Hi, we are Seb Farquhar and Owen Cotton-Barratt from the Global Priorities Project here from 8pm-10pm UK GMT (4-6pm Eastern) to answer any questions you might have! You can post questions below before then - on our research, the work we’ve done externally, our plans for the future, or anything else. Suggestions and comments are equally welcome.

What the Global Priorities Project does

The Global Priorities Project researches prioritisation and connects effective altruists with governments and foundations.

We identify good policy ideas and decision-making methods based on effective altruist principles.This involves blue-skies research, focus on specific relevant questions, but also testing concrete policy ideas with stakeholders through one-on-one meetings and conferences.

Decision-makers generally do not have the time to start with fundamentals, so we put ideas in a form that decision-makers will engage with. For example, our recent report on Unprecedented Technological Risks lays out why global catastrophic risk from things like AI, engineered pathogens, and nanotechnology needs to be taken seriously, in a format that suits policy-makers. We are using platforms like the Oxford Martin School to raise public awareness of EA considerations - like our recent OMS post on developing social institutions for AI safety.

We have begun to have decision-makers approach us privately for advice, as they have learned we have useful insights.

At the same time, we believe EAs can also learn from traditional decision-making institutions. We make sure the lessons flow in both directions. We offer advice to EAs on individual decisions based on our research. We also advise other EA organisations - for example helping 80,000 Hours develop their career advice.

Where things go from here

The Global Priorities Project is young - we are still testing out avenues for impact (like making really focused policy proposals, drafting primers on important topics like discount rates for policy-makers, or even working as policy evaluation consultants) before we narrow our focus too tightly. Each of our projects is an experiment, and we have learned valuable lessons already and are improving our work from that.

We are also, unfortunately, forced to shelve most our our project ideas because we lack staff. We are hoping to hire a third full-time staff member with complementary skills later this year. To do that, and secure 12 months of reserves, we have a fundraising target of £100,000 by the end of May.




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How many people work full-time and part-time on GPP? What are sustainable growth predictions?

Do you model yourself as a think-tank?

What think-tanks have you looked at, spoken to, or modelled yourself upon?

Have you reached out to e.g. RUSI, BASIC, etc? Do you plan to?

What are your plans for the next a) 6 months b) year c) 5 years?

In what ways are you experimenting and iterating?

How many people have read your most popular content?

What are your next few marginal hires?

If a reader wants to work for GPP, what should they do/study/write/etc?

If a reader wants to help GPP, what should they do?

What would you do with a) £2,000 b) £10,000 c) £20,000?

What do you think your room-for-more-funding is?

You're based in the UK - there's about to be an election, then five years of a new government. How does that affect your plans?

When do you aim to influence debate, and policy - i.e. over what timescale? Are you trying to influence policy in 10 years, 20?

Who are the key decision-makers/stakeholders in your area? Have you mapped them out - how they relate, what their responsibilities are?

What Government Departments are you mainly interested in? Which are you monitoring? Are there any consultations open at the moment that you are submitting to? Same question for Parliamentary Committees.

If a reader wants to help GPP, what should they do?

At the moment GPP is funding constrained. We have an enormous pipeline of work - at one end we have literally hundreds of ideas we would love to pursue, but we also have several person-years of work on the table which is simply adapting our existing research to a particular audience to have impact. Anyone who is either able to donate or knows someone who might be able to would be enormously helpful. Based on the experience of other EA organisations, it is possible that we will become talent-constrained within the next year or two.

Beyond that, we continue to value introductions to individuals in governments or foundations. We also have more of these introductions available than we can currently pursue all of, but this is something where variety and quality of the lead is important. Knowing we could access a particular type of individual is useful, even when we do not pursue the lead immediately. We have a good system for tracking these opportunities to pursue later. We would also love to be able to help academics focus their research directions with an eye to impact. Introductions to academics who may be receptive and are in a position to choose their research direction would therefore be great.

Lastly, we really value challenge to our ideas. This AMA has already thrown up some questions that will change how we plan and think about our work. Anyone is welcome to send me critiques either as a PM or emailing seb[at]prioritisation-dot-org. I have had some extremely productive follow-on conversations with EAs who sent me feedback like that.

What would you do with a) £2,000 b) £10,000 c) £20,000?

