When COVID-19 first began spreading rapidly in 2020, humanity found itself entering a race from far behind the starting line. We didn’t know much about how the virus spread — we didn’t even know whether we could get infected from the air we breathed or the surfaces we touched.
We didn’t know how likely transmission was outdoors, whether masks would be effective, or how quickly we could develop, produce, and distribute effective vaccines and treatments.
In short, we were unprepared.
And the next time something like COVID-19 comes along — or something far, far worse — it’s not clear we’ll be much better off.
This review tells you how you could use your career to do something about it.
At the most basic level, it involves ensuring that humanity is better prepared, so no virus ever catches us with our guard down again. We should have a much better understanding of how viruses spread so we can stop pandemics out of the gate. We need better systems for rapidly rolling out highly effective vaccines, treatments, and non-pharmaceutical interventions that will work against a wide range of threats. And we need policies, practices, and institutions that reduce the risk of new pandemics — particularly those caused by artificial pathogens, which we believe pose the greatest dangers — devastating the world once again.
Enter your email and we’ll mail you a book (for free).
We believe you can help tackle some of the world’s biggest and most neglected problems, and our only aim is to help you do that.
Join our newsletter and we’ll send you a free copy of The Precipice — a book by philosopher Toby Ord about how to tackle the greatest threats facing humanity.
You’ll be joining over 300,000 people who receive weekly updates on our research and job opportunities. T&Cs here. You can unsubscribe in one click.
In a nutshell: Advances in biotechnology could generate, through accident or misuse, pandemics even worse than those that occur naturally — and bad enough to threaten human civilization. COVID-19 demonstrated global preparedness and response to a major pandemic is inadequate in general, and the threat from pandemics arising from the misuse of biotechnology remains especially neglected. Efforts to reduce this danger are thus extremely valuable.
If you are well suited to this career, it may be the best way for you to have a social impact.
Based on an in-depth investigation
Why might biorisk careers 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 (e.g. 1918 Influenza and the Black Death).
The world already dedicates many thousands of people and many billions of dollars to mitigating the danger of pandemics in general.
But this was nonetheless widely deemed to be insufficient before COVID-19, and it looks likely to remain inadequate in the aftermath — surprisingly little has been done to shore up our preparedness for another pandemic in the last few years.
Existing efforts also usually prioritise naturally arising pandemics over outbreaks that could be caused instead by human mistake or malice. Yet, for reasons our problem profile explains, it is the potential human-made pandemics that are much more likely to pose an existential or global catastrophic risk.
There is substantial overlap between work that mitigates natural pandemic risks and these more extreme risks. Still, work particularly focused on the extreme risks seems somewhat neglected in the field right now.
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?
There are many promising interventions in this field, and you can make valuable contributions from different academic and professional backgrounds — including machine learning, social sciences, business development, and more — and while working in varied professional contexts, such as government, industry, civil society, or academia.
Providing comprehensive guidance for all of them is not possible here. For specific information and advice for particular paths within it, we recommend getting in touch or joining the broader community. But this article provides an overview of types of careers in this path, as well as some broad guidance for assessing your fit for this field and career planning within it.
An overview of biorisk careers
Tools for preventing biorisks are often (imperfectly) sorted into policy and technical domains. But these approaches commonly overlap. For example:
- Policy may seek to influence technical fields (e.g. regulation of dual use research).
- Developing and deploying a new biodefense capability commonly requires policy advocacy.
- Technical advances may address policy objectives (e.g. genetic engineering attribution).
Nevertheless, it can still be useful to divide careers in this area roughly into policy and technical paths, with some careers including significant elements of both paths or overlapping with other cause areas.
Biorisk policy careers
A lot of the risk we face from pandemics could be reduced or mitigated as a matter of policy.
The main actors in this space are national governments. They have a near monopoly on some kinds of interventions (e.g. security, intelligence, diplomatic, legal, regulatory), and are major players in many others (e.g. science and technology funding). So government service is a promising route to impact.
The United States probably offers the best opportunities for impact on this problem because it is already an influential actor in global biosecurity. Other nations are also important and plausibly neglected.
