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

By Filippa Lentzos | April 25, 2019

A soldier preparing for an exercise in responding to a biological attack. Credit: Sgt. Kristina Truluck/US Army.

Does it matter where research funding comes from? Over 3,000 Google employees and a  coalition of tech workers from IBM, Microsoft, and Amazon thought so. In April 2018, they publicly protested Google’s Pentagon contract for Project Maven, an effort to develop artificial intelligence to analyze drone footage and identify targets. In an open letter to Google’s CEO, the employees wrote, “Building this technology to assist the US Government in military surveillance–and potentially lethal outcomes–is not acceptable.” They also highlighted the irreparable damage the contract could do to Google’s brand and the company’s ability to compete for talent. The Google workers aren’t alone. Other tech employees have criticized adapting Microsoft’s augmented-reality headsets for military use and selling Amazon’s facial recognition software for surveillance and policing purposes.

Biosecurity experts, too, have raised concerns about biological research. Last October an international team of scientists and lawyers raised alarms about a new US Defense Department program aimed at using insects to rapidly spread modified genes into crops. Called Insect Allies, the program is ostensibly aimed at enhancing US agriculture and improving responses to national emergencies. Critics pointed out the scientific knowledge to be gained from Insect Allies was limited. Moreover, the Defense Department had not addressed how to overcome major practical and regulatory impediments to realizing the projected benefits, raising concerns that Insect Allies could be perceived as an effort to develop biological agents and delivery mechanisms for hostile purposes, a breach of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

The team’s efforts echo broader concerns from biosecurity experts about the militarization of biotechnology. Security experts are particularly worried that military projects like Insect Allies contribute to rising international tensions in the biological field. (The team of scientists and lawyers continues its engagement on Insect Allies by collating project-relevant information on a website they have set up to foster an informed and public debate about the technology.)

While biosecurity experts critically examine the funding sources of cutting-edge biological research like the Insect Allies program, they rarely turn their gaze inward on their own community of biosecurity experts. This should change.

 A new actor with deep pockets and a cause has entered the scene. Established in 2017, Open Philanthropy Project (Open Phil) is a limited liability company operating on the basis of donations from Cari Tuna and Dustin Moskovitz, an internet entrepreneur and co-founder of Facebook. Moskovitz is reportedly the youngest self-made billionaire in history. He and Tuna are also the youngest couple to sign Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge, which commits billionaires to giving way most of their wealth in the form of philanthropy.

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Open Phil largely operates as a non-profit, despite not legally being one. Unlike a charity, the company also carries out so-called “impact investments,” and these may extend to political contributions in some cases. The main focus of the company, however, is eye-popping grant-giving. It aims to give an average of more than $100 million a year to “accomplish as much good as possible” by giving effectively and openly to important and neglected causes. One of those is global catastrophic risks. The two risks Open Phil considers most likely to permanently worsen humanity’s long-term future or lead to human extinction are pandemics and advanced AI.

Open Phil has gifted over $100 million to work on managing potential risks from advanced AI since 2017, and nearly $40 million in biosecurity and pandemic preparedness grants in the same time frame. While the company is enabling a great deal of good work in the biosecurity field, it should not be beyond critical scrutiny. It matters where research funding comes from.

One concern is that the resources Open Phil is funneling toward civil society groups in some areas could drown out the diverse array of groups and governmental entities working on various issues. Civil society in the biosecurity space, for instance, has traditionally focused around the BWC. These groups support the treaty by analyzing policy, developing recommendations, providing technical assistance, monitoring treaty implementation, mobilizing the public, and educating stakeholders. With the flood of Open Phil funding, there are now many more civil society groups active in the field. These are heavily funded groups–not just in comparison to traditional civil society actors. They also have budgets many times the size of the Implementation Support Unit servicing the BWC.  The three largest recipients of Open Phil biosecurity funding have received totals of $16 million, $12 million, and $3.5 million over the last two years. Meanwhile the Implementation Support Unit’s annual budget is roughly $1 million. The proliferation of Open Phil-funded actors could gradually erode the current multifaceted nature of civil society, drowning out the diversity of perspectives, focus areas, and approaches to engaging with biological threats. Moreover, there are ongoing informal discussions about Open Phil backing an overarching coalition of groups, further entrenching the focus on biological risks that have potential catastrophic consequences on a global scale.

Philanthropic funding is nothing new in the biosecurity field. Both the Carnegie Corporation and the MacArthur Foundation have been significant funders in the past. What sets the current windfall apart is the large scale and short time frame–and the funder’s focus on political impact.

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In some cases, philanthropies are bigger contributors to important world bodies than even governments. Take, for instance, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) budget. The largest contributor is the US Government at 16 percent, closely followed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation at 13 percent. The next largest contributors are the United Kingdom and the GAVI alliance, a pro-vaccine public-private partnership, both at 7 percent, and Germany at 5 percent. The WHO is meant to be accountable to member governments, but the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is accountable to no one other than its three trustees: Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet. Many in civil society have voiced concern that the WHO’s independence is compromised when a significant portion of its budget comes from a private philanthropic organization with the power to stipulate where and how the UN institution spends its money.

While these ongoing discussions in the health field have so far not been so relevant in the biosecurity arena, that is changing. At their meeting in December 2018, BWC member states agreed to set up a fund to ensure financial predictability and sustainability for future meetings and administrative staff contracts. If the fund accepts voluntary donations beyond states parties—and there are ongoing, informal discussions of potential Open Phil contributions—how will these be accounted for?

Open Phil’s massive funding of civil society groups working on BWC-related issues risks prioritizing the wrong research issues in the biosecurity field. Biosecurity covers a spectrum of risks, ranging from naturally occurring disease, through unintended consequences of research, lab accidents, negligence, and reckless behavior, to deliberate misuse of pathogens or technology by state and non-state actors. The scenarios all have different likelihoods of playing out—and risks with potential catastrophic consequences on a global scale are among the least likely. But Open Phil dollars are flooding into biosecurity and are absorbing much of the field’s experienced research capacity, focusing the attention of experts on this narrow, extremely unlikely, aspect of biosecurity risk.

The field must recognize the consequences of embracing a particular form of risk. 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. Not all projects will be worth their price—morally, socially, financially, or otherwise.

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5 years ago

I work at an organisation that has received funding from the Open Philanthropy Project, though mostly not to work on biosecurity. In my view the biosecurity community was focussing on the wrong risks before, and the Open Philanthropy Project has helped to correct that by funding incredibly important research that was previously relatively neglected. If readers go over the case offered by the Open Philanthropy Project for focussing on global catastrophic biological risks, and threats from new technologies, I think many will, like me, find it compelling. While it could crowd out some other work, their funding will also draw… Read more »


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