Study Panel Co-Chairs Governor Thomas Ridge and Senator Joseph Lieberman testify to a Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing, with Panel Co-Directors Ellen Carlin, DVM, and Asha M. George, DrPH in the background.
Award Date 
8/2016
Grant Amount 
$1,300,000
Purpose 
To support the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense

Published: November 2016

We decided to write about this grant in some detail because it is one of our first major grants in the area of biosecurity and pandemic preparedness. This page is a summary of the reasoning behind our decision to make the grant; it was reviewed but not written by the grant investigator.

Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense staff reviewed this page prior to publication.

In April 2015, the Open Philanthropy Project awarded a grant of $300,000 to the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense (abbreviated as “the Study Panel”), which advocates for improvements to U.S. biodefense policy, to support its initial activities. We have decided to renew our support for the Study Panel with a grant of $1,300,000 via Potomac Institute for Policy Studies to enable it to continue its efforts through the end of 2017.

We were pleased by the progress that the Study Panel made in 2015, including releasing an initial report with recommendations to improve U.S. biodefense policy. This grant is intended to support the Study Panel’s continued efforts to improve U.S. biodefense policy, including implementation of its recommendations.

February 2017 update: note that we decided to make a “top-up” grant of $500,000 to bring this grant’s effective total to $1,800,000.

Background

This grant falls within our work on biosecurity and pandemic preparedness, one of our focus areas within global catastrophic risks. On the page describing our previous grant to the Study Panel, we described this focus area as follows:

We see the biosecurity and pandemic preparedness space as being characterized by:1

  • Large risks (one of the most likely causes of massive global disruption)
  • Feasible opportunities to improve preparedness
  • Little philanthropic spending (although this may change with increased interest from funders post-Ebola)
  • Large amounts of government spending

Despite the size of the space there seems to be relatively little funding outside of government for analysis and other efforts to improve biosecurity policy. Therefore, we believe there is an opportunity for additional philanthropy to leverage public funding and improve preparedness.

Previous grant

In April 2015, we made a grant to the Study Panel to support its initial activities, which included:

  • Producing a report with 33 recommendations for U.S. biodefense policy.2
  • Op-eds and other communications.
  • Working to develop champions of the Study Panel’s work in Congress and the Executive Branch.

We were generally pleased with the Study Panel’s execution of this work, and its reception among relevant policymakers (more below).

Grant renewal

This grant will provide general operating support to enable the Study Panel to continue its efforts to improve U.S. biodefense policy, including implementation of its recommendations. The Study Panel plans to identify three to five of the 33 recommendations it made in its 2015 report as focus areas for the next phase of its advocacy work. We think this is a reasonable strategy, and we believe this grant will provide the Study Panel with an opportunity to build on the momentum of its previous work.

Proposed activities

The Study Panel plans to use this grant to fund the following activities:

  • Hosting public meetings.
  • Producing reports.
  • Outreach to members of Congress, presidential campaigns, and the new Administration. The Study Panel plans to hire a government relations firm to expand its team size, increase its presence on the Hill, build new relationships with policymakers, and strengthen existing relationships, with the ultimate goal of increasing the likelihood of policy impact.
  • Hiring a communications firm to help with public outreach.

Budget

The Study Panel’s phase-1 work had a budget of $600,000. The budget for its second phase has grown due to an increase in project length and scaled-up efforts in this second phase. The notional budget for the next phase covers the following:

  • Staff salaries: 49%
  • Honoraria for panel members: 17%
  • Public relations and communications: 16% (the Study Panel requested a larger communications budget than it did for our previous grant in order to pursue a more ambitious set of public relations and communications activities)
  • Policy support: 9%
  • Travel for panelists and staff: 4%
  • Administration: 3%
  • Catering: 2%

Case for the grant

We decided to make this grant for several reasons:

