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We (Konrad Seifert & Maxime Stauffer) have the pleasure to announce the Simon[1] Institute for Longterm Governance (SI):


The website caters to our initial target audience of international policymakers. This post introduces our theory of change and provides additional information relevant to the EA community and potential funders. The following is structured into:

  1. An overview of SI
  2. Key decisions we made in founding SI and underlying assumptions
  3. An overview of the value SI provides to the EA community
  4. Call for support
  5. How to get in touch
  6. Ask us anything

We thank Nora Ammann, Haydn Belfield, Ollie Base, Michael Aird, Devon Fritz, Rumtin Sepasspour, Christine Peterson, Julia Wise and Helen Toner for their invaluable feedback on this announcement. All errors and shortcomings are ours.

1. Overview of SI

Our theory of change

  1. SI aims to contribute to the long-term flourishing of civilization.

  2. For 1., humanity needs to anticipate and mitigate global catastrophic risks (GCRs) and build resilient systems so that civilization can survive and flourish.

  3. Policymaking in national governments and international organizations is the most influential form of explicit value-driven coordination and can, therefore, be used to achieve 2.

  4. To build long-term governance there are at least four improvements we can make to 3.:

    a. The dominant societal narratives require the inclusion of future generations and an understanding of human progress on long timeframes

    b. Institutions must be reformed to take the interests of future generations into account (e.g. see Tyler John’s EAGxVirtual talk (2020) and Gonzalez-Ricoy & Gosseries (2016)).

    c. Policy agendas must account for tail risks and their interaction effects (e.g. Avin et al. (2018)). For example, the post-2030 UN agenda should include GCRs beyond climate change.

    d. Decision-making needs to (i) be more anchored in ethics, (ii) use more scientific evidence and sound reasoning, (iii) navigate complex systems and understand tail risks, (iv) make better decisions in the face of uncertainty and urgency, and (v) deal more productively with diverging preferences and groupthink.

  5. SI focuses on 4.d. to build the capacity for achieving 4.a.-c. and contribute to 2. and 1.

Our first working paper will outline this theory of change in more detail. A first draft will be published on our website in April 2021.

Our approach

SI aims to embed concern for future generations within the incentive structures and decision-making processes of the international public policy ecosystem, leveraging our personal connections to the United Nations[2] and European Union systems. We are building organizational capacity via three focus areas:

  1. Policy support: We develop training programs aiming to improve the collective capacity of policy networks[3] to make sense of tail risks, the abundance of information, competing objectives, complexity and uncertainty in a timely manner.

  2. Field-building: We strengthen research coordination and policy decisions by building a Geneva-based community of longtermist international civil servants and researchers to share knowledge and exchange strategic insights.

  3. Research: We seek to understand and improve long-term policymaking by synthesising research, formalizing system dynamics and empirically testing tools and hypotheses in policy contexts.

Current projects include a table-top exercise on pandemic preparedness for the ecosystem of the UN Biological Weapons Convention; building a Geneva-based network of long-term focused international civil servants & GCR governance researchers; and writing working papers operationalizing what it might take for public policymaking to benefit the long-term future. See here for more.

How we will know this is valuable

We give ourselves 24 months to scale up operations and generate first signs of impact (until mid-March 2023). Our governing board will decide whether we succeeded or failed to do so. After at most 1.5 years of work, via surveys and case studies, we expect to see:

  • Policymakers use insights and tools from our trainings in their work;
  • Policymakers better understand global catastrophic risks and longtermism;
  • Longtermists better understand international policymaking;
  • Individuals improve their career plans;
  • Our research can pass academic peer-review.

How SI differs from and complements existing longtermist policy organizations

  1. The key differentiator is that SI focuses on international instead of national-level policymaking.
  2. CSER, FHI, LPP, FLI, GCRI supply information on GCRs. SI supports GCR-relevant policy networks by increasing their ability to integrate the supplied information into their work.
  3. APPGFG and Alpenglow seem closer to our approach. They help policy networks understand GCRs. SI, in addition, is researching longterm governance processes and structures.
  4. SI can provide contacts and knowledge to engage with international policymaking. We have developed a workshop to support longtermist policy engagement. Get in touch for more info.
  5. Other organizations conduct some activities similar to SI in terms of policymaking support but not focused on safeguarding the long-term future. Examples include Simply Rational, Decision-making under Deep Uncertainty, Chatham House, Improbable Defence, and Centre for Collective Learning.

