TL;DR: Expertise in engineering physical systems is critically needed for some of the most important and neglected biosecurity interventions, including improved PPE and designing pandemic-safe buildings. If you have that expertise and are interested in getting involved, you should contact me.

Disclaimer: All uses of "engineering" in this post refer to the engineering of physical systems (e.g. materials engineering or civil engineering). Sorry, software engineers.

The problem

Historically, the EA-adjacent biosecurity space has been dominated by people with backgrounds in biology, epidemiology, medicine, and public policy. Most of the junior people thinking about working on biosecurity also have these backgrounds. These seem to be the people who the EA community thinks of as having something to contribute to biosecurity.

This makes sense: the creation of biological threats is a political & social problem, and the threats themselves are, well, biological, so people with expertise in biology & medicine seem well-equipped to think about countermeasures. All of these areas of expertise will be needed to tackle the biosecurity threat.

However, many of the most important interventions for reducing catastrophic biological risk are neither biological nor social in nature. Instead, these interventions use physical means to block, capture or destroy pathogens. Such technologies are much more threat-agnostic than most interventions that rely on biotechnology, providing broad protection while necessitating far less dual-use research and infohazardous threat modelling.

Rather than biologists and policymakers, the people best-equipped to drive these interventions forward are materials scientists, building engineers, and others with strong backgrounds in the applied physical sciences. Unfortunately, people with these backgrounds are currently severely lacking in biosecurity.

The interventions

There are many ways people with applied physical science expertise could have an impact in biosecurity. I've outlined a few of the most important and/or salient for me below; I'm sure there are others I'm not yet thinking of.

(For more on these and other exciting technological interventions, read Appendix A of The Apollo Program for Biodefense.)

Physical protection against pathogens

As mentioned above, the most important biosecurity interventions engineers could work on are those intended to stop disease causing agents getting into people in the first place. In roughly descending order of importance, these include:

  • Improving personal protective equipment (PPE): The design of face masks and other PPE has barely changed for many decades, and still receives relatively little attention. PPE that was highly effective, easy to use, and cheap to distribute would be perhaps the single most transformative technological intervention to overcome biological risks, but is currently laughably neglected.
  • Suppressing pathogen spread in the built environment: Indoor spaces are far more dangerous than outdoor spaces for transmitting respiratory infections. While not as general or powerful as improved PPE, interventions to reduce transmission in building could significantly slow the spread of severe biological threats. Proposed interventions in this area include improvements in ventilation, far-UVC irradiation, and upper-room UVGI. However, many of these have significant difficulties to overcome before widespread adoption, and relatively little time and money have gone into either implementing these technologies or identifying promising alternatives.
  • Improving biosafety in high-containment labs and clinics: As with PPE for general use, the technologies and systems used to maintain biosafety in high-containment labs and isolation wards are decades old and slow to change. While less important than PPE, improving the other technologies and processes used to contain high-consequence pathogens would help prevent accidental release.
  • Suppressing pathogen spread in vehicles: Many of the same principles applied to buildings could also reduce transmission in large vehicles, such as planes and cruise ships. This seems much less important than fortifying buildings against pandemics, but still valuable.

All of these interventions share the properties of being very general, relatively cheap, and ridiculously neglected compared to fancy biotechnological countermeasures. In general, we as a civilisation have not tried very hard to make these interventions work – but if we did the positive impact could be immense.

Improving technologies underpinning biomonitoring

While I'm most excited about people with engineering backgrounds working on physical protection technologies, many other biosecurity interventions would benefit significantly from more people with engineering expertise, working alongside life scientists to advance safety-promoting technologies.

For example, implementing metagenomic biomonitoring for early detection of outbreaks is going to need significant hardware advances in many domains, including for reliable and effective environmental sampling, easy point-of-care clinical sampling, automated sample processing, and sequencing technology.

Ultimately, much of the life sciences depends on tools that most life scientists neither deeply understand nor know how to build. Insofar as those tools are needed to detect or combat biological threats, we need engineers and other experts to help build them.

How can I get involved?

If you think you might have the skills and motivation to contribute to any of these interventions, I strongly encourage you to contact me, by email or via direct message on this Forum. I'm especially excited to talk to people who could work on PPE and built-environment interventions, and know many others who would be excited to support this kind of work.

If you aren't one of these people, but know someone who might be a good fit, please consider reaching out to that person about getting involved.

The standard caveats about working in biosecurity apply – it's a small field, with lots of frustrating infohazard and dual-use concerns that make working on solutions more difficult than it would otherwise be. That said, it's also a super exciting area to be working in right now.

If you have the right skillset, and you're willing to put in the thought and care necessary to navigate through those minefields, this could easily be the most good you can do.