You’re more likely to be able to get roles working on sensitive security-related issues in your country of origin or citizenship, since governments may be less trusting of foreign nationals. And different agencies within a government are responsible for working on different aspects of biorisk, so you’ll want to be deliberate when choosing where to work. This choice may depend on which particular problems in this area you want to focus on.
You can also have an impact on biorisk policy outside government. Positions in academia, think tanks, and civil society can play an important role advising, partnering with, or lobbying governments to improve policy.
For instance, the use of human challenge studies to mitigate pandemics was initially proposed by academics and then championed by the advocacy group 1DaySooner.
International bodies such as the World Health Organization, EU, and UN also have roles to play. Although the Biological Weapons Convention, for example, is under-resourced and has a spotty track record, its convening power and its enshrining of the categorical norm against bioweapons remain valuable to global health security.
Biorisk technical careers
The case of vaccines in the COVID-19 pandemic underlines the importance of technical contributions to biorisk reduction, as modelling suggests COVID vaccination has saved more than 10 million lives. But it also highlights the fact that there’s much more to do.
There were 1.6 million confirmed COVID deaths before vaccines were first used anywhere, and 5 million more since. The majority of these were preventable, and the real number of total deaths is believed to be 2-3 times higher.
In the same way technological advances over the past two decades made it possible to deploy a vaccine within the first year of the COVID pandemic — a historically unprecedented feat that saved millions of lives — advancing technical capabilities to prevent, detect and respond to emerging outbreaks could reduce or eliminate the danger of a catastrophic pandemics in the future.
Biotech and pharmaceuticals are important for developing medical countermeasures such as ‘platform’ vaccines and broad spectrum therapeutics. But there are also promising interventions outside of these fields: machine learning could help us develop better methods of genetic engineering detection and attribution; physics and engineering are key to producing better personal protective equipment (PPE) or highly effective sterilisation (e.g. far-UVC).
Many potential technical interventions need work across multiple disciplines. For example, developing a ‘nucleic acid observatory,’ which uses metagenomic sequencing to get an ‘early warning’ of an outbreak, may require:
- Computational biology to figure out the early warning signs of an outbreak in genetic sequence data
- Engineering to develop appropriate sequencers
- Disease modelling to assess how well this could work and figure out where sensors should be placed
- Tech policy to navigate potential risks of misuse
- Operations and logistics to ensure it actually works when you try and use it in the real world
Technical interventions at an earlier stage may require more ‘pure’ research and theoretical work to determine feasibility and sculpt strategy, while those at a later stage may require more clinical or business skills for establishing efficacy, bringing a product to market, etc.
Some career paths lie outside or between policy and technical fields, such as grantmaking or strategy. Biorisk also intersects with other cause areas, so those in these related fields may contribute to biorisk reduction without working exclusively on it. Examples of such paths include forecasting, improving institutional decision making, mitigating great power conflict, and journalism.
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 an aptitude for, or already have experience in, a relevant research area? Relevant areas include:
- Synthetic biology
- Public health
- International relations
- Security studies
- 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 can be a good indicator of your ability.)
- Are you able to be discreet about sensitive information concerning biorisks?
- If focused on policy contributions, might you be able to get and enjoy 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, which many people find stressful and hard to navigate — so if you don’t find this stressful, that’s a good sign.
Aim for a ‘T-shaped’ distribution of expertise: On one hand, biorisk as a field spans far too widely for any individual to be an expert across all (or even most) of it, and specialisation is very useful. On the other, most work in the area is to some degree interdisciplinary, and success is typically a team effort requiring collaboration across disciplines.
Perhaps the best balance to strike is aiming for a ‘T-shaped’ distribution of expertise: broad familiarity across a lot of the space to have a wide collaborative interface, on top of deep expertise in a particular area.
Some particular areas you could try to develop expertise in include (not exhaustive, and in no particular order):
- Biorisk/security studies: e.g. counterbioterrorism, counterproliferation
- Public policy/law: e.g. regulation of dual use research of concern
- International relations/diplomacy: e.g. disarmament (Biological Weapons Convention), global governance and associated institutions (WHO IHRs)
- Engineering/physics: e.g. mechanical engineering for better PPE and sterilisation, possibly civil engineering (ventilation)
- Mathematical modelling/epidemiology: e.g. predicting how effectively particular interventions could reduce epidemic size
- Bioengineering/synthetic biology: e.g. for medical countermeasure development
Early in one’s career, be led by optionality, value of information, and personal fit to find your niche. It can be tricky to figure out what expertise to develop, especially for those new to this path, as there will often be a large field of options open.