  • The U.S. government spends more money on biosecurity than any other organization in the world; accordingly, U.S. biodefense policy and programs have a large influence on global biosecurity. We hope this grant will impact the U.S. government in two ways:
    • Creating policy change via new legislation and/or Executive Branch action.
    • Bringing the importance of biodefense (including biosecurity) to the attention of policymakers and creating champions for these issues in Congress and possibly in the Executive Branch. While U.S. biodefense goals are not perfectly aligned with the Open Philanthropy Project’s goal to reduce global catastrophic risks from pandemic pathogens, there is substantial overlap between these two mission areas, and progress on this front seems feasible.
  • The Study Panel’s track record to date gives us some confidence that the next phase of its work will be effective. We believe that the 33 recommendations in its 2015 report are practical and largely uncontroversial, and have been generally well-received within government. It seems likely to us that this phase-1 work has already had an impact on policy, for the following reasons:
    • The House version of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and independent legislation introduced by the Senate both contain language that reflects two out of three of the Panel’s overarching recommendations: (1) establishing a biodefense coordination council at the White House and (2) developing a comprehensive national biodefense strategy. We think there is a good chance that some of this language will get signed into law if the NDAA makes it through the congressional conference committee. Although there is some chance that legislation of this sort might have been introduced in the absence of the Study Panel, it seems reasonable to attribute this impact to the Study Panel’s report, since these bills reflect its specific recommendations.
    • The Study Panel’s work has been cited by influential political figures, including by CIA Director John Brennan in his remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations on June 29, 2016.3
    • Multiple references to the Study Panel in recent congressional hearings indicate that the group has started to develop congressional champions for its work.

Risks and reservations

Since the Study Panel will not select its short list of focus areas until after this grant has been awarded, our primary concern is that we do not know how well its prioritized recommendations will align with Open Philanthropy Project priorities. However, we are actively excited about most of the 33 recommendations in the 2015 report, so we think it is unlikely that the Study Panel will choose to focus exclusively on areas that are lowest priority for us.

Key questions for follow-up

To judge the extent to which this grant has succeeded within the next couple of years, we will likely focus on the following types of questions:

  • The quality of the Study Panel’s work (which we see as the outcome most directly within its control):
    • What is our impression of the quality of the reports, public events, and communications produced by the Study Panel during the grant period?
    • What are the impressions of the efficacy of the Study Panel’s work among congressional staff, Executive Branch officials, National Security Council staff, or other experts in the field?
  • Intermediate outcomes:
    • Are Study Panel staff able to meet with key people in the new Administration?
    • Do they succeed in developing additional congressional champions for biodefense?
    • Have there been congressional hearings that include Study Panel members and/or references to its work?
    • How much press attention has been generated by the Study Panel’s continued advocacy?
  • Policy outcomes (which we recognize are difficult to influence and predict):
    • Have any of the three to five prioritized recommendations been adopted? Do these new policies improve biosecurity and pandemic preparedness?
    • Have there been positive changes in the nature of congressional oversight in areas relevant to the Study Panel’s work?
    • Have there been increases in the U.S. biodefense budget or its component parts?

Our process

Jaime Yassif, our Program Officer for Biosecurity and Pandemic Preparedness, had three phone conversations with Study Panel staff, reviewed the Study Panel’s 2015 report, and evaluated the policy impact of the Study Panel’s phase-1 activities using materials provided by its staff.

Sources

Document Source
Blue Ribbon Study Panel 2015 report Source
CFR Events, “John Brennan on Transnational Threats to Global Security” Source (archive)
  • 1.

    For more details and reasoning behind this characterization, see our biosecurity shallow investigation.

  • 2. Blue Ribbon Study Panel 2015 report
  • 3.

    “The scope of the bio-threat, as well as potential measures to mitigate it, were laid out very clearly last October in the bipartisan report of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense chaired by former Senator Joe Lieberman and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. As with the cyber threat, the international community’s response to this issue lags behind the technology driving it. Effectively countering this danger requires the development of national and international strategies, along with a consensus of the laws, standards, and authorities that will be needed.”
    CFR Events, “John Brennan on Transnational Threats to Global Security”