Who we are

We, Max and Konrad, met by studying international relations in 2014 and founded EA Geneva in 2015. Max complemented his bachelor's by studying complexity science and Konrad discontinued his studies in 2016 to focus on professionalising and scaling up EA Geneva’s projects. Max conducted forecasting research at the Graduate Institute Geneva, advised the European Commission's Joint Research Centre on evidence-based policymaking, co-founded the Social Complexity Lab, and currently works at the Geneva Science-Policy Interface.

For the past three years, as a working group at EA Geneva, we have been leading research and network-building efforts on “understanding and improving policymaking”. SI’s governing board members and advisers are direct evidence of the strong network we have built up. Our governing board is:

  • Director of the Max Planck Institute’s Centre for Adaptive Rationality, Prof. Ralph Hertwig;
  • Director of the Geneva Science-Policy Interface, Nicolas Seidler;
  • Executive director of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risks, Dr. Catherine Rhodes;
  • Research Fellow at the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, Martina Kunz;
  • Head of research at the University of Southampton’s Department of Decision Analytics and Risk, Prof. Konstantinos Katsikopoulos; and
  • Senior Science and Technology Manager at the US Army Corps of Engineers, Igor Linkov.

A selected group of advisers covers the additional technical expertise we expect to need to build up solid foundations: international diplomacy & relations, ethics, evidence-informed policymaking, global catastrophic risks and computational modeling. See the team here.

2. Decisions and underlying assumptions

We are committed to explaining our decisions and assumptions because we care about transparency. We want to reflect on them and think that sharing organizational strategy and experiences in founding longtermist policy organizations will be especially valuable in the early days of longtermist policy efforts. This should make it easier to receive feedback, correct course and allow others to build on our ideas and lessons learned.

We are hoping for scrutiny and will engage with questions and feedback.

Why we start by focusing on policy support

  1. Policymaking is an argumentative process: consensus emerges gradually through interaction.
  2. Focusing on supporting GCR-relevant policymaking processes allows us to engage in-depth with policy actors and understand their needs and gaps.
  3. In-depth engagement builds the necessary network strength to provide an effective interface between longtermist research and policymaking and connect talent with relevant opportunities.
  4. To scale beyond personal networks, we needed to bring all threads together in one organization.

Why we are focused on building organizational capacity

  1. To build up confidence in policy engagement, it is necessary to start locally before recommendations can be advocated for publicly. Public attention can shift political agendas but drawing a lot of attention can easily backfire without sufficient organizational capacity.
  2. Adoption and implementation of policy proposals require extensive, sustained resource investment by longtermist actors at all relevant levels of governance.
  3. To build capacity, we engage with local networks, building alliances and the know-how to contribute to longer term changes within global policy networks.
  4. This capacity will allow us to advance longtermism by identifying, or even creating, rare windows of opportunity that require established networks to seize (see Lundgren et al., 2017 and Aviram et al., 2019).
  5. This approach allows building capacity to accelerate the development and implementation of longtermist policy proposals in a flexible way, seizing opportunities as they arise.
  6. It requires integrity for other policy actors to seek high-bandwidth engagement. To become a trusted collaborator, we have to prove that we’re serious about our values to first build the reputation we need to rely on.

Why we use a longtermist branding

  1. We consider the study and practice of longterm governance as an important field to develop. Naming SI accordingly will contribute to its establishment.

  2. Concern for future generations is already within the Overton window.[4] A focus on the long-term future is rare but not off-puttingly exotic. It seems valuable to seize such opportunities to expand the amount of future generations commonly taken into account.

  3. Having our values explicit in our branding eases communication, differentiation and the identification of allies to coordinate with.

  4. We want to avoid the risk of organizational value drift (e.g. by choosing projects that are too far from our values). Therefore, we want to encode longtermist values as clearly as possible and remind us of them as often as possible.

