This post gives a summary of the Global Priorities Institute’s activities from late 2020 to late 2021 and our priorities and plans for 2022.
Introduction and summary
GPI is a young research institute, formally established in early 2018. By the end of 2018, we had hired our first postdocs, and settled on an initial research focus of “longtermism”: roughly, the idea that the most cost-effective opportunities to do good are matters of influencing the course of the very far future, on timescales of thousands or even millions of years, rather than focussing on how things go (say) within our own lifetimes. We have continuously grown our team since then, with now 15 full-time researchers on our staff.
The academic year 2020-21 has been an exciting year for GPI. One highlight has been welcoming and integrating our first two full-time postdoctoral researchers in economics, enabling us to begin building up the economics arm of GPI in earnest. As part of a strategy of investigating possible diversifications of our research agenda within philosophy, we also added a specialist in political philosophy to our philosophy team, and conducted some exciting preliminary exploration of mission-aligned research directions related to “politics and institutions”. And despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were able to develop increasingly close collaborations with various external researchers on topics central to GPI’s mission and continued to build a broad base of earlier-stage contacts via an active program of online workshops.
Over the coming year, in addition to building on existing lines of progress, our key priorities include building a network of researchers across a wider range of academic disciplines (including psychology, law and history) who share an interest in GPI’s central research themes, and developing a major project on long-run forecasting.
This year, GPI researchers have collectively produced a total of seven new working papers on topics central to GPI’s mission, placed seven such papers newly under review at top academic journals, and had two such papers accepted for publication. Details on our new working papers are in the Appendix, and all GPI working papers can be found on our website.
Since GPI takes very seriously the imperative to produce research that is optimised to further its distinctive mission, we spend a significant proportion of our research time on exploration that is aimed at mapping out and uncovering ideas for projects that meet this description, alongside the “exploitation” work that turns existing ideas into finished research products.
A major area of exploration this past year was “Institutions”. We ran a year-long pilot project to assess whether GPI should expand its research foci in directions related to politics and institutions. We identified several more specific research topics that the pilot group members were excited about. These include (1) increasing returns and thresholds in the context of pursuing social/political change, and to what extent these phenomena undermine “neglectedness” as a heuristic for expected impact; (2) whether impartial altruists should favour more or less centralisation, consolidation and uniformity of institutions; and (3) how to represent the interests of future generations (and other non-voters) within democratic political institutions. Further investigation of these three topics is underway: Jacob Barrett and Loren Fryxell are co-authoring a paper on (1), and plan to convene additional working groups to undertake deeper dives into (2) and (3).
We also ran additional exploratory working groups on “the value of the future”, “social justice and longtermism”, and “buck-passing and option value”. Among other outcomes from these groups, we now have research projects underway on how option value considerations should influence our response to existential risks; how the possibility of “value drift” affects option value reasoning; and a major project on the value of the future.
GPI aims to serve as a global hub both for scholars with existing interests in global priorities research and for those who are interested in making forays into this area. To facilitate this, alongside producing our own research, GPI devotes significant resources to encouraging and facilitating the pursuit of such research outside of GPI and to building relationships with appropriate external academics.
Over the course of the year, we ran three three-day workshops on global priorities research (in December 2020, March 2021 and June 2021). Due to the pandemic, all three events were held entirely online. Although imposed on us as a necessity, this has had some advantages over in-person workshops: in particular, in lowering the threshold for and costs of participation. We received very positive participant feedback on the format of the workshops (for example, the uses we made of carefully selected online platforms to approximate the opportunities for fluid informal conversations one would normally enjoy during “downtime” at an in-person workshop). In total, 61 economists and 118 philosophers from outside GPI participated in these workshops; of these, 23 and 25 (respectively) delivered research presentations.
Early Career Conference Programme (ECCP) and academic visitors
A total of 26 external early-career researchers in (respectively) economics and philosophy took part in GPI’s four-week Early Career Conference Programme from 7 June to 2 July 2021. In this programme, participants work on a substantive piece of research relevant to GPI’s research agenda, in discussion with a GPI researcher, before presenting their work at the titular conference.
We also hosted four senior research visitors, on a remote basis, in each of economics and philosophy. All of these engaged in-depth with GPI’s research activities (for example, providing detailed research feedback via GPI’s work in progress groups). Two of the economists and three of the philosophers are also either actively collaborating with GPI researchers, or independently pursuing projects that fit extremely closely to GPI’s research agenda.
