In a nutshell: Advances in bioengineering might make it possible to create engineered pandemics that are even deadlier than natural ones — potentially deadly enough to pose global catastrophic risks. Most of the work being done to reduce the risks posed by pandemics is focused on naturally caused pandemics like COVID-19 — and even those need a lot more work. Preventing catastrophic engineered pandemics is an even more neglected area, suggesting additional work can be extremely valuable.

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Why might biorisk research, strategy, and policy be high impact?

We’ve argued that pandemics can pose global catastrophic risks, in particular as advances in bioengineering make it possible to create engineered pandemics that are even more deadly than naturally occurring ones.

There is already a significant community working on pandemic prevention, and there are many ways to contribute to this field. However, most of the existing work is focused on naturally caused pandemics like those we’ve seen in the past and COVID-19 (though this is starting to change a bit).

While these are very important to mitigate, we think it’s even more important to prevent pandemics that pose catastrophic risks, especially those that might totally end human civilisation. There is substantial overlap between work that mitigates these known pandemic risks and more extreme risks — so work in the one is also helpful for work in the other. Still, work that is particularly focused on the extreme risks seems somewhat neglected in the field right now.

For reasons our problem profile explains, catastrophic pandemics seem more likely to be human-caused, and perhaps even deliberately caused. As a result, they may be better targeted by security and biodefence interventions than conventional public health ones. Moreover, much past funding for work on bioterrorism seems to have focused on more well-known risks such as anthrax, which doesn’t pose a catastrophic risk.

This means that despite significant existing work on pandemic prevention, global catastrophic biological risks seem neglected.

We rate biorisk as a less pressing issue than AI safety, mainly because we think biorisks are less likely to be truly existential, and AI seems more likely to play a key role in shaping the long-term future in other ways. However, working to prevent catastrophic pandemics seems very high value to us, and can easily be your top option if you have a comparative advantage in this path (e.g. a background in medicine).

What does this path involve?

We can roughly divide this path into working in government (and related organisations) on the one hand, and working in research on the other.

Governments are the main line of defence against these risks, so it’s valuable to build up a community of experts in relevant areas of national government and intergovernmental organisations. These include:

  • The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • The World Health Organization
  • The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control
  • The FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate
  • Other US departments, like the ones listed here

You could also work in relevant think tanks, such as the Center for Health Security, or nonprofits like the Nuclear Threat Initiative. These experts help develop and implement policies. Again, see our problem profile for global catastrophic risks for more.

Another option is to work in academia. This involves developing a relevant area of expertise, such as synthetic biology, genetics, public health, epidemiology, international relations, security studies, or political science. Note that it’s possible — and at times beneficial — to start by studying a quantitative subject (sometimes even to graduate level), and then switch into biology later. Quantitative skills are in demand in biology and give you better backup options.

Once you’ve completed training, you could do a number of things, including but not limited to:

  • Research on directly useful technical questions (such as how to create broad-spectrum diagnostics or rapidly deploy vaccines)
  • Research on strategic questions (such as how dangerous technologies should be controlled)
  • Advising policymakers and other groups on the relevant issues

One top research centre you could aim to work at is the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford.

The study of global catastrophic biological risks is still a nascent field. This can make it hard to contribute, since — although progress is being made — we don’t yet know which research questions are most important, and there is often a shortage of mentorship.

This means that there’s an especially pressing need for more ‘field building’ or ‘disentanglement research’ — with the aim of defining the field. If you can do this kind of work, then your contribution is especially valuable since you can unlock the efforts of other researchers. The main home for this kind of research with a long-term focus right now is the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford.

If you’re not able to contribute to disentanglement research right now, there are several other things you can do, including:

  • Tackle more straightforward relevant research questions
  • Work in more mainstream biorisk organisations to build up expertise
  • Focus on policy positions with the aim of building a community and expertise
  • Become an expert in a relevant area of biology, international relations, or a related field

Many ways of reducing biorisk will involve the development of new technologies. This means there may also be opportunities to work as an engineer or tech entrepreneur.

One advantage of working on biorisk is that many of the top positions seem somewhat less competitive than in AI technical safety work, because they don’t require world-class quantitative skills.

Besides pandemic risks, we’re also interested in how to safely manage the introduction of other potentially transformative discoveries in biology, which could be used to fundamentally alter human characteristics and values — such as genetic engineering and anti-ageing research. We see these issues as somewhat less pressing than the possibility of engineered pandemics, but they provide another reason to develop expertise in these areas.