At the moment, additional funding goes towards making sure we have a sustainable foundation for the organisation. Best-practice is to have 12 months of reserves, which at this point means raising an additional £20-25k (this is a rough number and does not include some pledged donations not yet received). Once we have raised that level, we would like to hire an additional member of staff. We expect, counting overhead costs like office space, HR, finance etc. that an additional staff member would cost us £35-40k. In order to offer credible job-security to a new hire, we would like to have at least a full year of reserves set aside to fund that hire.

All this means that, in order to comfortably hire a new staff member in the next CEA recruitment cycle we are raising towards a target of £100,000.

A picture of the historical unit costs of some of our outputs (to be distinguished from outcomes) is available in our strategy document, although these are very rough estimates. You can also find more details of our funding needs.

What do you think your room-for-more-funding is?

I think we could comfortably absorb £150,000 (which would build 12 months of reserves and allow us to hire two researchers, and possibly an intern). Funds beyond that could be put to creative use (for example, hiring researchers qua the University is more expensive, but might let us get better talent) but might be better directed at other organisations.

You're based in the UK - there's about to be an election, then five years of a new government. How does that affect your plans?

At the moment, individuals in government are largely distracted by the upcoming elections, so we have deprioritised outreach to UK policy-makers. We plan to spend the time until the election (May 7th) preparing policy briefs and fundraising so that we can focus on policy outreach in the months following the election. Conventional wisdom is that this is the best time to pursue policy objectives.

We have probably not devoted enough resources to developing contacts in the Opposition. The election is too close to call, so this may not end up being a problem, but we are open to pursuing strong leads in this period despite the attention of politicians being elsewhere.

Who are the key decision-makers/stakeholders in your area? Have you mapped them out - how they relate, what their responsibilities are? What Government Departments are you mainly interested in? Which are you monitoring? Are there any consultations open at the moment that you are submitting to? Same question for Parliamentary Committees.

Because we are trying to appeal to such a broad range of communities and enable comparison between them, there are a very large number of stakeholders. Within the UK government, we have the most to say to similarly broad organisations (Cabinet Office and Treasury) as well as departments like DFID or DoH (similarly PHE) where we have specific interests that overlap. Similarly, within foundations, we see many existing metacharity organisations as stakeholders to engage with (including GiveWell, Copenhagen Consensus, DCP, WHO and others).

Consultations and parliamentary committees are an excellent point - this is something that I’ve been monitoring since I joined the team. In that period (just under two months) we have not seen any for which we felt we had sufficiently valuable things to contribute (which were also a priority for us). It is too early to say, though, whether that avenue will prove effective in the long run.

Do you receive any funding from CEA or do you have a separate budget?

How many people work full-time and part-time on GPP? What are sustainable growth predictions?

I and Owen effectively work full-time on GPP (Owen has some teaching commitments as well). Toby Ord, Rob Wiblin, and Niel Bowerman all contribute irregularly to GPP projects, averaging a couple hours a week each. We aim to hire 1-2 new staff this year depending on fundraising.

Do you model yourself as a think-tank?

Somewhat, although think tanks have a wide variety of models and the type is not that well-defined (some have barely any staff while others have hundreds; some mostly lobby while others mostly do research). We are similar to many think tanks in that our goal is to influence policy and academic work without being a formal part of either system. Some of the future models of GPP look less like a think-tank.

What think-tanks have you looked at, spoken to, or modelled yourself upon?

We’ve spoken to people at a few think tanks, about specific issues like fundraising rather than their general approach, but have not modelled ourselves on any particular one. I think this is a good point though, and we may have underinvested in this area. Would be great to have a conversation with you about this some time.

Have you reached out to e.g. RUSI, BASIC, etc? Do you plan to?

We have not and do not currently have plans to, although it might make sense in the future. Our current focus has been less on topics related to defense (our current work in existential risk, for example, is focused on civilian biosafety risks).

What are your plans for the next a) 6 months b) year c) 5 years?

For the next 6 months we plan to test out models for impact. At around that point we aim to use what we’ve learned to focus our work onto the model which appears most effective, while continuing to evaluate and explore options. We plan to review that decision periodically with the possibility of future ‘pivots’ (drawing on the best-practice start-up literature). Some of our work has natural timescales which are shorter than other parts, so we will be able to reach conclusions earlier.

Models we are considering have strong commonalities and build off of our skills and current work, but might look different operationally. They include, for example, a focused policy think-tank, a policy evaluation think-tank, a policy evaluation consultancy, an academic organisation trying to seed ‘prioritisation’ as an academic discipline, or a cause comparison meta-charity organisation.

