The field of biosecurity is more complicated, sensitive and nuanced, especially in the policy space, than what impressions you might get based on publicly available information. As a result, say / write / do things with caution (especially if you are a non-technical person or more junior, or talking to a new (non-EA) expert). This might help make more headway on safer biosecurity policy.
Generally, take caution in what you say and how you present yourself, because it does impact how much you are trusted, whether or not you are invited back to the conversation, and thus the potential to make an impact in this (highly sensitive) space.
Why Am I Saying This?
An important note: I don’t represent the views of the NIH, HHS, or the U.S. government and these are my personal opinions. This is me engaging outside of my professional capacity to provide advice for people interested in working on biosecurity policy.
I work for a U.S. government agency on projects related to oversight and ethics over dual-use research of concern (DURC) and enhanced pandemic potential pathogens (ePPP). In my job, I talk and interface with science policy advisors, policy makers, regulators, (health) security professionals, scientists who do DURC / ePPP research, biosafety professionals, ethicists, and more. Everyone has a slightly different opinion and risk categorisation of biosecurity / biosafety as a whole, and DURC and ePPP research risk in specific.
As a result of my work, I regularly (and happily) speak to newer and more junior EAs to give them advice on entering the biosecurity space. I’ve noticed a few common mistakes with how many EA community members – both newer bio people and non-bio people who know the basics about the cause area – approach communication, stakeholder engagement, and conversation around biosecurity, especially when engaging with non-EA-aligned stakeholders whose perspectives might be (and very often) are different than the typical EA-perspective on biosecurity and biorisk.
I've also made many of these mistakes! I'm hoping this is educational and helpful and not shaming or off-putting. I'm happy to help anyone unsure communicate and engage more strategically in this space.
Some Key Points that you might need to Update On.
Junior EAs and people new to biosecurity / biosafety may not know how to or that they should be diplomatic. EA communities have a trend of encouraging provoking behaviour and absolutist, black-and-white scenarios in ways that don't communicate an understanding of how grey this field is and the importance of cooperation and diplomacy. If possible, even in EA contexts, train your default to be (at least a bit more) agreeable (especially at first).
Be careful with the terms you use and what you say
Terms matter. They signal where you are on the spectrum of ‘how dangerous X research type is’, what educational background you have and whose articles / what sources you read, and how much you know on this topic.
Example: If you use the term gain-of-function with a virologist, most will respond saying most biomedical research is either a gain or loss of function and isn’t inherently risky. In an age where many virologists feel like health security professionals want to take away their jobs, saying gain-of-function is an easy and unknowing way to discredit yourself.
Biosafety, biorisk, and biosecurity all indicate different approaches to a problem and often, different perspectives on risk and reasonable solutions. What terms you use signal not only what ‘side’ you represent, but in a field that’s heavily political and sensitive can discredit you amongst the other sides.
Recognise how little (or how much) you know
Biosecurity is a field with a lot of information asymmetry. Firstly, many parts of the story simply aren’t public knowledge. I’m not saying the state of the field is perfect. But unfortunately you can’t, and likely don’t, know everything. I can say that I believe the field of U.S. government oversight on DURC and ePPP is much stronger than many believe.
Second, many people work on this for a living, have advanced degrees on this topic, and multiple years of experience. Your two hours of research on a topic doesn’t mean you know more than them. If you are going to disagree with their opinions (which it’s okay to do so), make sure you are confident that what you are saying is true.
A mistake I once made was stating confidently something along the lines of criticising “US government dual-use regulations'” in front of someone who wrote and implemented the DURC policies, not regulations. There are no legal regulations over DURC. I was called out by them and told to read through the policy more carefully for future conversations. That could have easily discredited me and lost that key relationship. Mistakes happen, but being confident that what you are saying is correct, especially if going against an expert opinion, is important.
Third, many EAs aren't as special or way ahead of the curve as you might think. You likely don’t know more than professionals if your information only comes from publicly available EA sources like The Precipice, Future Perfect, or the EA Forum. I love reading the above, but it’s most definitely a one sided and simplistic view. Many of these resources aim to persuade rather than solve the nitty-gritty details of how to implement solutions in real-life. If you’re seriously interested in a career in this space or are someone whose words have influence, make sure you form your own detailed views. Be able to say more than “biosecurity is important” or “there’s a chance of a lab accident”. Ideally you should be able to answer questions like “what are the actual risks of dual-use research, what are the policies in X country, how does Y increase the risk of a GCBR occurring, where are gaps in the existing oversight mechanisms and what are feasible additional interventions, etc” because learning how to answer those questions teaches the nuance of how difficult biosecurity and biosafety and risk-mitigation are.
