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.
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.
Groups that are hiring or seeking volunteers
Update 2020-05: We’re now listing COVID-19 opportunities on our job board.
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 profile explains, catastrophic pandemics seem more likely to be human-caused, and perhaps even deliberately caused. So they may be more well-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 risksseem 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).
We can roughly divide this path into working in government and related organizations on the one hand, and working in research on the other.
The main line of defence against these risks is government, 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
The World Health Organization
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control
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 back-up 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), or advising for policy-makers 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.
As with AI strategy, the study of global catastrophic biological risk is still a nascent field. This again 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 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.
If you’re not able to contribute to disentanglement research right now, there are several other things you can do, including: (i) tackle more straightforward relevant research questions, (ii) work in more mainstream biorisk organisations to build up expertise, (iii) focus on policy positions with the aim of building a community and expertise, or (iv) become an expert on a relevant area of biology, international relations, or a related field.
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.
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, or nonprofits, and build expertise on the job.
The backup options for this path depend on what expertise you have, 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 also 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 made available by pursuing AI safety policy or technical research (which is one reason we rank this path a bit lower).
Could this be a good fit for you?
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 relevant to biology (such as those listed above)?
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?
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 robust professional network. Policy careers also require patience in working with large bureaucracies, and sometimes also involve facing public scrutiny.