Catastrophic Global Risks: A Silicon Valley Funder Thinks the Unthinkable


There's a reason we love to write about Good Ventures, the philanthropic vehicle of Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna. It's fascinating to watch a young foundation power up, backstopped by billions of dollars and yet unencumbered by pre-existing grantmaking obligations. Along with its partner the Open Philanthropy Project (OPP), Good Ventures has seized on a unique opportunity to step back to ask what are the most critical problems in the world that need to be solved. 

We've written about how the ideas of effective altruism guided this effort, informing OPP's grantmaking in areas like global health and development, as well as animal welfare and criminal justice. But maybe more intriguing is that OPP has been pondering the kinds of existential threats to civilization that most of us would rather not think about. Through its Global Catastrophic Risks program, the Open Philanthropy Project has sought to identify and investigate what it calls "risks that could be globally destabilizing enough to permanently worsen humanity’s future or lead to human extinction."

You read that right: This is a grantmaker that's actively thinking about what could cause human extinction, which is not something we see every day in the philanthrosphere. In fact, as far as we can see, Jeff Skoll's Global Threat Fund is the only other outfit that contemplates doomsday scenarios in this way. 

So what's the practical upshot of the chilling brainstorming at OPP? Well, beginning in August of last year, it formally launched its Global Catastrophic Risks portfolio with two main subprograms: Biosecurity and Pandemic Preparedness and Risks from Advanced Artificial Intelligence.

We've already reported on the AI work here,  and how it fits into a larger spurt of funding by donors worried that machines may one day outsmart humans.

Here, we’re going to take a closer look at OPP's biosecurity work, and more specifically, its plans to invest in disease surveillance.

Disease surveillance is one of the global health topics that we’ve kept a close eye on in recent years, especially since one of the biggest funders in this space—the Rockefeller Foundation—has pulled out of the surveillance game.

For more than a decade, Rockefeller donated millions of dollars to projects addressing the “rapid emergence of new infectious disease.” In 2012, the foundation decided to pull the plug on the program, though it still awards a few grants here and there to back disease surveillance projects around the world.

Of course, since then, the Ebola epidemic happened, and now Zika is spreading, putting infectious disease back on philanthropy's radar in a big way. We've written about what the Gates Foundation has done lately in this area, awarding a decent number of multi-million dollar grants earmarked for preventing and responding to disease outbreaks and epidemics. As well, Paul Allen has been a player here since rushing into the global health field during the Ebola epidemic. And the Skoll Global Threats Fund was on this case before Ebola happened, as we've reported. 

So where does OPP's work fit in? Well, a starting premise is that pandemics are one of the “biggest risks to global welfare and stability,” and yet there's still not a whole lot of philanthropic work to mitigate those risks. The scant number of funders we just mentioned certainly underscores that point. 

Through its grantmaking, OPP is looking to strengthen disease surveillance systems mainly by supporting research and policy making projects. Most recently, Good Ventures and OPP awarded a $2.7 million grant to UPMC Center for Health Security to back its Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative (ELBI). The funds are being used to support the program’s work developing and training early career professionals working in a “broad range of biosecurity and pandemic preparedness sub-fields.”

Another grant for $640,000 went to the Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation to support work on biosecurity by Megan Palmer.

Other than these two recent awards, only two other biosecurity grants have been made. The first was a $300,000 give in 2014 to the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense to support a series of biodefense meetings attended by policymakers, academics, and security experts. The goal of those meetings was to develop a report to inform related U.S. policy and laws.

Around a year later, the International Genetically Engineered Machine Foundation (iGEM) received a $520,000 grant to support staff building and pilot workshops. IGEM is described as an “international synthetic biology competition for students” that offers opportunities to broadly test safety and security measures in synthetic biology.