreseen and unforeseen. It also helps us to think about the misuse of other dangerous transformative technologies, such as atomically precise manufacturing or AI.

We are therefore calling for applications from anyone who would be interested in spending up to the next four months (or possibly longer) helping us better understand these aspects of biorisk. We could imagine successful proposals from many different backgrounds—for example, a history undergraduate looking for a summer research project, a postdoc or superforecaster looking for part-time work, or a quantitative research organization with an entire full-time team.

What is our goal?

We are interested in supporting work that will help us better quantitatively estimate the risk of a GCBR without creating information hazards. To do this, we can imagine treating the biological details of a threat as a ‘black box’ and instead quantifying risk within hypothetical scenarios like the following:

Scenario 1 (states or big terrorist groups): In January 2025, scientists publish a paper that inadvertently provides the outlines for a biological agent that, if created and released, would kill hundreds of millions of people. Creating the pathogen would require a team of 10 PhD-level biologists working full time for 2 years, and a budget of $10 million.

Scenario 2 (small terrorist groups or lone wolf): Same as Scenario 1, but creating the pathogen requires a single PhD-level biologist working full time for 2 years, and a budget of $1 million.

For each of these scenarios, what is the ‘annual rate’ at which the biological agent is created and released (either accidentally or intentionally)?

We are interested in research proposals that aim to estimate this rate or estimate rates in similar scenarios. Proposals don’t need to do this directly, but could instead aim to quantitatively understand ‘upstream’ aspects of the world that could affect the risk of catastrophe.

The scenarios serve as a concrete litmus test for the kinds of proposals we are interested in—if the proposal wouldn’t directly help a researcher estimate the annual risk rate in these toy scenarios, it is unlikely to be of interest to us. In particular, purely qualitative approaches, such as trying to understand specific case studies in detail, or trying to understand the ideological drivers of terrorism, are unlikely to be a good fit. Similarly, very theoretical approaches, such as those with empirical unverifiable parameters or unfalsifiable elements, are also unlikely to be successful.

What a successful proposal might look like

An ideal proposal could propose things like one or more of the following:

  • Create a database of (a well-scoped class of) terrorist attacks, particularly those that required a significant degree of planning, expertise, and/or resources
  • Forecast the number of wars over the next few decades
    • Estimate the likelihood that WMDs are used in those wars
    • Estimate the likelihood that biological weapons specifically are used in those wars
  • Create a database of (a well-scoped class of) dangerous actors:
    • This might include terrorist groups, cults, paramilitary groups, or rebel factions
    • The database would include, for each group, estimates of their size, budget, ideological commitments, and other similar such information
    • Doing ‘all’ of them could be overly ambitious and it may make more sense to more narrowly scope—a complete database for a limited time period and geographic region (for instance) may be more useful than an incomplete one with greater scope
  • Estimate the amount of resources, such as money, person-hours, equipment, and expertise, that have historically been used by state bioweapon programs. Could include further breakdowns based on:
    • Purpose of the spending (e.g. offensive vs defensive, strategic vs tactical vs assassination)
    • Technical focus of the work (e.g. on pathogens themselves vs on delivery systems)
    • Nature of the pathogens (e.g. contagious vs non-contagious, targeting humans vs agriculture).
  • Estimate the future fraction of resources spent in bioweapons programs devoted to contagious vs non-contagious weapons.
    • Perhaps one could analyze cyberweapon development, comparing the fraction of targeted weapons to those that are designed to create widespread economic havoc.
    • Estimating the fraction of military resources that get spent on ‘absolutely insane stuff’, e.g. mind control, slowing down the Earth’s rotation, or weapons that could be catastrophic and have very unclear military use (even if they were possible).
  • Create a database of historical biological accidents
  • Conduct large expert surveys asking which countries worldwide would seek nuclear weapons if they didn’t require rare materials, only cost $10 million (for the whole program), and required only 10 scientists
    • A version of this, but asking how many countries would pursue an omnicidal ‘cobalt bomb’ for similar costs (both with and without the assumption that the regular $10 million nuke option is available)
    • Perhaps also repeated for historical eras to get a larger ‘sample size’
  • Quantitatively scope ‘fads in terrorism’ both in ideology and methodology. For example, analyzing the extent to which tactics like suicide bombing, vehicle ramming, plane hijacking, etc. ‘took off’ after one or two successful demonstrations, or the extent to which ISIS inspired lone wolves.
  • Create a database of the most impressive technical feats accomplished by terrorist groups, or non-state actors such as criminal gangs (e.g. bank heists, drug smuggling with submarines, etc.)
  • Quantitatively estimate how likely the taboo on biological weapons is to totally collapse, perhaps based on past taboos collapsing
  • Estimate the rate at which terrorist groups become compromised by government surveillance, destroyed, or disbanded
  • Survey experts to assess the likelihood that a military will follow omnicidal orders or other catastrophic actions in various situations, such as a nuclear first strike, or in response to a nuclear attack
  • Estimate the rate at which state secrets, such as information on biological or nuclear weaponry, are leaked. This includes both information about the existence of programs, and also leaks of technical information, research, or blueprints.
  • Create a database of actions committed by countries or para-state groups that strongly violate international norms and treaties (eg, genocide, seeking of WMDs, sponsoring of terrorist attacks, violating arms control)
  • Estimate the fraction of individuals who, if given the opportunity, would choose to commit very destructive acts
  • Estimate the number of biologists worldwide with various different technical skills, and their level of access to funds and equipment
  • Estimate the fraction of motivated people who could spend years of their time doing something “impressive” by themselves (e.g. building a complicated technical item like a nuclear reactor, or hacking a secure target without being traced).
  • Forecast the size and budgets of major biotech industry players, by country, company, and/or specific R&D focus
  • Model the probability that a regime develops and/or deploys biological weapons. This might entail:
    • Making a database of countries under strong “existential pressure” (real or perceived), and investigating which did and did not seek deterrence of a similar nature.
    • Numerating historic dictatorships to categorize their decision-making, particularly with regards to acquiring WMDs or committing atrocities.
    • Creating a historical database getting at the question of what fraction of wars have at least one faction that would ‘take the world with them’ if given the opportunity (e.g. Hitler in bunker scenarios).
    • Note that negative examples may be very informative, in which there may have been strong pressure to develop or use WMDs or other deplorable strategies, but warfare stayed conventional (Saddam Hussein in 2004, or Ukraine in 2022).

