Published: October 2015
Blue Ribbon Study Panel staff reviewed this page prior to publication.
Note: This page was created using content published by Good Ventures and GiveWell, the organizations that created the Open Philanthropy Project, before this website was launched. Uses of “we” and “our” on this page may therefore refer to Good Ventures or GiveWell, but they still represent the work of the Open Philanthropy Project.
The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense (abbreviated as “the Study Panel”) convened four meetings in which current and former policymakers, academics, and security experts discussed the state of U.S. biodefense efforts. The Study Panel will release a report assessing current efforts and recommending changes to U.S. policy and law in October 2015.
We made this grant as part of our investigation into biosecurity and pandemic preparedness, a space we’ve found to be highly complex. Despite large amounts of government funding (relative to many other potentially catastrophic risks), there is little philanthropic spending and many valuable activities seem to remain underfunded.
We think that providing funding to the Study Panel is a promising giving opportunity because we see it as having a reasonable chance of leading to improved U.S. biosecurity policy and because it will gather experts to conduct needed prioritization work in the area of biosecurity.
Without our support, we believe that this project would have been unlikely to meet its full funding needs or would have been substantially delayed. Based on these considerations, Good Ventures decided to grant $300,000 to the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense.
- Rationale for the grant
- Plans for learning and follow up
- Our process
Rationale for the grant
We see the biosecurity and pandemics 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 (relative to spending on other potential catastrophes)
Despite the size of the space there seems to be relatively little funding outside of the government for prioritizing biosecurity policy improvements. Therefore, we believe that there is an opportunity for additional philanthropy to leverage public money and improve preparedness.
Background on the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense
The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense (abbreviated as “the Study Panel”) convened four meetings in Washington, D.C. attended by academics, bio- and other security experts, and policymakers who discussed major biodefense issues.2 Based on its findings, the Study Panel will issue a report recommending actions to improve biodefense.
The panelists were a bipartisan group of former high-level policymakers and government officials with experience and interest in public health preparedness, biosecurity and biodefense. They were responsible for interviewing speakers at the Study Panel’s meetings and developing the Study Panel’s policy recommendations.3 The Study Panel also included a staff of biodefense experts with policy experience to draft the report and handle other core functions,4 and ex officio members who attended the meetings and lent additional subject matter expertise.5
The Study Panel Panelists were:6
- Joe Lieberman, former U.S. Senator from Connecticut where he chaired the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs (Panel Co-Chair)
- Tom Ridge, former Governor of Pennsylvania and Secretary of Homeland Security (Panel Co-Chair)
- Tom Daschle, former U.S. Senator from South Dakota and Senate Majority Leader
- Jim Greenwood, President and CEO of the Biotechnology Industry Organization and former U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania
- Donna Shalala, former Secretary of Health and Human Services
- Ken Wainstein, former Assistant Attorney General for National Security and former Homeland Security Advisor to the President
In the meetings themselves, several sets of experts in different aspects of biodefense presented on their areas of expertise. The panelists then questioned the speakers. The meetings also served a convening function as many members of the biodefense community attended as observers.
The Study Panel’s meeting topics included:7
- Threat awareness (including perspectives from Congress, the WMD Commission, former executive branch officials, and NGOs)
- Prevention and protection (e.g. arms control and deterrence, quarantine and immediate response, first responder protection, lessons from Ebola, and the Global Health Security Agenda)
- Surveillance and detection (e.g. biosurveillance, diagnostics, veterinary and “One Health” issues, law enforcement, and attribution)
- Response and recovery (e.g. containment, development, manufacturing, and distribution of countermeasures such as vaccines and therapeutic treatments; political leadership)
All four meetings have taken place. More detailed agendas from these meetings are available on the Study Panel’s website, and videos of the second, third, and fourth meetings are included in this footnote.8
The Study Panel’s total expected budget is about $570K. About 70% of its costs come from three major line items:9
- Honoraria (~$8-10K per person per event): $196K
- Study Panel and administrative staff salaries: $102.5K
- Funding for public relations firms to support outreach activities, a press conference launch event, and related publicity activities: $104K
Other costs include travel costs, costs for refreshments for its events, and other meeting resource costs.10
Case for this grant
Our primary reasons for making this grant are:
- We think that this grant has a reasonable chance of leading to improvements in U.S. biosecurity policy.
