The system doesn’t seem like it’s actually crucial but these are the people thanklessly doing the work to try to prevent people from getting infected at a population level … when epidemics happen in a city, hospitals pick up the phone and say “What is it we should be doing? How should we be operating now that an epidemic’s underway?”
How about this for a movie idea: a main character has to prevent a new contagious strain of Ebola spreading around the world. She’s the best of the best. So good in fact, that her work on early detection systems contains the strain at its source. Ten minutes into the movie, we see the results of her work – nothing happens. Life goes on as usual. She continues to be amazingly competent, and nothing continues to go wrong. Fade to black. Roll credits.
If your job is to prevent catastrophes, success is when nobody has to pay attention to you. But without regular disasters to remind authorities why they hired you in the first place, they can’t tell if you’re actually achieving anything. And when budgets come under pressure you may find that success condemns you to the chopping block.
Dr. Tom Inglesby, Director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, worries this may be about to happen to the scientists working on the ‘Global Health Security Agenda’.
In 2014 Ebola showed the world why we have to detect and contain new diseases before they spread, and that when it comes to contagious diseases the nations of the world sink or swim together. Fifty countries decided to work together to make sure all their health systems were up to the challenge. Back then Congress provided 5 years’ funding to help some of the world’s poorest countries build the basic health security infrastructure necessary to control pathogens before they could reach the US.
But with Ebola fading from public memory and no recent tragedies to terrify us, Congress may not renew that funding and the project could fall apart. (Learn more about how you can help.)
But there are positive signs as well – the center Inglesby leads recently received a $16 million grant from Open Philanthropy to further their work preventing global catastrophes. It also runs the Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Fellowship to train the next generation of biosecurity experts for the US government. Inglesby regularly testifies to Congress on the threats we all face and how to address them.
In this in-depth interview we try to provide concrete guidance for listeners who want to to pursue a career in health security, and also discuss:
- Should more people in medicine work on security?
- What are the top jobs for people who want to improve health security and how do they work towards getting them?
- What people can do to protect funding for the Global Health Security Agenda.
- Should we be more concerned about natural or human caused pandemics? Which is more neglected?
- Should we be allocating more attention and resources to global catastrophic risk scenarios?
- Why are senior figures reluctant to prioritize one project or area at the expense of another?
- What does Tom think about the idea that in the medium term, human-caused pandemics will pose a far greater risk than natural pandemics, and so we should focus on specific counter-measures?
- Are the main risks and solutions understood, and it’s just a matter of implementation? Or is the principal task to identify and understand them?
- How is the current US government performing in these areas?
- Which agencies are empowered to think about low probability high magnitude events?
- Are there any scientific breakthroughs that carry particular risk of harm?
- How do we approach safety in terms of rogue groups looking to inflict harm? How is that different from preventing accidents?
- If a terrorist group were pursuing biological weapons, how much would the CIA or other organizations then become involved in the process?
- What are the biggest unsolved questions in health security?
The 80,000 Hours podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.