Scientific researchers, biosecurity, and biosafety professionals know what they are doing (sometimes) and aren’t trying to kill us all
(The quotes mentioned below have been paraphrased from non-EA virologists, research scientists, and biosafety profession)
The media has attacked biosafety professionals and scientists who work on DURC / ePPP nonstop for the past 3 years. In the U.S. (and I’m sure in other countries too) this has gone as far as death threats, doxxing, and investigations from (non-scientist) members of the government. I’m all for accountability, but what’s been happening isn’t productive accountability and has created an environment of fear. I’ve heard things like
I’m afraid to say or do anything publicly or I’ll get doxxed” or “X institution won’t communicate in writing for fear of getting called to Congress”. In fact, I’ve even heard that some people feel that they have “worked really hard to build trust so scientists can come to us when they have an uncertain or adverse scientific result. The intense scrutiny on this field is ruining that”.
Many professionals in this space are scared and stressed. Adding to that isn’t necessarily building trust and needed allies. The professionals in this space are good people – no reputable virologist is trying to do research that intentionally releases or contributes to a pandemic. Biosafety professionals spend their life working to prevent lab leaks. If I’m being honest, many professionals in and around the biosecurity field don’t think incredibly highly of recent (the past few years) journalistic efforts and calls for total research bans. A common sentiment among the very professionals we need to work productively with are:
“those people who write op-ed’s and blog posts don’t know anything about how the science actually works or how oversight and biosafety work” and “many people criticising the field are just trying to make a name for themselves and going about it the wrong way”.
Choose your words and actions carefully because the most bold ones aren’t the most impactful – in terms of updating policies and actions – ones.
Dual-use, ‘gain-of function’ and ePPP research is not so black-and-white.
One view I often hear from EA’s is “we should just ban all gain of function research” or something that’s extremely one-sided and simplified. There’s a variety of inflammatory op-eds and articles that critique topics in biosecurity (I think) unfairly. I’ve had many meetings with people interested in working on biosecurity policy with extreme, oversimplified, and sometimes antagonistic views.
ePPP / DURC research isn’t inherently bad and does have value. To stop all DURC/ePPP research outright (in my view) would be net negative. What is minimal-risk oversight that allows necessary and useful research to happen is the key, unanswered question. Especially problematic is approaching a research scientist who does DURC/ePPP research and telling them their research adds no value. That isn’t leading to anything productive and is just adversarial.
Second, this isn’t possible or realistic from a regulatory standpoint. For ‘gain-of-function’ – you can’t just pass a law to ban it. How do you define it? Who provides oversight? Implementation is challenging. And gain-of-function isn’t inherently bad – biomedical research can be ‘gain-of function’ and not dangerous (aka not a GCBR risk).
So what next - tentative advice for people new to biosafety / security
- Read, read a lot of different sources. Understand what all sides and stakeholders think on a topic.
- Look at the science and form your own views related to biosafety, biosecurity, ePPP, DURC and risk. What is actually risky? Know and understand the science, the existing oversight / regulation, feasible interventions, and how implementation works.
- Know what you’re talking about (whether it’s regulation, policy, technical solutions) and the challenges related to working in the space before you criticise it.
- Talk to (EA and non-EA) professionals and keep an open mind (ex. virologists, microbiologists, biosafety professionals, implementers, policy makers, health security specialists, ethicists, etc)
- Know who you are talking to and use diplomatic language (at least at first_– use biosafety lingo with the biosafety professionals, talk about security with the security people, and so on. You don’t have to agree on everything with everyone – but having a mutual language is important.
- Define terms - to yourself, in conversation, etc
- Always make sure ‘you’re invited back to the table’
Readings I recommend that do a good job painting more nuance than the perspective that is sometimes common in the EA movement
Highly recommended as it breaks down the dual-use dilemma and will provide nuance of the ethical concerns and challenges of providing oversight over dual-use biomedical research.
Gives a great history of the field of dual-use (research of concern) - although it’s mostly U.S. based - , ethical issues, and the development of the concern over time.
A 2004 report that led to the founding of the U.S. government National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), and set the framework for current day policies and oversight efforts.
A report that uses H5N1 as an example for the biosecurity, biosafety, and risks of DURC research. It’s a great deep dive into what full time research in this field looks like and the challenges of research oversight.
Gives a great overview of the value and costs of dual-use research and risks and grounds thoughts of risk more concretely.
ePPP is a sibling / renamed cousin to what most people know as gain of function (GoF). See more
This is something along the lines of there’s a considerable GCBR risk warranting banning X research type, the US government is doing dangerous research without oversight or care, people involved in biomedical research and biosafety don’t care about safety, etc.
Biosafety: Biosafety refers to the controls and standards that protect against the accidental release of pathogens.
Bio-risk management: Biorisk management refers to risk-benefit assessment for high-risk research on pathogens.
There is the U.S. Select Agent programme which overlaps with the DURC policy, but there isn't 'regulation' in the typical sense.
This could just be because ‘I’m an EA and they talk more honestly to me than they would to non-EA’s’. It still seems important to set the norm to be ‘diplomatic and agreeable’ before ‘antagonistic and challenging’