Distinguished lectures, scholarships and prizes
We hosted (remotely) our two annual distinguished lectures on global priorities research. The Atkinson Memorial Lecture was presented by Professor Chad Jones (economics; Stanford) and the Parfit Memorial Lecture by H. Orri Stefansson (philosophy; Stockholm University, Institute for Future Studies, and Swedish Collegium of Advanced Study), receiving strongly positive feedback from the audiences on the quality of the talks. We awarded one DPhil scholarship in each of economics and philosophy, and ran an essay prize for Masters’ students in philosophy, in each case enjoying a strong field of applicants.
Working papers and essay volume
Besides working papers produced internally, we also had eight highly mission-relevant papers contributed to our working paper series by external authors, four in economics and four in philosophy. In several of these cases, the papers in question were written as a fairly direct result of interactions between the researchers concerned and GPI, for example as academic visitors.
In addition, we are in the process of producing an edited collection of essays on longtermism, mainly by philosophers and economists. We have collected commitments to write 33 chapters, 29 from authors external to GPI, and the book proposal has been accepted by Oxford University Press.
Growing the organisation
GPI’s research teams continue to grow. In particular, we were excited to welcome Loren Fryxell and Benjamin Tereick as new postdocs in economics, and Jacob Barrett and David Thorstad in philosophy, all in autumn 2020.
Hiring processes conducted in autumn 2020 led to issuing three additional contracts for new postdocs in philosophy to start in roughly the autumn of 2021. We have recently been joined by Hayden Wilkinson (August 2021), Adam Bales (October 2021) and Timothy Williamson (January 2022).
Demographic diversity is and remains a particularly challenging theme for GPI. Like both the academic fields that we operate in and the effective altruism social movement, we have low demographic diversity (with a heavy preponderance of white males). This creates a danger of undesirable positive feedback loops: the existing demographic skew might discourage researchers with under-represented characteristics from engaging in global priorities research, leading to our enterprise missing out on important pools of talent. Focussing in the first instance on gender balance, during 2020-21 we set targets for female representation in various outreach initiatives (for example, our external workshops and visitor programs), somewhat above the base rates in the fields that we draw from. In most instances, we were successful in meeting these targets. We also made substantial progress on a project to identify what else, besides the use of such targets, GPI can and should do on demographic diversity; this project has continued into 2021-22.
Measuring our progress
GPI has a reasonably clear idea of the state of affairs it aims to have helped bring about in (say) fifty years’ time, and a reasonably clear idea of the strategy it aims to pursue in promoting that state of affairs. This strategy leads naturally to several proximate goals (for example, to publish relevant papers in prestigious journals, and to encourage others to work on relevant topics). These proximate goals in turn facilitate qualitative assessment of GPI’s progress. However, at present, we do not have any agreed quantitative indicators of the extent of our progress on these proximate goals. (Instead, we currently make do with crude indicators of progress such as “numbers of research papers published”, without regard to the quality or mission-importance of the paper in question, or any further-downstream information about the paper’s actual impact in terms of, e.g., academic citations or influence on the world of philanthropy.)
The explicit use of such metrics plausibly carries benefits in terms of motivation, focus, and internal and external communication. In 2021, we commenced a project to design and then begin tracking more sophisticated progress metrics. This project was put on hold, for reasons of capacity constraint, with the resignation of our Research Manager. We plan to continue the project once we have succeeded in hiring the successor of this role.
After a long wait, this year saw the completion of GPI’s move into new office premises, at Trajan House. These premises afford us far more space than previously (consonant with the expansion of the organisation), and allow us to once again share a building with several other organisations that have closely related missions (the Forethought Foundation for Global Priorities Research, the Centre for Effective Altruism and the Future of Humanity Institute).
Priorities for 2022
Our main priorities for 2022 are as follows.
Direct research output is GPI’s bread-and-butter product. It also feeds into all our other routes to impact: we cannot, for instance, effectively do outreach if we do not have our own solid body of high-quality research for the outreach activities to engage with. In GPI’s first few years, we have made a good start on producing high-quality and mission-aligned research papers. In 2022 we are planning to continue the momentum and have set ourselves ambitious targets on the number of papers we want to get through different stages of the publishing pipeline, as well as that we want to post as working papers on our website.