In what ways are you experimenting and iterating?

In our work-plan we divide activities around impact strategies. For example, one work-stream is to produce a really focused policy proposal worked through at a very detailed level and to get lobby groups in that field to push it forward. Another is to engage with an existing policy evaluation framework and suggest specific improvements. Once we do one, for example by producing a ‘topic primer’ on Unprecedented Technological Risks, we deprioritise similar activities to try to get more information about other routes to impact. By doing this, and evaluating the impact of each approach, we plan to focus down to a small number of effective and synergistic mechanisms for impact.

We are very aware that some of our approaches will have a high intrinsic variance, and are trying to correct for that in how we assess progress. Clearly, however, this will not be easy since we can never get a satisfactory sample size.

We are also ramping up the work we do to measure impact, both by getting better at tracking our inputs and by asking for more feedback on our outputs. Our recent push to increase engagement with our work is also partly in order to increase the quality of the feedback we get from producing it.

How many people have read your most popular content?

One of the many reasons we moved to our new website is that our analytics set up when we were using part of the FHI page was not everything we could have wanted. This makes it hard to give a confident answer to your question. Our top post got around 1000 page views over the last year, but some of our high-quality material such as the report on Unprecedented Technological Risks, was released as pdf and we do not have tracking numbers.

However, it is worth noting that monthly traffic to our website is up 5x between the month to today and the previous month, which makes the historic numbers less relevant. This is mostly because we now have a dedicated website, a mailing list, a facebook page, and a twitter account. As we continue to build up the base of subscribers, we expect this to grow.

What are your next few marginal hires?

Answered above

New website is looking slick.

When do you aim to influence debate, and policy - i.e. over what timescale? Are you trying to influence policy in 10 years, 20?

A lot of uncertainty comes into projections of future impact, and timescale is a major part of that. So work which aims for policy impact in 10 years doesn’t look very different from work which aims at impact in 20 years -- in both cases your error bars are easily wide enough to include the other date.

I can say that 5 - 15 years is probably a more appropriate timescale than 1 - 3. While we will be engaging with policy makers on what seem like important questions in the shorter term, a large part of the value of this is in learning.

If a reader wants to work for GPP, what should they do/study/write/etc?

There is a wide range of topics that may be useful to learn about for prioritisation work. Knowledge of economics and policy are high on the list; for some projects statistics, philosophy, history, mathematical modelling, and science may also be relevant. Reading the material produced by us and other actors in the prioritisation community is also a great idea. The Copenhagen Consensus and the Open Philanthropy Project both have some excellent work. Some individual bloggers in the EA community (such as Carl Shulman, Katja Grace, and Paul Christiano) are well worth checking out. Additionally, work outside the EA community in topics like welfare or development economics, campaigning, or politics may be very relevant. Reading this could let the reader work out which parts of the space she finds most compelling, and which bits of research she could respond to.

If she can write pieces which engage with our research topics, that could definitely help. It’s neither necessary nor sufficient for working for GPP, of course, but it could help us learn about her skills and how she might fit into our team, and could help her learn about which parts of the field she is a good fit for. We may also have a few opportunities for volunteers to help us.

It is unlikely that changing what you are working on in order just to be more likely to be hired by GPP makes sense. This is partly because far more people have expressed interest in working for us and are strong candidates than we can hire. However it’s a valuable area and there are several other roles and organisations where similar knowledge and experience would help.

Last question for now: In the early 70s, there was an academic Technology Assessment movement. They wanted to do detailed analysis of incoming technologies, and figure out how technological development could be planned, developed in a better order, and at a better rate. This is relevant not only to EAs who care about tech risks, but also to anyone who cares about tech and its impacts in general. Should we be reviving the idea of analysing emerging tech? Will GPP analyse how we should prioritise technological research?

This is a really important topic that we aren’t discussing enough in the EA community. At the moment, Owen is working on a paper on modelling the marginal value of different research topics. It seems very likely that we will build on that paper by estimating the marginal value of a range of promising technology areas to compare against each other (a DCP for technology, as it were). This work wouldn’t address sequencing issues, and those are really important and something we should address as a society. Owen has some preliminary ideas in this direction and GPP may investigate this further. This work is, however, part of a very full pipeline of other work.

