Laurie Pycroft: "CRISPR biorisk as an Oxford Prioritisation Project topic"

By Laurie Pycroft, Fellow

Read and comment on the Google Document version of this post here.

CRISPR biorisk as an Oxford Prioritisation Project topic

Biorisk arising from novel genetic engineering technologies, particularly the CRISPR system, was one of the topics I initially considered as part of the Oxford Prioritisation Project. However, after briefly investigating the topic, I have decided to drop it as one of the avenues of interest for potential the Oxford Prioritisation Project funding opportunities.

Risk of accidental or deliberate harms brought about by novel genetic engineering technologies is substantial. These technologies undoubtedly offer massive opportunities, facilitating many areas of scientific research and industrial productivity, but they are also likely to widely distribute the capability for under-informed or malicious actors to produce dangerous biological agents. As such, research into related biosecurity risks appears be valuable from the perspective of reducing global catastrophic risk.

Despite the large expected value from such research, funding it would probably not be a good fit for the Oxford Prioritisation Project. The most prominent reason is that the broader field of addressing biorisk is already somewhat saturated with large organisations that, generally, do not accept small-scale donations. Groups such as the World Health Organisation, the Centres for Disease Control, and the Global Health Security Initiative are funded by nation states or large NGOs, and are unlikely to accept a £10,000 grant to study emerging biorisks.

This does leave the possibility of funding a smaller organisation, but I’ve been unable to identify any that appear sufficiently reputable and funding-constrained to be worthy of receiving the the Oxford Prioritisation Project donation. It might be possible to identify researchers in relevant fields who could be funded to engage in a CRISPR focused biorisk research, but funding a meaningful project on the topic would probably require a substantially larger grant than we are able to provide. Additionally, based on the recently published scientific literature on the topic, it appears that many people in relevant fields are already working to address risks from CRISPR, indicating that the marginal impact of our funding such a project may be small unless we are able to identify a specific project that is unusually impactful and neglected; a task that I am not sufficiently qualified to undertake.

Given these considerations, I have reoriented my focus to look at the disease burden from chronic pain as a potential cause area. A blog post regarding my tentative analysis of opportunities in this area will be forthcoming. I do still believe that biorisk is an extremely important topic, and that research into CRISPR as a source of risk is certainly worth undertaking, but the Oxford Prioritisation Project does not appear to be the best vehicle for funding it.