Development of additional research themes
We are looking into developing two additional research areas/themes this year. Those are global priorities research in other academic disciplines (beyond philosophy and economics) and a project on long-term forecasting
Global priorities research in other academic disciplines
To date, GPI has focussed near-exclusively on philosophy and economics. However, the enterprise of global priorities research itself would naturally be a far more interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary affair, drawing on the expertise of many more academic disciplines than just those two. Even when pursuing global priorities research projects that are most naturally located within philosophy or economics, expertise from other disciplines is highly relevant. The ideal version of GPI would therefore either house teams from many more academic disciplines in-house or would have a strong network of interested researchers with relevant expertise in those fields that are not represented in-house. At present, however, GPI has only weak connections to other academic disciplines. We will run a project to develop such connections. This project has two parts: (i) identifying and locating the research themes that seem amenable to progress with the tools of other academic disciplines and that are especially important for global priorities research, (ii) identifying and building relationships with researchers in other disciplines who are both well-placed to engage in this enterprise and interested in doing so.
During the academic year 2021-22, we aim to make significant progress in conducting and facilitating research on long-term forecasting. This area of research could become one of GPI’s main areas of research output, particularly on the economics side: it could supply high-quality answers to empirical questions that are of great importance to longtermism, and provide a greater information base for evaluating one of the most common objections to the longtermist enterprise (viz., that we are too clueless about the far future for that enterprise to be tractable). The research in question is currently neglected in academia; nonetheless, we think there is sufficient expertise and interest available to make the project tractable. Our plans for this year include building a network of interested persons and organisations for this subject, as well as creating a list of forecasting questions that speak to crucial considerations for longtermism.
External academic engagement
Alongside a more broad and shallow outreach programme, we had substantial success in 2021 at engaging in-depth with a small number of academics whose interests and motivations are especially close to GPI’s. This is important, in particular, to facilitate and encourage work that we would classify as “global priorities research” outside as well as within GPI. It is important that we keep up this focus over the coming year. We set ourselves ambitious targets both for participation and for output, in areas such as engaging with or commissioning work on global priorities research by external academics, hosting and integrating senior visitors, and continued engagement with previous ECCP participants.
Engagement with EA community
There is a danger of GPI research becoming too “ivory-tower”: motivated by and connected to the concerns of mainstream academia, at the expense of the concerns of real-world practitioners of effective altruism. To combat this danger, we will continue to build stronger channels of direct communication between individual GPI researchers and key people more directly engaged with practical EA prioritisation decisions, for the purpose of steering GPI research, so that it can be integrated with EA concerns.
In addition, we plan to increase our efforts to disseminate GPI’s research output to the EA community, as several of GPI’s key routes to impact go via the uptake of GPI thought in the effective altruism community. In addition, this community plays an important role in our hiring pipeline. It is therefore important for GPI to communicate with the EA community in ways that appropriately inform and inspire members of that community. Our plans include participation and content delivery in EA events, such as EA Global, as well as contributing to other EA engagement activities (eg podcasts). In addition, we are planning to create a web resource that (at least) provides concise and accessible summaries of GPI’s most important working papers, and promote this resource appropriately to the EA community.
Appendix: New GPI working papers
Teruji Thomas, “Simulation expectation” (GPI Working Paper No. 16-2021)
Abstract: I present a new argument for the claim that I’m much more likely to be a person living in a computer simulation than a person living in the ground-level of reality. I consider whether this argument can be blocked by an externalist view of what my evidence supports, and I urge caution against the easy assumption that actually finding lots of simulations would increase the odds that I myself am in one.
Jacob Barrett and Andreas T Schmidt (University of Groningen), “Moral uncertainty and public justification” (GPI Working Paper No. 15-2021)
Abstract: Moral uncertainty and disagreement pervade our lives. Yet we still need to make decisions and act, both in individual and political contexts. So, what should we do? The moral uncertainty approach provides a theory of what individuals morally ought to do when they are uncertain about morality. Public reason liberals, in contrast, provide a theory of how societies should deal with reasonable disagreements about morality. They defend the public justification principle: state action is permissible only if it can be justified to all reasonable people. In this article, we bring these two approaches together. Specifically, we investigate whether the moral uncertainty approach supports public reason liberalism: given our own moral uncertainty, should we favour public justification? We argue that while the moral uncertainty approach cannot vindicate an exceptionless public justification principle, it gives us reason to adopt public justification as a pro tanto institutional commitment. Furthermore, it provides new answers to some intramural debates among public reason liberals and new responses to some common objections.