We are interested in proposals of any length or scope, ranging from a full time 4-6+ month commitment to a small 10-hour project. In some instances, we might respond to a proposal by suggesting a closer ongoing collaboration.

How do I apply?

Applications are via this Google form, and are due on Sunday, June 5th, at 11:59 pm PDT. You’ll be required to submit:

  • CVs of any project team members
  • A research proposal, up to two pages, outlining what you would like to investigate and why. This should include a rough estimate of the project timeline and a budget proposal to account for your time along with any project costs.
  • If applying as an organization, information about your research organization. Organizations can submit multiple separate proposals if desired; please use one application but keep the budgets separate for each project in the budget document.

We expect to fund between $500,000 and $2 million worth of proposals, depending on the quality and scope of proposals. In exceptional circumstances, we could expand this amount substantially.

You should hear back from us by June 26th. Please contact us at biosecurity@openphilanthropy.org if you have any further queries.

If you would like to provide anonymous or non-anonymous feedback to Open Philanthropy’s Biosecurity & Pandemic Preparedness team relevant to this project, please use this form.

Acknowledgements

Thank you to Carl Shulman for initially suggesting this research approach and providing comments. We appreciate additional comments/advice from many others, particularly Chris Bakerlee, Rocco Casagrande, and Gregory Lewis.

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Some recent-ish resources that potential applicants might want to check out:

David Manheim and Gregory Lewis, High-risk human-caused pathogen exposure events from 1975-2016, data note published in August 2021.

As a way to better understand the risk of Global Catastrophic Biological Risks due to human activities, rather than natural sources, this paper reports on a dataset of 71 incidents involving either accidental or purposeful exposure to, or infection by, a highly infectious pathogenic agent.

Filippa Lentzos and Gregory D. Koblentz, Mapping Maximum Biological Containment Labs Globally, policy brief published in May 2021 part of the Global Biolabs project.

This study provides an authoritative resource that: 1) maps BSL4 labs that are planned, under construction, or in operation around the world, and 2) identifies indicators of good biosafety and biosecurity practices in the countries where the labs are located.

2021 Global Health Security Index, https://www.ghsindex.org/.

If you click through to the PDFs under each individual country profile, they have detailed information on the country's biosafety and biosecurity laws! (Example: the exact laws aren't clear from https://www.ghsindex.org/country/ukraine/ but if you click through to the "Country Score Justification Summary" PDF (https://www.ghsindex.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Ukraine.pdf) it has like 100 pages of policy info.

One now-inactive past project in this space that I would highlight (since I would very much like something similar to exist again) is The Sunshine Project. Quoting its (sadly very short) Wikipedia page:

The Sunshine Project worked by exposing research on biological and chemical weapons. Typically, it accessed documents under the Freedom of Information Act and other open records laws, publishing reports and encouraging action to reduce the risk of biological warfare. It tracked the construction of high containment laboratory facilities and the dual-use activities of the U.S. biodefense program.

Some more on Edward Hammond's work/methods show up in this press article on The Worrying Murkiness of Institutional Biosafety Committees:

In 2004, an activist named Edward Hammond fired up his fax machine and sent out letters to 390 institutional biosafety committees across the country. His request was simple: Show me your minutes.

...

The committees “are the cornerstone of institutional oversight of recombinant DNA research,” according to the NIH, and at many institutions, their purview includes high-security labs and research on deadly pathogens.

...

When Hammond began requesting minutes in 2004, he said, he intended to dig up information about bioweapons, not to expose cracks in biosafety oversight. But he soon found that many institutions were unwilling to hand over minutes, or were struggling to provide any record of their IBCs at all. For example, he recalled, Utah State was a hub of research into biological weapons agents. “And their biosafety committee had not met in like 10 years, or maybe ever,” Hammond said. “They didn’t have any records of it ever meeting.”

Could you change the deadline to June 5th? This seems like a potentially good fit to some readers of my forecasting newsletter, which goes out at the beginning of each month

We have decided to extend the deadline to June 5th, if you'd still be to do advertise this in your forceasting newsletter that would be helpful!

Thanks for pointing this out, but unfortunately we cannot shift the submission deadline.

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I have not thought carefully about this, but would it be possible to use this work to also set up at least the building blocks for a "biological risk reduction assessment model" that could quantify the reduction in biological risk offered by different interventions? This would be helpful in both deciding which projects targeting bio risk reduction should move forward, but also in helping teams working on a project decide between design options. As an example, the recently held Shelter Weekend (where options for biological weapons shelters were explored) generated a rather wide range of options for shelter designs which it was not straight forward to compare against each other in terms of likely risk reduction provided.