Biology, Biotechnology and Global Catastrophic Risks

Understanding the challenges facing humanity in the coming century means understanding the risks and opportunities that come with advances in biological research and from our relationships with biological processes that continue to change as a result of climate change, industrial processes and agricultural and urban expansion.

Human societies have always been dependent on non-human biological systems, and over time we have developed ever-more sophisticated interactions with them. From advances in biological research, progress in medicine and genetic therapies and new synthetic biology technologies through to our reliance on modified plant-stocks, technologised and mono-cultured agriculture and the increasing scale and proximity of animal viral reservoirs; our human futures are inextricably tied with biological processes and technologies. With increasing opportunities for improving human health and better understanding of fundamental life processes however, also comes heightened capacity for a large-scale disaster. Additionally, alongside economic growth and changing patterns of consumption comes the increased potential for viral spillover events or the disruption of natural relationships on which life depends. 

The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk is working to understand how present and future catastrophic biological risks can be mitigated or prevented through good governance and a better understanding of the systemic and interdependent nature of extreme risks. We focus on developing robust understandings of the interdependencies between different aspects of biological risk and the broader social and technological contexts that frame them.

We produce original research and policy expertise on a range of topics related to biological sciences and extreme risk, at a global scale. Our work currently focuses on scientific and policy developments that may have significant implications for global catastrophic risk. 

This involves work on four interwoven strands:

Research Cultures, Governance and Regulation

Engineering biology is a rapidly developing discipline, but its possible trajectories - in terms of risk or benefits - are very uncertain. Our research here investigates the frameworks that govern genetically-modified organisms, explores the challenges that are being faced in this area, and how these might evolve. This includes formal regulatory frameworks as well as normative ones, such as Responsible Research and Innovation.
In many areas of biological research, the potential risks are still speculative, and their impacts are likely only going to be felt in several decades’ time.  However, our ability to shape those fields is probably at its greatest now, when governance, regulation and norms are still being put into place.


Work we are doing on the intersection between cybersecurity and biosecurity explores this same idea but looks in particular at ways in which the digital/informatic and biological realms are moving ever closer together. Our aim here is to identify gaps or areas where this intersection might result in risk-multipliers, and to develop common methodologies and frameworks for the two fields to work together effectively. Our work hopes to establish a sound framework for foresight and governance, which will help us avoid major catastrophic cyberbiosecurity risks in the future.

Emerging Biotechnologies and the Military

Our work on the military application of emerging biotechnologies aims to understand how military research and investment in emerging biological sciences might shape the future international environment. 
Some of the biggest risks humanity has faced to date have come from weaponizing biology, and military actors remain as one of the largest funders of biological research globally. Our work aims to better understand trends in military biotechnology investment and research, in order to intervene more effectively.

Health and Infectious Disease

Natural pandemics are an ever-present threat that are only likely to increase, due to human encroachment into new environments and the interconnected nature of our global travel and trade. There is an urgent need to improve preparedness at all levels, rather than be caught responding too late. 
One particularly important need is to improve outbreak response in resource-limited settings, and to better understand and respond to outbreaks of unknown origin - this is important across types of infectious disease outbreaks, but is an essential obstacle to overcome in moving towards a pandemic-prepared world. 
Our work also looks at the management of outbreaks of uncertain aetiology, including the catastrophic potential of those that present as ‘chronic’ rather than acute.Military hospital during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic

Developing practical and evidence-based methods for identifying new developments and risks ahead of time is crucial for providing policymakers with the information they need and are essential for effective response to global biological threats. Several of our members work closely with BioRISC to explore these issues. 

Members of the CSER biological risks team are also involved in the Centre’s project investigating the COVID19 pandemic and improving responses to catastrophic events: Lessons from COVID-19 . You can read more about that project here.

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