Philip Trammell, “Dynamic public good provision under time preference heterogeneity: theory and applications to philanthropy” (GPI Working Paper No. 9-2021)
Abstract: I explore the implications of time preference heterogeneity for public good funding. I find that the assumption of a common discount rate is knife-edge: allowing for time preference heterogeneity produces substantially different funding behavior in equilibrium. In particular, I find that, across a variety of circumstances, patient funders invest, rather than spend, the entirety of their resources for substantial lengths of time in equilibrium. I also find that the implications of this departure from the common-discount-rate case are economically significant, in that the patient payoff to spending in equilibrium, relative to that of spending according to an intermediate time preference rate, can grow arbitrarily large as a patient funder’s share of initial funding goes to zero. Finally, I discuss applications of these results to the timing of philanthropic spending, and to patient philanthropists’ willingness to pay to avoid legal disbursement minima.
Teruji Thomas, “Doomsday and objective chance” (GPI Working Paper No. 8-2021)
Abstract: Lewis’s Principal Principle says that one should usually align one’s credences with the known chances. In this paper, I develop a version of the Principal Principle that deals well with some exceptional cases related to the distinction between metaphysical and epistemic modality. I explain how this principle gives a unified account of the Sleeping Beauty problem and chance-based principles of anthropic reasoning. In doing so, I defuse the Doomsday Argument that the end of the world is likely to be nigh.
David Thorstad, “The scope of longtermism” (GPI Working Paper No. 6-2021)
Abstract: Longtermism holds roughly that in many decision situations, the best thing we can do is what is best for the long-term future. The scope question for longtermism asks: how large is the class of decision situations for which longtermism holds? Although longtermism was initially developed to describe the situation of cause-neutral philanthropic decision-making, it is increasingly suggested that longtermism holds in many or most decision problems that humans face. By contrast, I suggest that the scope of longtermism may be more restricted than commonly supposed. After specifying my target, swamping axiological strong longtermism (swamping ASL), I give two arguments for the rarity thesis that the options needed to vindicate swamping ASL in a given decision problem are rare. I use the rarity thesis to pose two challenges to the scope of longtermism: the area challenge that swamping ASL often fails when we restrict our attention to specific cause areas, and the challenge from option unawareness that swamping ASL may fail when decision problems are modified to incorporate agents’ limited awareness of the options available to them.
Andreas Mogensen, “Do not go gentle: why the Asymmetry does not support anti-natalism” (GPI Working Paper No. 3-2021)
Abstract: According to the Asymmetry, adding lives that are not worth living to the population makes the outcome pro tanto worse, but adding lives that are well worth living to the population does not make the outcome pro tanto better. It has been argued that the Asymmetry entails the desirability of human extinction. However, this argument rests on a misunderstanding of the kind of neutrality attributed to the addition of lives worth living by the Asymmetry. A similar misunderstanding is shown to underlie Benatar’s case for anti-natalism.
Andreas Mogensen and David Thorstad, “Tough enough? Robust satisficing as a decision norm for long-term policy analysis” (GPI Working Paper No. 15-2020)
Abstract: This paper aims to open a dialogue between philosophers working in decision theory and operations researchers and engineers whose research addresses the topic of decision making under deep uncertainty. Specifically, we assess the recommendation to follow a norm of robust satisficing when making decisions under deep uncertainty in the context of decision analyses that rely on the tools of Robust Decision Making developed by Robert Lempert and colleagues at RAND. We discuss decision-theoretic and voting-theoretic motivations for robust satisficing, then use these motivations to select among candidate formulations of the robust satisficing norm. We also discuss two challenges for robust satisficing: whether the norm might, in fact, derive its plausibility from an implicit appeal to probabilistic representations of uncertainty of the kind that deep uncertainty is supposed to preclude; and whether there is adequate justification for adopting a satisficing norm, as opposed to an optimizing norm that is sensitive to considerations of robustness.
Tyler M. John (Rutgers University) and William MacAskill, “Longtermist institutional reform”, in: Natalie Cargill & Tyler M. John (eds.), The Long View. London, UK: FIRST (GPI Working Paper No. 14-2020)
There is a vast number of people who will live in the centuries and millennia to come. Even if homo sapiens survives merely as long as a typical species, we have hundreds of thousands of years ahead of us. And our future potential could be much greater than that again: it will be hundreds of millions of years until the Earth is sterilized by the expansion of the Sun, and many trillions of years before the last stars die out. In all probability, future generations will outnumber us by thousands or millions to one; of all the people who we might affect with our actions, the overwhelming majority are yet to come. [...]