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Biosecurity at Open Phil

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Because you've been a public servant who took on the responsibility of shutting down the Soviet bioweapons program, securing loose nuclear material, and kickstarting a wildly successful early career program while at the DoD, I need to know: is it ever difficult being so awesome?

And, what would your advice be for younger folks aiming to follow in your footsteps?

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Just wanted to give my hearty +1 to approaching biosecurity issues with humility and striving to gain important context (which EAs often lack!)

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Hi, thanks for raising these questions. I lead Open Philanthropy’s biosecurity and pandemic prevention work and I was the investigator of this grant. For context, in September last year, I got an introduction to Helena along with some information about work they were doing in the health policy space. Before recommending the grant, I did some background reference calls on the impact claims they were making, considered similar concerns to ones in this post, and ultimately felt there was enough of a case to place a hits-based bet (especially given the more permissive funding bar at the time).

Just so there’s no confusion: I think it’s easy to misread the nepotism claim as saying that I or Open Phil have a conflict of interest with Helena, and want to clarify that this is not the case. My total interactions with Helena have been three phone calls and some email, all related to health security work.

Excited to see this kind of analysis!

Worried that this is premature:

there is no reason for the great powers to ever deploy or develop planet-killing kinetic bombardment capabilities

This seems true to a first approximation, but if the risk we are preventing is tiny, then a tiny chance of dual-use  becomes a big deal.  The behavior of states suggests that we can't put less than a 1 in 10,000 chance on something like this.  Some random examples:

  • During WW2, there were powerful elements  within the Japanese government that advocated total annihilation rather than surrender (Wikipedia).
  • Deterrence can benefit from credible signals of suicidal craziness (e.g. the 'Samson Option' named after biblical character who destroyed a temple, killing himself and taking everybody with him).
  • The Soviet bioweapons program invested heavily in contagious weapons (e.g. smallpox) and modifying them to overcome medical countermeasures.  This work seemed to be driven by weird bureaucratic incentives that were pretty divorced from rational strategic goals/objectives of the Soviet Union.

See Daniel Greene's comment about creating better norms around publishing dangerous information (he beat me to it!).

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I won't comment on their endorsements or strategy, but I will say that even if Carrick is a longshot it doesn't necessarily follow that it's a bad use of marginal dollars.

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Thanks for flagging, I missed this and agree this should be in blog category per the policy. Will chat with mods to figure out how to fix.

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Update: after discussing and looking at some background documentation with Oli, we think the claim about ‘potentially thousands of lives’ is sufficiently supported.

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Dropping a quick comment to say I've upvoted this and might respond with more later. I do concede the claim about thousands of lives was not throughly scrutinized and I'm getting more info on that now (and will remove if it doesn't check out). I otherwise stand by what I've written and also think Oli has worthwhile points.

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