This highlights another important point - we aren’t the first to face these issues. People have been dealing with, and making predictions about, radical future-changing technologies for centuries. GPP has already applied for funding to hire a researcher to investigate the historical track record of such predictions, and predictions of mitigation strategies, to make us smarter about estimating which sorts of ex-risks and future challenges we are best placed to act to mitigate. We’ve also had interest from some donors to part-fund such activities. If anyone is interested in matching that contribution we may be able to speed up that hire.

Thanks very much for doing an AMA on the forum. It's good for an organisation that has relatively ambitious and long-range goals to be able to be so transparent. Thanks for freely sharing your goals, strategies, and experiences with us all. It's especially valuable here since GPP is aiming to represent to some extent the will of a larger philanthropic movement.

Well done with all your progress so far, and if we all pull together, I trust that your funding target will have been raised in not too long.

Thanks for giving your time here.

Thanks, Ryan, and thanks to everyone who asked a question. Owen and I will be coming back here every now and then this week to answer any more questions that come up.

If you have any further thoughts or questions you can also PM me or email me at seb[at]prioritisation-dot-org


Thanks Ryan! Goodnight from me.

You seem to have had some success in influencing policy-makers, but almost exclusively UK policy-makers. Do you plan to approach policy-makers in other countries, or help other EAs do so?

Yes. In fact we have some ongoing engagement on US policy. We have contacts in EU policy we plan to talk to when we have relevant material for them. We have no explicit plans to approach other countries at present, but are open to the possibility depending on where we seem to have the highest-value input to add on policy.

We’d love to work with and help similarly-minded people working in this space, and have had a few conversations with US groups. Local groups may often be better placed to influence policy, particularly when the policy mostly has domestic effects.

I'm starting a PhD in Bioengineering soon, so my question mainly relates to academia. Are there any specific benefits that academic collaborations could provide the EA movement that currently aren't available? How can we encourage researchers to join the EA movement without making it seem as though we might be condemning some of their research for being too low-impact?

Are there any specific benefits that academic collaborations could provide the EA movement that currently aren't available?

Academic discourse is (with some justification) seen as the gold-standard for answering intellectually challenging questions in our society. Because effective altruism often cares about such questions, it’s going to be important to try to answer them in that venue. Otherwise after some years have passed we will be open to the reasonable criticism that if the ideas were worthwhile, they’d have stronger defence in the literature, and this could lead to people dismissing us.

There are some other benefits:

  • Getting critiques from academics is a valuable route to improving the robustness of our ideas.
  • Academia is generally quite open to well-justified ideas. There is a large group of potential collaborators here!
  • Because we may want to comment on social questions touching on a large range of specialties, it’s helpful to be able to talk to and work with these specialists.

How can we encourage researchers to join the EA movement without making it seem as though we might be condemning some of their research for being too low-impact?

Nice questions. I think academia is moving in a promising direction in thinking about impact more. This affects funding, and means that individual academics are encouraged to engage with the question of the routes from their work to impact. How to measure the impact of research is a hard question, though, and the academic community is still learning how to do that. We can help people to take a big-picture perspective on choosing impactful research questions, rather than just choosing the most interesting questions.

I think it’s important to collaborate with researchers here rather than to judge from outside. They will know their area better than outsiders, and this expertise should help them identify the best questions. Most academics I know genuinely want their research to be high-impact, so would be open to this if framed properly.

The increased focus on impact from funding bodies may also provide a good opportunity for us to liaise with them about how we can most appropriately assess impact. If we can improve the practices that drive funding decisions, that will help make academic incentives line up even more with finding the most valuable research.

Another question: how can we get effective altruist research to reach an audience that's larger than the social bubble of effective altruism?

There are a lot of different audiences. Political decision-makers, the public at large, and academics are three.

Decision-makers in government are often (at least in the UK) very well intentioned and keen to use the right models and assumptions. But they are also very busy and have little time to do research and learn. We believe the best way to influence them is to engage with their work, understand what they are struggling with, and then produce really concise and useable frameworks for them. It’s really important to physically get paper copies into their offices. This is the approach we used while engaging with the National Risk Assessment, and one we will continue to use. For example, a contact in central government has suggested that, despite extensive academic work on the topic, decision-makers still do not really understand discount rates and could use a very clear ‘how-to’ note that can be passed around.

Influencing the public at large is going to take interaction with journalists and branding experts. It is a regrettable accident that the EA movement so far has been light on these skills - we hope that will change and are reaching out to journalists, marketing experts and PR workers (I spoke yesterday with a worker at a PR agency for academic public impact).