- As noted above, the Study Panel staff believe that there are political actors who would aim to improve U.S. biosecurity policy if they had more capacity for biosecurity policy design and/or for drafting the relevant legislation.
- Study Panel staff told us that the federal government’s attention to biosecurity issues has decreased since the early 2000s, when bioterrorism was a major public concern. There is now significantly less funding for biosecurity policies and less capacity for biosecurity policy design. For example, the Study Panel staff told us that turnover in Congress over the last few years has led to there being fewer members who see biosecurity as one of their top priorities and who have dedicated biosecurity staff.
- It seems that there is too little philanthropic funding for biosecurity policy design work given the importance of the issues in this space. Providing funding for such work seems robustly beneficial. Even if this grant does not lead to policy change in the short term, it seems likely to be valuable for laying the foundation for policy improvements in the longer term by setting priorities, providing interested parties with policy development, and building community and networks through convening.
- This grant may help us to clarify our biosecurity and pandemics grantmaking strategy. Our current understanding is that there are many ways to improve biosecurity preparedness but that identifying the most important funding gaps and prioritizing policies appropriately is highly complex. We do not feel that we have enough expertise in this space to do this work ourselves with our current staff. This grant enables us to see how a large group of diverse biosecurity experts would prioritize policies within the space, which may help us to set our grantmaking priorities. However, we expect most aspects of our strategy to be set by the Senior Program Officer we are currently recruiting.
- We generally have a positive impression of the organization’s people and its work. Howie Lempel, our Program Officer who has led our investigation into this area, attended the first three Study Panel events in Washington, D.C. He generally had a positive impression of the Study Panel staff, the quality and topics of the presentations, and the group of attendees at the meetings.
- Beyond direct impact, there are notable benefits to making some early grants in a cause that we have prioritized highly (as is the case with biosecurity). As we have written previously, making such grants can be an important part of the process of learning what giving opportunities exist. They can also improve our contacts for a given cause and make it more likely that future giving opportunities will come our way. This grant seems particularly well optimized for learning about additional giving opportunities and improving our contacts because it is convening many of the major stakeholders in this space.
Room for more funding
We see the Study Panel as having an unusually strong case for room for more funding. Though it is difficult to have a high degree of certainty about what would have happened in the absence of Good Ventures’ funding, we believe that if Good Ventures had not provided funding to the Study Panel that it would likely have failed to raise the funding it needed from other philanthropists.
We first learned about this giving opportunity in early November 2014. In early February 2015, after the Study Panel had held its first two meetings, it had raised ~$125K, which was less than half the total amount of funding it needed for all of its work. The Study Panel staff told us that if it did not raise more funds at that time then it would need to pause its activities until it was able to raise more funds. Due to funding uncertainty, the Study Panel delayed its third meeting. We see this as fairly strong evidence that the Study Panel was having difficulty fundraising.
Furthermore, as mentioned above, there are few other philanthropic funders in the biosecurity space, so the Study Panel’s potential funding sources were limited. All of the Study Panel’s early funding came from biodefense industry sources.11
In mid-February 2015, in response to the Study Panel’s apparent funding need, Good Ventures indicated its intention to meet the Panel’s full funding requirements. Ultimately, Good Ventures chose to recommend a grant of $300,000 to the Study Panel with the understanding that this amount of funding would enable the Study Panel to fully support its proposed outreach activities and would encourage it to consider additional ways of publicizing its policy recommendations.
It is difficult to say what the Study Panel would have done if it had been unable to raise any more funds. We would guess that it would have canceled its last two meetings and tried to release a limited version of its policy report.
