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The Open Philanthropy Project recommended a grant of $520,000 over three years to the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Foundation to help iGEM grow its safety and security staff and to support a pilot workshop on safety and security led by iGEM advisors.
iGEM is an international synthetic biology competition for students. We believe that supporting iGEM’s safety and security work could be directly beneficial for the competition, and could also provide valuable opportunities to identify and test new safety and security measures for the field of synthetic biology more broadly.
This grant falls within our work on biosecurity, one of our focus areas within global catastrophic risks.
1.1 The organization
iGEM is an international synthetic biology competition for students. iGEM’s advisors include a number of people whom we understand to be well-respected in the synthetic biology safety space. Our confidence that iGEM’s safety and security work is worth supporting is based in part on their involvement.
2. About the grant
2.1 Proposed activities
The only restriction on this grant is that iGEM use it to support work on safety and security. Our understanding is that iGEM currently plans to use the funds to support:
- A pilot workshop led by iGEM advisors focused on safety and security, planned for summer 2016. iGEM estimates the cost of the workshop at roughly $50,000 to $60,000; we decided to grant $70,000 to allow iGEM some flexibility.
- The hiring of a new full-time, mid-level staff member focused on safety and security. iGEM advisor Kenneth Oye estimated the annual cost of the hire at $150,000; our grant includes $450,000 for three years’ salary. Goals for this hire include allowing iGEM to:
- Screen competition projects for safety and security concerns before teams start working with potentially dangerous biological materials.
- Be available to advise teams if safety and security concerns arise.
2.2 Case for the grant
We believe that supporting iGEM’s safety and security efforts is likely to be beneficial for three main reasons:
- We believe that safety efforts around the iGEM competition itself are important, since the participants may be working with dangerous materials.
- We also believe that the iGEM competition could serve as an indicator of what is currently possible within synthetic biology and help identify current gaps in safety and security, outside the bounds of the competition itself.
- iGEM may provide a useful environment for testing new procedures or tools (for example, a government considering a new biosecurity regulation could test an application of it at iGEM).
2.3 Risks and reservations
We think there is some chance that a new hire may not provide iGEM as much additional capacity as expected. For instance, we think it is possible that the new staff member will need to spend most of their time focused on safety and security for the iGEM competition itself, and so will not enable iGEM to significantly engage in other new, more outward-facing activities. If this turns out to be the case, we believe it would likely be beneficial for iGEM to add more capacity than it currently plans to.
2.4 Follow-up expectations
We expect to have a conversation with iGEM staff roughly every 6 months for the duration of the grant, with public notes if the conversation warrants it. Towards the end of the grant, we may attempt a more holistic and detailed evaluation of the grant’s performance.
3. Our process
Howie Lempel, our Program Officer for Global Catastrophic Risks, has been in touch with iGEM’s safety and security advisors regularly over the course of the past year. We also spoke to Kenneth Oye a few times while considering a potential grant to iGEM.