EAs may want to influence academics. Potential routes for this include doing impressive direct work (publishing, attending conferences etc.) to encourage others to build on the work. But an alternative strategy is to ‘pull side-ways’ (by offering prizes, hosting conferences, persuading top researchers etc.).

Another question: who do you want to hire?

We currently want to hire a researcher or policy specialist with skills complementary to those of Owen and me. We had some very strong expressions of interest when we invited them in December, and expect to be able to hire excellent staff. We are looking to build an impressive team - and are open to flexing our work-plan in order to get good people.

Experience drafting policy or working on policy evaluation framework would be very helpful, as would a background in welfare economics. Our next employee will need to be able to do independent research, but also to communicate that research to non-technical audiences. We are also interested in hiring a researcher with expertise relevant to the history of technology and technology forecasting as a separate project (as mentioned in other answers).

We are also looking for volunteers. We have a couple projects where we have chunks of fairly repeatable work which can be easily split over multiple workers. Most of these require strong research skills, because they involve critiquing other work, but limited time commitment. We would also be interested in volunteers with journalism experience.

Here's a question. Seth Baum said last week that he thinks stakeholder engagement is critical for policy change. How can we better understand decision-makers who might need to implement decision that flow from effective-altruist guidance? Here's Seth's quote:

My big advice is to get involved in the decision processes as much as possible. GCRI calls this 'stakeholder engagement'. That is a core part of our integrated assessment, and our work in general. It means getting to know the people involved in the decisions, building relations with them, understanding their motivations and their opportunities for doing things differently, and above all finding ways to build gcr reductions into their decisions in ways that are agreeable to them. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to listen to the decision makers and try to understand things from their perspective.

For example, if you want to reduce AI risk, then get out there and meet some AI researchers and AI funders and anyone else playing a role in AI development. Then talk to them about what they can do to reduce AI risk, and listen to them about what they are or aren't willing or able to do.

I couldn’t agree more with Seth’s emphasis on the importance of stakeholder engagement. I would add, and I’m sure he would agree, that one of the most important parts of it is to learn from stakeholders. Everyone’s background offers insights that are really hard to imagine from other perspectives. One doesn’t just want to understand which of one’s ideas they can convinced to implement - they should be part of the process of developing the ideas. They should also be part of picking the questions.

Stakeholder engagement is something that GPP has set itself a particularly tough challenge on. Because we are trying to be a ‘broad’ cause comparison organisation, we do not slot naturally into an existing community of decision-makers. At the moment, this means that we have the capacity to build a small number of strong relationships in many different communities. This makes us good at the learning part of stakeholder engagement. It might end up making us too weak to push new policy on our own. That is why, for example, our current strategy for pushing specific policies is to sell focused policy to organisations that focus on that space and let them carry the idea forward. It remains to be seen how well this will work. It may be that the difficulty of stakeholder engagement with such a broad range of activities will force us to narrow our work, but this is also a factor which we think may make the area neglected.

Are AMAs on this site announced publicly in advance? By the time I visit the site to discover them, they've already concluded.

Generally announced the week in advance, with some extra coverage in the FB group. But feel free to drop me a PM if you have any other questions!

I had announced them in EA Facebook circles, and also had placed the first one in LW discussion but probably I was erring too far in the conservative direction, so thanks for the feedback.

Another question. GPP is only a few people. Apart from using CEA's offices, how can it use the resources from the effective altruism community, and in particular the work done by larger and more established policy organisations.

There are a lot of different kinds of resources the community can provide. Several of these we are already drawing upon; others we may want to start.

We are using:

  • Ideas. People put out a lot of ideas in the space of thinking about what may be high impact. Sometimes these may lead us to other ideas, or can be developed into something substantial.
  • Questions. This is really a category of ‘ideas’, but it’s an important one. The questions that other people find important are often great questions to be working on. Here and here are examples of work I’ve done recently that was started by someone asking me a question.
  • Network. When we want to reach someone with our research, we can often find good routes through the community. I guess we may be underusing this one.
  • Audience. Some of our output is most likely to have impact by helping improve decisions within the EA community.
  • Staff. The people who have contributed to GPP so far are engaged in the community. I expect this will be true in the future, and that we will be able to access higher-quality candidates for future roles than if we weren’t connected.
  • Funding. A large slice of GPP’s funding to date has come through the EA community.

I have some guesses, but I’m not sure about what the last part of your question meant. Could you elaborate?

Great AMA, thanks Seb and Owen :)

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