Existential Risk and Pandemic Preparedness Spending​

Tom Houlden

Pandemics may pose an existential threat, however this possibility is often neglected in the cost-benefit analyses of interventions designed to mitigate the risk of pandemics. This thesis evaluates society’s willingness to pay for the mitigation of existential risks from pandemics, and provides a framework that can be applied to evaluate the policy-relevance of other existential risks. 

A reviewer praised the complexity and quality of the work as ‘significantly above what I would expect from the undergraduate level,’ and wrote: ‘the work is complex and rigorous. The author approaches the research question from multiple angles, and they examine the different aspects that may influence the spending decisions. I think this work is very promising, and I am excited to see where the author takes it in the future.’

This research is related to our research directions on improving pandemic governance and existential risk.

Researcher profile

UNSW Business

Tom Houlden

Tom completed a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Economics (Hons.). He now intends to pursue further study in economics with the hope of improving how we prioritise spending current resources to support the welfare of future generations.

Researcher profile

What was your thesis topic?

There have been many examples of cost-benefit decision making with regard to what actions should be taken to mitigate the risk of pandemics. However, many of these analyses ignore the possibility that a pandemic could result in an existential collapse. Given the extreme long term consequences of such a collapse, even if the probability of this outcome is very low perhaps this possibility should be factored into decision making for governments and philanthropists.

My thesis aims to understand the necessary conditions for an existential threat from pandemics to become decision relevant. Specifically, this thesis identifies aversion to intergenerational inequality and the likelihood of existential collapse as the key determinants of the impact of existential risk on willingness to pay for pandemic risk mitigation. This thesis also outlines a general framework for evaluating willingness to pay for existential risk mitigation which is applied to existing dynamic and static models of willingness to pay for catastrophe mitigation that ignore the possibility of an existential collapse.

What do you think the stronger and weaker parts of your thesis are?

I think my thesis was able to take some pretty complicated concepts and apply them to important questions in a way that might help decision making, though this often required strong assumptions about the discount rate or the probability of an existential collapse which may reduce the robustness of the results.

In what ways do you think your topic improves the world?

I hadn’t seen much work being done on how to apply existential risk to real-world cost-benefit decisions. Even though this question is fraught with uncertainty, I think having a good understanding of what the scale of possible impacts could be is essential to any decision about how much of our resources should be dedicated to reducing risks to future welfare.

In what ways have you changed your mind since writing it?

I think that the thesis laid some good groundwork that could be built on in future research. I often made simplifying assumptions which meant that the models I was developing were easy to solve. These assumptions were helpful since I hadn’t had a great deal of experience working with the models that I have seen others use, but in the future I would like to expand on this research with some more sophisticated approaches.

What recommendations would you make to others interested in taking a similar direction with their research?

I would recommend running your idea past someone who has a bit of experience in the topic you are interested in. It is often difficult to get a sense of what the key questions are that are currently unanswered in the literature. I think these kinds of conversations can save you a lot of time at not much cost to whomever it is that you are asking!

First published 18/04/22, updated 14/12/2022 to reflect results of the Exceptional Research Award

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