Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security — Biosecurity, Global Health Security, and Global Catastrophic Risks

Award Date 
1/2017
Grant Amount 
$16,000,000
Purpose 
To support CHS's work on biosecurity, global health security, and global catastrophic risks posed by pathogens.

Published: February 2017

We decided to write about this grant as it is our largest grant to date 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.

Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security staff reviewed this page prior to publication.

The Open Philanthropy Project awarded a grant of $16 million over three years to the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security (CHS) to provide general operating support, to support its domestic and international work on health security and public health preparedness, and to fund an initiative focused on potential global catastrophic risks (GCRs) posed by pandemic pathogens. (CHS was previously known as the UPMC Center for Health Security but recently moved to Johns Hopkins University.) This grant is intended to help address what we see as a two-part gap: (1) there has been little recent work in biosecurity focused explicitly on GCRs, and (2) there is limited independent policy research and advocacy in the field of biosecurity generally.

We see CHS as the preeminent U.S. think tank doing policy research and development in the biosecurity and pandemic preparedness (BPP) space. This grant aims to provide CHS with stable and flexible support, maximize its ability to work on valuable projects, and enable it to build capacity to increase its effectiveness, especially in communications and advocacy.

Background

The cause

This grant falls within our work on biosecurity and pandemic preparedness, one of our focus areas within global catastrophic risks.

To our knowledge, there is currently limited independent policy research and advocacy under way in the BPP space, and there has been little to no recent work on GCRs in particular. This grant is intended to increase CHS’s capacity and independence in order to help address both of these gaps.

The organization

The Center for Health Security (CHS) is a U.S.-based think tank, founded in 1998, that does policy research and development in biosecurity and pandemic preparedness, along with some communications and advocacy. Jaime Yassif, our Program Officer for BPP (“Jaime” throughout this page), considers CHS to be among the best organizations working on biosecurity in the U.S. and globally. Our view of CHS is based in large part on Jaime’s positive opinion of the organization along with our review of organizations working in this space. We see CHS as a well-run, mission-focused organization whose staff members are experts in the field. We believe that CHS has had a significant impact by developing BPP talent that has gone on to serve in other roles, particularly within the U.S. government. The U.S. government and other governments have also reached out to CHS as a source of independent advice and expertise.

We think CHS’s mission to improve BPP nationally and globally is well aligned with our goals. While CHS does not seem to prioritize GCRs within BPP as highly as we do, it is interested in working in the GCR space and is open to receiving ongoing input from us over the course of this grant.

We believe that CHS has an excellent track record of producing quality research, analysis, and policy recommendations, discussed immediately below. We believe CHS’s track record of advocacy and policy impact is reasonably strong, but could be even greater with this additional support from the Open Philanthropy Project (see “Track record of policy impact” for details).

Track record of research and policy development

We did not do an exhaustive review of CHS’s publications, but some of its past work that we believe has been most valuable includes:

  • Atlantic Storm,1 a table-top exercise conducted in 2005 simulating a smallpox terrorist attack, with former senior officials role-playing as heads of state
  • Tom Inglesby and David Relman’s 2015 paper2 on pathogens with pandemic potential and bioterrorism risks
  • A 2015 study3 that uses a Delphi method to analyze experts’ opinions on the likelihood of a bioterrorism attack and which types of attack are most likely. The results show considerable disagreement within the expert community on the likelihood of an attack.
  • CHS’s recently released report4 on “Improving Security through International Biosafety Norms.”

Track record of policy impact

While we have not exhaustively vetted CHS’s track record of impact on policy, our impression is that its track record in the late 1990s-early 2000s was strong. We think this was due in part to the heavy U.S. Government focus on reducing biological threats, especially in the aftermath of 9/11 and the 2001 anthrax attacks. We see less clear evidence of policy impact in recent years; we attribute this to CHS’s funding constraints, its reliance on U.S. Government grants and contracts which has limited its independence, and less U.S. Government interest in biosecurity. We think that with proper funding, CHS can do excellent work that makes a substantial impact on policy.

