Will splashy philanthropy cause the biosecurity field to focus on the wrong risks?

Link post

Talk­ing to biose­cu­rity re­searchers has made me sig­nifi­cantly up­date as to how much a sin­gle fun­der (in this case Open Phil) can in­fluence the di­rec­tion and fo­cus of a re­search field. How much should we ex­pect this to be a bad thing?

The link is for an ar­ti­cle by Filippa Len­zos (a well-es­tab­lished biose­cu­rity re­searcher at King’s Col­lege Lon­don) that is skep­ti­cal of Open Phil’s im­pacts. It doesn’t out­line a lot of con­crete nega­tives, but says:

Heavy in­vest­ments in one area of biose­cu­rity risks may ir­re­versibly trans­form the field’s col­lec­tive think­ing, scope of in­quiry, and policy re­sponses… The speed with which Open Phil has emerged as a sig­nifi­cant power-player in in­ter­na­tional biose­cu­rity policy has, by and large, out­run aca­demic scrutiny of its im­pacts.

This makes me won­der if it would be valuable for Open Phil to fund some out­side anal­y­sis of their cur­rent and ex­pected im­pact in biose­cu­rity. In gen­eral, peo­ple es­tab­lished in a field offer­ing cri­tiques of new EA/​philan­thropic en­trants seems like a very use­ful thing.

I would break down Dr. Len­zos’ con­cerns (and un­der­ly­ing as­sump­tions) as:

  • Open Phil is fund­ing a nar­row set of con­cerns (GCBRs), caus­ing many re­searchers to redi­rect their fo­cus to those con­cerns (and a di­ver­sity of per­spec­tives and re­search fo­cuses is good for the field)

  • Open Phil is offer­ing large grants to a few care­fully-se­lected par­ties, giv­ing them out­size im­pact (and a di­ver­sity of per­spec­tives and re­search fo­cuses is good the the field)

  • Open Phil is a large ac­tor en­ter­ing the in­ter­na­tional bio/​health se­cu­rity space that is not ac­countable to state gov­ern­ments (who are at least nom­i­nally ac­countable to their cit­i­zens) (and in­de­pen­dence of in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions (like the BWC and WHO) from con­cerns other than those of state gov­ern­ments is im­por­tant)

  • Open Phil has be­come able to in­fluence biose­cu­rity re­search and policy more quickly than peo­ple have been able to pro­duce anal­y­sis of their pri­ori­ties (and it’s doubt­ful that anal­y­sis would show that Open Phil’s pri­ori­ties are a good over­all fo­cus for biose­cu­rity re­search and policy)

I’d have liked to see more ar­gu­ment in favour of those as­sump­tions, but I sus­pect Dr. Len­zos’ goal may just be to es­tab­lish com­mon knowl­edge that it’s pos­si­ble to crit­i­cize Open Phil with­out nega­tive reper­cus­sions.

I’d be in­ter­ested in what peo­ple on this fo­rum think:

  • Does the cri­tique seem rea­son­able?

  • How im­por­tant is a di­ver­sity of re­search fo­cuses in biose­cu­rity? What might be lost by di­rect­ing more at­ten­tion to GCBRs?

  • Is it im­por­tant for in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions to be ac­countable to state gov­ern­ments? Should the bioweapons con­ven­tion ac­cept philan­thropic dona­tions to cover its im­ple­men­ta­tion costs?

  • Should we gen­er­ally be skep­ti­cal of large fun­ders (such as Open Phil) steer­ing the di­rec­tion of an already-es­tab­lished re­search field?

  • Should EAs in­ter­ested in biose­cu­rity take any differ­ent ac­tions as a re­sult of this ar­ti­cle?