There will probably be less variation in impact between biorisk sub-areas than there is variation between specific approaches within the sub-areas.
For example, perhaps, all else equal, counterbioterrorism is more important than laboratory safety, given deliberate misuse is likely a greater share of the risk than accidental release. And perhaps, all else equal, metagenomics is more valuable than platform vaccines, as the former is more neglected.
Yet all else will typically be very unequal when weighing up particular opportunities or career paths in these areas. Some other factors include:
- Research vs. execution: Technological contributions in reducing biorisk vary in their readiness for deployment. This means that the flavour of the work you do might vary a lot depending on which intervention you pursue.
- Policy is sometimes thought of as a ‘cycle’ or ‘funnel’ where proposals are found, crafted, advocated for, then implemented. Earlier stages tend to be more research-heavy, while latter ones are more execution-orientated, and the working lives of (e.g.) professors versus procurement specialists, or analysts versus advocates, look very different.
- Lead times and risky prospects: some career paths in bio involve longer lead times before one can expect to make impactful contributions than others. If your path requires extensive graduate study, for instance, it can be years until you start making an impact.
- Careers also vary in their risk. Entrepreneurship (either technical or policy) may have very high expected impact, because you stand a chance of making a truly outsized contribution. But it might not work out, so you have a chance of achieving nothing. It can often make sense from an impact perspective to take these risks;,but these factors may also affect your personal motivation and the sustainability of the path.
- Working environment: One may prefer the day-to-day of working at an international organisation compared to a startup, or compared to life as an independent freelancer. When you’re looking for jobs, it’s worth asking people who have taken similar roles what the day-to-day experience is like.
Beyond broader considerations like these, there’s a host of much more specific issues: even if you enjoy working in government generally, would you find the right opportunities in a particular department? Even if you enjoy concrete, execution-style work, would you enjoy the sort which involves a lot of face time? And so on.
You should tend to shift from exploration to exploitation as you progress in your career. At first, you may have a very wide set of possible answers for questions like, “What work in this field will I be doing in 10 years time?”
Maybe you think you’re more likely to work in policy than do technical research, but you haven’t ruled out technical work. And within policy, you’re more likely to aim toward working in government than not. These impressions may be good starting places, but they are not enough to set your path in stone.
In that case, comparatively ‘cheap tests’ of these initial impressions would be highly valuable. You can try out a government internship or fellowship — you may get a sense that you can really thrive in this environment, or perhaps policy work just won’t motivate you at all. Either way, this is extremely valuable information as you scope out different career paths.
‘Cheap’ tests (in terms of money, time, or effort) can be easier said than done. Educational opportunities are plentiful in terms of self study, reading groups, or graduate courses (e.g. biodefence at George Mason University, health security at Johns Hopkins University). But practical experience can be harder to come by, and most opportunities have limitations in terms of entry requirements, duration of commitment, specificity, and competitiveness.
There’s a developed pipeline for those embarking on a policy career, especially in the US. You can check out the following institutions for opportunities in this space:
Technical paths look like more standard career paths in academia or industry.
If you’re later in your career, it makes sense to be led more by finding opportunities to best leverage your prior experience to reduce biorisk — that is, to lean more towards ‘exploit’ than ‘explore.’ Your skills and experience usually form a pre-existing comparative advantage. The key question is how your particular strengths are best deployed to reduce biorisk. This may involve changing research areas, moving jobs, or developing additional knowledge and skills, but seldom complete retraining from scratch.
Mid-career entrants are usually intermediate between these extremes. Their prior background partly but incompletely winnows their promising candidate career paths, so there remains a significant role for exploration and testing — loosely akin to an early-career person with a strong passion for a particular subfield. For example, a freshly minted biotech PhD should maybe get some policy exposure, as policy contributions from those with a technical background can be competitive with technical contributions.
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:
View all opportunities
Learn more about biorisk research, strategy, and policy
Want to consider more paths? See our list of the highest-impact career paths according to our research.