Risks to the success of the grant
The most salient potential risks to the success of this grant seem to be:
- It is generally difficult to enact policy change, so it is a strong possibility that the Study Panel’s policy recommendations will not be implemented. We do not know much about the track record of similar projects in the past, but we know of one recent effort that was similar to the Study Panel that seems not to have led to much policy change: the 2011 report by the Bipartisan WMD Terrorism Research Center.12 Former study panel staff told us that the Study Panel may succeed at catalyzing policy change where the WMD Center’s Report did not because the Study Panel: (a) took a more cooperative approach than the WMD Center, framing its report as policy advice; (b) proposed better policies instead of focusing on flaw in existing policies.
- Because we haven’t ensured that we are in full agreement with the Study Panel on all areas of policy and all values, we see a risk that it could make policy recommendations that are not strongly aligned with our goals. In particular, we would guess that the panel’s priorities may be slightly different from ours because it is focused on improving national biodefense, whereas we would prefer to prioritize policies from a global humanitarian perspective. Additionally, due to our values, we probably place greater relative importance on catastrophic biosecurity risks (e.g., potentially pandemic pathogens) compared to risks that are less likely to lead directly to a truly global catastrophe (e.g., noncommunicable biological weapons agents like anthrax) than the Study Panel does. However, we do not see these potential misalignments in values as significant downside risks; we expect that we will see the panel’s recommendations as improvements on existing policy. We see it as unlikely, though possible, that we would actively oppose some of the panel’s recommendations.
- The Study Panel’s staff seem to have strong policy credentials but may be less experienced with the communications and outreach work that may be necessary for causing policy change from a nongovernmental role.
- After we chose to make the grant, Dr. Robert Kadlec left his role as Director of the Study Panel in order to become Deputy Staff Director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Some of our initial interest in the Study Panel was based on positive referrals to Dr. Kadlec.
Plans for learning and follow up
Expectations for this grant
We hope that this grant will lead to greater capacity for future biosecurity policy changes by setting priorities, providing interested parties with policy development, and building community and networks through convening.
The ideal outcome for this grant would be to get biosecurity policy change on the federal government’s agenda and to give policymakers a specific set of priorities and policy changes that are ultimately implemented to improve biosecurity preparedness.
Our specific expectations for this grant include:
- We expect that the Study Panel’s policy report will be published in the Fall of 2015.
- We expect the Study Panel to spend down all of the funds from this grant shortly after it releases its policy report.
Open Philanthropy’s plans for following this grant
We expect to have periodic conversations with the Study Panel staff over the next one to two years, with public notes if the conversation warrants it.
We expect to provide an update on this grant when the Study Panel releases its policy recommendations. After the Study Panel releases its policy recommendations and does related outreach, we plan to attempt a more holistic and detailed evaluation of the grant’s performance.
The extent of our follow up on this grant will largely be determined by the Senior Program Officer we are recruiting to run this program area. We may abandon either or both of these follow-up expectations or perform more follow-up than planned if the circumstances call for it.
Key questions for follow up
Possible follow up questions include:
- What policies does the Study Panel end up prioritizing? Do we feel that these were reasonable policies to prioritize, and do they align with our values?
- Were the Study Panel’s policy recommendations eventually implemented? Can we attribute policy change to the Study Panel? We expect this question to be challenging to answer, and do not expect to be able to do so with a high level of confidence.
- If the Study Panel does not cause policy change, does it build capacity for future policy change? What evidence does the Study Panel have for this?
- What do we learn from the Study Panel and its approach to causing policy change in the biosecurity space? Do we benefit from the relationship in other ways (e.g. by hearing about other grant opportunities or having greater access to others)?
We learned about this funding opportunity from Bruce Altevogt, who at the time was a senior program officer at the Institute of Medicine.
Our investigation process for this grant included speaking with Dr. Robert Kadlec and other Study Panel staff about the Study Panel’s proposed activities and strategy, speaking with other potential funders about their thoughts on this opportunity, and having Open Philanthropy Project Program Officer Howie Lempel attend three of the Study Panel’s panel sessions.
We shared a draft version of this page with the Study Panel staff prior to the page being published.