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Huge +1 to this. If anybody is reading this and wants to get funded to start down this career track, please apply to Open Phil's biosecurity scholarship: https://www.openphilanthropy.org/focus/global-catastrophic-risks/biosecurity/open-philanthropy-biosecurity-scholarships

The program supports independent projects for people to learn about a field as well as degree programs.

I think this is a great post, not only due to the importance of biosecurity but also because EA currently has so little to offer to engineers. For example, even the career experts at 80K don't give much of a roadmap: "It seems hard to address our top recommended problems right now by working as an engineer, so if you’re committed to doing that, then earning to give might be the best path."

As an aerospace engineer myself, I think our advice could be much better and more detailed if we tried! I agree that biosecurity seems like the top area, with lots of innovation needed from improved ventilation systems to faster mRNA vaccine factories. In amongst the many biosecurity projects, I could also imagine nudging people towards:

  • Early research into developing new forms of energy generation (things like advanced geothermal, nuclear, and fusion)
  • Maybe stuff like building large, civilizational-resilience bunkers, although this is very speculative and you'd have to independently start a whole company since few people are working on it today.
  • Research into the safety and feasibility of various proposed "geoengineering" climate interventions.

I have a bunch of more detailed thoughts/notes on this which I'm planning to work into a series of Forum posts sometime soon.

Maybe stuff like building large, civilizational-resilience bunkers, although this is very speculative and you'd have to independently start a whole company since few people are working on it today.

Bunkers is something I didn't include in my list because I don't have stable well-formed opinions on it yet, but if someone is interested in working on bunkers I'd definitely encourage them to contact me at the link above!

And, wow, that 80K quote is very out of date!

At present in biosecurity, I would be substantially more excited about meeting a marginal EA engineer than a marginal EA bio PhD or policy advocate. (Not that more of those wouldn't be great!) I'm not sure how many marginal engineers I would need before that ceased to be the case – but right now the differential in numbers is so big that even a few promising people would make a huge difference.

There are also alternative proteins and resilient foods (ALLFED) for physical engineers.

I wrote a twitter thread about what EA engineers can do about our recommended problem areas:

https://twitter.com/ben_j_todd/status/1491401046706782210

 

I hope we can update the (rather old) 'advice by expertise' article before too long. And eventually I hope we can write an engineering career profile.

Thanks for the writeup, I very much agree! Also on the engineering side, some are thinking about using microwaves instead of UV to disrupt airborne pathogens.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7089037/

https://www.wpafb.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/2162707/afrl-scientists-investigate-can-microwaves-reduce-viability-of-airborne-coronav/

Like Jackson mentioned, another biosecurity-relevant intervention where I think engineers would be useful would be in helping to design pandemic-safe refuges to help preserve civilization. My current belief as a non-expert is that this is quite high on I/N/T, though as usual there are nontrivial downside risks for a plan that's executed poorly. 

There are also cobenefits for shielding against risks other than bio, though my current best guess is that shielding against biorisk is the most important reason for refuges.

I'd be excited to talk to (civil) engineering types who are potentially interested in working on this, especially if they have prior experience running large projects and/or have at least some pre-existing network among biosecurity EAs.

Note that I'm very far from a biosecurity expert, and would not know many of the relevant crucial considerations.

Does anyone know about the biosecurity opportunities available for software engineers?

You might find some answers in the question on computational biology thesis topic suggestions or some ideas in this post on project ideas in biosecurity, but/and I second Will's idea of moving this into its own question post if you want to solicit more suggestions.

I feel conflicted about this comment. On the one hand, I feel like I can see and appreciate the sequence of events that led you to put it here, and sympathise with its content. On the other hand, it's off-topic: this isn't what this post is about, and I'd prefer discussion of software developers in biosecurity to happen somewhere else. Maybe make a Question post?

An interesting post! It seems like the post is doing several things:

(1) positing some potential problems and gaps in current efforts in biosecurity. (2) suggesting some possible steps that could be taken to address them. (3) suggesting or arguing that engineers and materials scientists would be well-placed to undertake or contribute to these steps.

Your comments on all three seem plausible to me (a non-expert). But you seem to provide more links and evidence for (2) than (1) or (3).

Since (2) and (3) are dependent upon (1) being correct, I'd be interested in what sorts of evidence you have for it. E.g. what has led you to make the following claims?

  • The whole of "the problem" section, especially "Unfortunately, people with these backgrounds are currently severely lacking in biosecurity."
  • "PPE that was highly effective, easy to use, and cheap to distribute... is currently laughably neglected."
  • "relatively little time and money have gone into either implementing these technologies or identifying promising alternatives."

Regarding (3), I have similar but lower priority questions. That case seems more intuitive to me.