About the grant

Proposed activities

Global catastrophic risks initiative and proposed projects

Over the course of the grant, CHS plans to devote about one-third of its total funding and staff time to GCR-related projects and two-thirds to general health security and public health preparedness work. We see this as a reasonable allocation of resources because we think that much of CHS’s general biosecurity work is also relevant to and necessary for managing GCRs. Part of the reason for this is that many of the systems needed to prevent GCRs are the same as those needed for managing smaller-scale events (e.g. biosurveillance, medical countermeasure distribution, and systems for mobilizing medical response teams in the event of a public health emergency). An important way to prevent GCR-level events is effective early intervention to stop epidemics from evolving into global pandemics, and these types of systems are critical for doing that.

CHS has provided a list of proposed projects, and we think several of them have the potential to further our GCR-related goals. We plan to work collaboratively with CHS to think through various project options and offer feedback on how to prioritize them.

Increasing independence and flexibility

CHS currently relies heavily on government funding, which limits its independence and requires senior staff to spend a significant amount of their time on fundraising and managing grants and contracts. Our understanding is that this reduces CHS’s ability to prioritize the projects that it considers most important and limits its flexibility to proactively engage with emerging issues.

By decreasing its reliance on government funding, we think this grant will free up CHS leadership time for work that they consider to be more strategic and substantive. We think this is also likely to increase CHS’s independence and empower it to make more candid policy recommendations.

Scaling up communications and advocacy

CHS plans to use our grant to expand its communications and advocacy capacity, including hiring staff dedicated to communications and to managing its website (see “Budget and room for more funding” for details on planned hires). We believe that advocacy and communications are important factors for policy impact, and we expect this scale-up by CHS to improve its effectiveness in this area.

Budget and room for more funding

We do not have a detailed budget breakdown for the grant; it is mostly unrestricted and is designed to give CHS flexibility to pursue the projects it considers most important and to have the most impact. We will have ongoing discussions with CHS about the specific projects and organizational capacity-building activities that this grant will support.

Although the budget is not fixed, our current understanding is that our grant of $16 million over three years will be allocated roughly as follows:

  • About $1.5 million per year will be used to buy CHS staff time so they can stop taking on projects they consider to be less important or strategic than those they would otherwise pursue.
  • Between $1 million and $1.3 million per year will support new staff hires, which will likely include:
    • Additional senior associates and mid-level analysts
    • A communications director
    • A grants manager
    • A website and graphic design person
  • Between $1.2 million and $1.5 million per year will go toward project-related direct costs.
  • About $1.3 million per year will partially replace unrestricted funding that CHS was previously receiving from UPMC before it relocated to Johns Hopkins.

Overall, we estimate that this grant will increase CHS’s annual budget from $5.3 million to approximately $8 million.

Risks to the success of the grant

  • As discussed above, we believe that CHS’s policy impact in recent years has been dampened by constraints in funding and independence. However, we think this grant can help address these obstacles and that with proper resources, CHS can do excellent work that makes a substantial policy impact. We believe our grant will free up CHS leadership time for setting strategic priorities and doing advocacy, provide resources to build communications and advocacy capacity, and increase CHS’s independence so it can make more candid policy recommendations.
  • While CHS has a good understanding of GCRs within BPP and is interested in working in this area, our impression is that work specifically focused on GCRs has not been as high a priority for CHS as it is for us. It is possible that this may lead CHS to prioritize projects differently than we ideally would, but we’re not particularly concerned about this because we plan to work collaboratively to identify priority projects.
  • We believe that some work on GCRs may be controversial.
  • In general, there are risks and uncertainties associated with any large organizational scale-up.

Our process

Jaime had several conversations with CHS leadership about high-level issues relevant to the grant, reviewed materials shared by CHS, and spoke to other experts in the field to get their perspectives on its work.

Sources

Document Source
Boddie et al. 2015 Source (archive)
Cambridge Working Group website Source (archive)
Center for Health Security, Atlantic Storm Source (archive)
Center for Health Security, Dark Winter Source (archive)
Center for Health Security, Improving Security through International Biosafety Norms Source (archive)
Inglesby and Relman 2015 Source (archive)
Inglesby et al. 1999 Source (archive)
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Emerging Infectious Diseases/Pathogens Source (archive)