These are difficult times. If you’re social distancing or working from home for the first time, this article on self-care may be helpful.
For an overview of how to personally protect yourself and others from infection, see this FAQ by the CDC (or if you want to go all out, see the individual and family guidelines on Endecoronavirus.org). This New York Times FAQ also has advice on how to protect yourself economically (if you don’t live in the US, check similar newspapers in your country).
Do research to understand the disease and to develop new treatments and a vaccine.
Determine the right policies, both for public health and the economic response.
Increase healthcare capacity, especially for testing, ventilators, personal protective equipment, and critical care.
Slow the spread through testing & isolating cases, as well as mass advocacy to promote social distancing and other key behaviours, buying us more time to do the above.
We also need to keep society functioning through the progression of the pandemic.
There has been a debate about whether to focus on ‘suppression’ or ‘mitigation’. Suppression involves strict social distancing, aiming to dramatically reduce the number of cases, and keep them low until we have better treatment options. Mitigation aims to slow the spread and protect especially vulnerable groups, but employs less social distancing, maybe allowing us to return to normal life more quickly.
Each option involves terrible costs, but if we can effectively employ the right strategy, we can reduce these costs as much as possible, and potentially save tens of millions of lives.
Many people will find their best way to contribute is to continue with their current job; practice social distancing and good hygiene to slow the spread; and help friends, neighbours and vulnerable people you know to make it through.
People who provide essential services (e.g. making deliveries, anything in healthcare) are already making important contributions to helping others to weather the pandemic.
Unfortunately, the rest of the world’s problems have not gone away. If you’re already on a career path that you think is high-impact, then unless you have rare skills that are urgently needed, your best bet is probably to do the basics mentioned above, while continuing with your existing path.
That said, there are opportunities to help that some of our readers may be well-placed to pursue. We’ve prepared one article on how to use your time most effectively, and another on how you can donate money to help relieve the most crucial bottlenecks:
Below is a list of opportunities to help the global response to COVID-19. The list is focussed on opportunities in research, policy, technology and startups. We focus on opportunities in the US and UK, because most of our audience is based there. Please tell us about opportunities in other locations that we should add to this list.
Warning: we have not carefully reviewed the organisations and opportunities on these lists. Most items on this list are included simply on the grounds that we have seen the project endorsed by a relevant expert or institution, or even just that we (as non-experts) have glanced at the relevant project and thought it seemed at least somewhat promising. Please contact us to suggest improvements to this list.
We’ve argued that pandemics pose a global catastrophic risk, and this risk could increase as advances in bioengineering make it possible to create engineered pandemics that are 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, (while this is starting to change) most of the existing work is focused on conventional, naturally-caused pandemics, while we think what’s most important are catastrophic risks, especially those that might end civilisation. These are much more likely to be deliberately caused, so involve issues more naturally covered by the defence & bioterrorism community than public health, and involve a different set of interventions. What’s more, we’ve estimated that most of the past funding for work on bioterrorism has focused on risks like anthrax, which can’t spread from person-to-person, and so don’t pose a catastrophic risk.
This means that despite significant existing work on pandemic prevention, “global catastrophic biological risks” remain highly neglected.
We rate biorisk as a less pressing issue than AI safety, mainly because we think biorisks are less likely to be existential, and AI seems more likely to play a key role in shaping the long-term future in other ways. However, it can easily be your top option if you have a comparative advantage in this path (e.g. a background in medicine).
To mitigate these risks, what’s most needed at a high-level is people able to develop strategy and policy proposals, and work with governments to aid their implementation. We call this path “biorisk strategy and policy research”. We can further divide this into an academic and a government path, as follows.
The main line of defence against these risks is government, but there are currently few people concerned with existential risks working there. So, we think it’s valuable to build up a community of experts in relevant areas of national government and intergovernmental organisations, such as the US Centers for Disease Control, European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate and the World Health Organization. You could also work in relevant think tanks, such as the Center for Health Security or nonprofits like the Nuclear Threat Initiative. These experts can help to implement better policies when they’re known, and they can also help to improve policy proposals in the meantime. We list key organisations in our profile.
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 and 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 back-up options.
Once you’ve completed training, you could: do research on directly useful technical questions, such as how to create broad-spectrum diagnostics or rapidly deploy vaccines; do research on strategic questions, such as how dangerous technologies should be controlled; or you could advise policy-makers and other groups on the issues. A top research centre to aim to work at is the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford.
As with AI strategy, global catastrophic biological risk is still a nascent field. This again can make it hard to contribute, since 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 might be able to do this kind of work, then your contribution is especially valuable since you can unlock the efforts of other researchers. The main home for most of this kind of research with a long-term focus right now is the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford. There’s also a significant need for mentors who can help the next generation enter.
If you’re not able to contribute to the strategic research right now, then you can (i) try to identify more straightforward research questions that are relevant, (ii) work in more conventional biorisk organisations to build up expertise, (iii) focus on policy positions with the aim of building a community and expertise, (iv) become an expert on a relevant area of biology.
One advantage of 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, such as genetic engineering, which could be used to fundamentally alter human characteristics and values, or anti-ageing research. We see these issues as somewhat less pressing and neglected than engineered pandemics, but they provide another reason to develop expertise in these kinds of areas.
Often the way to enter this path is to pursue relevant graduate studies (such as in the subjects listed above) because 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 and nonprofits, and build expertise on the job.
The main backup option from this path depends on what expertise you have, but one direction is other options in policy — it’s usually possible to switch your focus within a policy career. You could also work on adjacent research questions, such as those relevant to global health.
Unfortunately, overall the backup options often seem a little worse than AI safety, because qualifications in biology don’t open up as many options (many more people get biology PhDs than there are academic positions, leading to a high rate of drop out). This is another reason why we list this path lower. That said, you could still exit into the biotechnology or health industries to earn to give, and ultimately a wide range of other paths, such as nonprofit careers.
Could this be a good fit for you?
Are you deeply convinced of the importance of reducing extinction risks?
Compared to similar roles in AI safety, this field doesn’t require equally strong quantitative skills.
In research, might you be capable of getting a PhD from a top 30 school in one of these areas? This isn’t required but is a good indicator. Read more about predicting success in research.
If focused on field building research, can you take on messy, ill-defined questions, and come up with reasonable assessments about them?
Are you able to be discreet about sensitive information concerning biodefence?
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 stronger social skills, such as being happy to speak to people all day, and being able to maintain a network. Policy careers also require patience to work with large bureaucracies and sometimes public scrutiny.
Do you already have experience in a relevant area of biology?
Our profile on biorisk, which includes a list of recommended organisations and research centres, and relevant podcasts, which are linked to from the profile.