Open Philanthropy Project Update: Global Catastrophic Risks

Throughout the post, “we” refers to GiveWell and Good Ventures, who work as partners on the Open Philanthropy Project.

This post lays out our progress, since last year, on identifying potential focus areas for our work on global catastrophic risks.


Note: this section is similar to the introduction of our previous post on U.S. policy. The overall approach of our work has evolved similarly in the two areas.

Last year, we set a “stretch goal” for the Open Philanthropy Project:

There are two types of causes – global catastrophic risks and US policy issues – that we now feel generally familiar with (particularly with the methods of investigation). We also believe it is important for us to pick some causes for serious commitments (multiple years, substantial funding) as soon as feasible, so that we can start to get experienced with the process of building cause-specific capacity and finding substantial numbers of giving opportunities. As such, our top goal for 2014 is a stretch goal (substantial probability we will fail to hit it): making substantial commitments to causes within these two categories. We aren’t sure yet how many causes this will involve; it will depend partly on our ability to find suitable hires. We also haven’t fully formalized the notion of a “substantial commitment to cause X,” but it will likely involve having at least one staff member spending a substantial part of their time on cause X, planning to do so for multiple years, and being ready to commit $5-30 million per year in funding.

Since then:

Below, we go into more detail on:

Progress since our July update

Biosecurity. We put significantly more work into understanding the fairly large and complex biosecurity space, which includes efforts to prevent or mitigate the harm from natural pandemics, accidental release of dangerous natural pathogens, currently existing biological weapons, and accidental or purposeful release of synthetic pathogens in the future. We believe there are significant philanthropic opportunities here. We are currently strongly considering one grant and may consider others, though we believe this space is complex enough that the best way to approach it would be with specialized staff.

Artificial intelligence. We began an investigation of risks from potential unintended consequences of advances in artificial intelligence. We hoped to hear the perspectives of mainstream computer scientists, artificial intelligence experts, and machine learning experts regarding arguments like those advanced in the recent book Superintelligence. We temporarily paused this investigation on learning that the Future of Life Institute was planning a conference on this topic; Howie Lempel and Jacob Steinhardt attended the conference on our behalf. We see the conference as a major update:

Geoengineering. We continued to investigate the cause of governance of and research into geoengineering, and are currently strongly considering a grant in this space.

Geomagnetic storms. We began an investigation (by consultant David Roodman, who previously investigated labor mobility and the mortality-fertility connection) into the conflicting claims we’ve seen about the threat posed by geomagnetic storms. This investigation is still in progress. Depending on its outcome, we may become interested in funding research into electrical grid robustness.

Other risks. We looked further into philanthropic possibilities for reducing risks from nuclear weapons, completed a shallow investigation on risks from atomically precise manufacturing, and did a small amount of investigation on general food security (a cross-cutting issue, since several different global catastrophic risks could disrupt global agriculture).

We have not yet made the results of any of the above investigations public, though we plan to. As mentioned early in this post, we have been prioritizing investigation over public writeups, and we are experimenting with different processes for writing up completed investigations – in particular, trying to assign more of the work to more junior staff.

As with U.S. policy, we have noted significant variation in the extent to which different issues are suitable for specialized staff. We feel that biosecurity would be best handled by specialized staff. The other areas we’re considering – with the possible exception of geoengineering – seem better suited to a “broad” model in which we scan multiple areas at once, looking for the most outstanding grant opportunities.


While there are more cause investigations we could do, at this point we think it’s appropriate to shift our priorities in the direction of granting out significant funds in the causes we’ve already identified as promising. At the same time, we’re trying to give ourselves the flexibility to look across multiple possible causes, and only make a “big bet” (a full-time hire or major grant) where we feel the opportunity is outstanding. As such, we’ve created a relatively long prioritized list of causes, with goals for each, and our six-month goal is to be in the late stages of making a “big bet” in at least one area. We may continue to make smaller grants, with relatively light investigation, when we see reasonably strong opportunities, but this is not our main goal.

We’ve ranked biosecurity as our top priority, for the following reasons.

Suitability for a full-time hire. Biosecurity stands out along several dimensions that make it an appealing but also particularly complex target for philanthropy:

Overall, we feel biosecurity is the best-suited (of the causes we have ranked relatively highly) to a specialized hire, and hiring is a top priority of ours.

Importance, tractability, crowdedness. We see this area as the most threatening risk on the list, with the possible exception of artificial intelligence, in terms of probability of a massive global disruption to civilization, and we are fairly convinced that there are real opportunities to improve preparedness.

We find it difficult to predict whether the additional attention brought to the cause by the Ebola outbreak in West Africa will lead to major changes in available funding. We plan to monitor this situation and expect the most important effects to be on the relative crowdedness of different interventions within the cause. Our current view is that it would be a surprise if most of the promising opportunities to increase preparation were funded by other actors in the near future.

Our next few priorities are a set of risks that we see as (a) posing substantial threats of massive global disruptions to civilization in the next century; (b) presenting a strong possibility of useful, not-already-funded preparatory work in the near future; (c) not being a good fit for extremely intensive or full-time investigation at this time, either because we have some key open questions remaining or because we aren’t aware of a large enough space of giving opportunities. Specifically:

Below these priorities, we list risks where (a) a massive global disruption to civilization is highly unlikely to occur in the next century; or (b) we have found less useful preparatory work that is not already being done.

An additional goal for the next several months is to write up the more recent work we’ve done, most of which is not yet public.

Public summary of our global catastrophic risk priorities