Examples of people pursuing this path

How to assess your fit

To assess if this path might be a good fit for you, consider these questions:

  • Are you deeply concerned with reducing catastrophic risks, and especially extinction risks?
  • Do you have reasonably strong quantitative skills? (They don’t need to be as strong as they do for AI fields.)
  • Do you already have experience in a relevant research area (such as synthetic biology, genetics, public health, epidemiology, international relations, security studies, or political science)?
  • Do you have a chance of getting a PhD from a top 30 school in one of these areas? (This isn’t required but is a good indicator of your ability. Read more about predicting success in research.)
  • Are you able to be discreet about sensitive information concerning biodefence?
  • If focused on field-building research, can you take on messy, ill-defined questions, and come up with reasonable assessments about them?
  • If focused on policy, might you be capable of getting and being satisfied in a relevant position in government? In policy, it’s useful to have relatively strong social skills, such as being happy to speak to people all day, and being able to maintain a robust professional network. Policy careers also require patience in working with large bureaucracies, and sometimes also involve facing public scrutiny.
  • If focused on engineering, could you get obsessed about a relevant problem, like hazmat suits or nanopore sequencing?

How to enter this field

Often the way to enter this path is to pursue relevant graduate studies (such as in the subjects listed above) — this takes you along the academic path, and is also helpful in the policy path (where many positions require graduate study). Alternatively, you can try to directly enter relevant jobs in government, international organisations, or nonprofits, and build expertise on the job.

You could also try to gain general entrepreneurship or engineering expertise by working in companies or nonprofits helping developing relevant tech, or working at a startup – though if you take this route, be mindful of incentives to advance biotech capabilities that might make the problem worse.

The backup options for this path depend on your expertise, but they include other options in the policy realm — it’s usually possible to switch your focus within a policy career. You could also work on adjacent research questions that have the potential to make a positive difference, such as in global health, ageing, or genetics. These backup options seem generally attractive, though somewhat less promising and more competitive than the ones available by pursuing AI safety policy or technical research (which is one reason we rank this path a bit lower).

Recommended organisations

  • altLabs is a nonprofit research institution focused on the development and advancement of safety-promoting technologies. It prioritises thoughtful solutions with long-term positive impact on a global scale.
  • The Center for International Security and Cooperation is Stanford University’s hub for researchers tackling some of the world’s most pressing security and international cooperation issues. See current vacancies.
  • The Council on Strategic Risks is dedicated to anticipating, analysing, and addressing this century’s core systemic risks to security, with special examination of the ways in which these risks intersect and exacerbate one another.
  • The Future of Humanity Institute is a multidisciplinary research institute at the University of Oxford. Academics at FHI bring the tools of mathematics, philosophy, and social sciences to bear on big-picture questions about humanity and its prospects.
  • The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security explores how new policy approaches, scientific advances, and technological innovations can strengthen health security and save lives. See current vacancies.
  • The Legal Priorities Project is an independent global research project founded by researchers from Harvard University. It conducts legal research that tackles the world’s most pressing problems, and is influenced by the principles of effective altruism and longtermism. See current vacancies.
  • The Nuclear Threat Initiative is a US nonpartisan think tank that works to prevent catastrophic attacks and accidents with nuclear, biological, radiological, chemical, and cyberweapons of mass destruction and disruption. See current vacancies.
  • The Sabeti Lab at Harvard University uses computational methods and genomics to understand mechanisms of evolutionary adaptation in humans and pathogens. See current vacancies.
  • Kevin Esvelt’s Sculpting Evolution Group at the MIT Media Lab is a group of biotechnologists working to cultivate wisdom and guard against catastrophe via evolutionary and ecological engineering. Projects span from robotics and machine learning, to preventing catastrophic misuse of biotechnology, to working with wild populations and ecosystems.
  • The Secure DNA project is a global team of academic life scientists, cryptographers, and policy analysts working to develop an automated DNA screening system capable of secure and universal DNA synthesis, which will be freely available everywhere. See current vacancies.
  • Telis Bioscience aims to radically accelerate drug development by building an antibody design engine to safely and effectively drug any novel target in hours, instead of months or years. See current vacancies.

Want one-on-one advice on pursuing this path?

Because this is one of our priority paths, if you think this path might be a great option for you, we’d be especially excited to advise you on next steps, one-on-one. We can help you consider your options, make connections with others working in the same field, and possibly even help you find jobs or funding opportunities.

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Find jobs in biorisk research, strategy, and policy

If you think you might be a good fit for this path and you’re ready to start looking at job opportunities, see our curated list of jobs open in this path:

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Read next:  Learn about other high-impact careers

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