  5. Due to our low-profile approach, we expect to be able to mitigate potential reputational damage. We have taken appropriate steps to ensure we stay on top of this, see section on downside risks.

Why we focus on multilateralism

  1. GCR mitigation is a transgenerational global public good (Bostrom, 2013), which makes them especially neglected and requires global coordination to tackle them, as many emerge from the interaction of countries (e.g. nuclear war) and require coordinated oversight and response (e.g. pandemics).
  2. Improving global coordination requires identifying which activities to focus on for which issues (e.g. enforcing the Biological Weapons Convention vs developing a new treaty for biorisk), as well as building the capacity to influence global key events like the development of the post-2030 UN agenda. Both are achieved by engaging with the international policy community.
  3. Working with multilateral organizations to improve global coordination is neglected within the EA community, as existing longtermist policy organizations work on national policy in the US or the UK, and marginally in the EU.
  4. Multilateral institutions facilitate bilateral and multilateral action through information exchange and the provision of neutral spaces (e.g. see Vasconcelos et al., 2013 on polycentric governance and Lavelle, 2020 on challenges of multilateralism).
  5. International law, soft power, international culture, norms and standards affect both regional policymaking and global coordination (see Ainscough et al., 2021; Nikogosian & Kickbusch, 2021; or Nossel, 2021). There is a need to better understand these processes which is done by engaging with them.
  6. Working with multilateral institutions can provide additional access to national governments. Almost all national governments are represented in Geneva. What happens in Geneva ripples back to national governments.
  7. Advancing multilateralism complements efforts at the national level, as these seem heavily constrained by concerns over national security.

Choosing Geneva as our base

  1. Geneva is a dense international policy hub, hosting the heart of the UN and most other international organizations, as well as key multilateral events. Every year, more than the equivalent of its 300,000 inhabitants attend policy events in Geneva.
  2. Geneva is a philanthropic centre, with a total of $ 17 billion stored in local foundations that are almost impossible to access if one is not based in Geneva, as most of it is locally bound.
  3. Geneva is a dense private sector hub with policy importance, as these actors (1) are part of policy networks and (2) major funders of public projects.
  4. It is easy to access the rest of the world from Geneva - not just through its airport but also via the diplomatic missions of almost all countries.
  5. We have lived in Geneva since 2014. Through our studies and work, we have built up the necessary strong network and stable living situation to sustain engagement.
  6. Why not Brussels? If SI produces value, we expect to support similar efforts in Brussels. We are in active exchange with a range of people at the interface of EU science-policy already.

How we plan to deal with downside risks

  1. We engage with comparatively small communities in high-bandwidth settings via personal contacts.
  2. We do not plan on making policy recommendations or conducting advocacy campaigns in the foreseeable future. Wherever the opportunity to do so exists, we will collaborate closely with relevant longtermist organizations.
  3. We maintain strong feedback loops with the longtermist community to develop our strategy collaboratively. Similarly, we seek longtermist funders to receive support that values our prudence.
  4. We embed our work in other organizations' projects. Our training is implemented together with the Geneva Science-Policy Interface, the United Nations Institute for Training and Research and the Swiss Mission.
  5. We do not use EA branding, to avoid (1) reputational risk; (2) politicization; (3) conflict with other EA activities (see this post).
  6. We will ensure integrity through transparency and consistency by going the extra mile in communicating and documenting our work.

Why we think we can pull this off

  1. We, Konrad Seifert & Maxime Stauffer, have received validating feedback from our contacts in EA, policy and academia. We have been refining our ideas for the past two years and have sought harsh feedback to make sure we’re on a robust path.
  2. We receive public support from the Geneva Science-Policy Interface and our board members and advisers.
  3. For public-facing projects, we collaborate with well-established institutions inside our target networks.
  4. We are receiving support from longtermist individuals within the UN, EU and US that unfortunately cannot be publicly associated with other organizations due to their professional functions.
  5. Over > 50 interviews with policymakers and researchers have led to the design of SI. There is demand for our work, as most policy actors we have interviewed see a need for support.
  6. SI has been welcomed by high-profile “inside activists”, as outside actors can initiate change and discussions that insiders cannot due to internal politics or career progression. With their support, SI provides a network to coordinate change in a way that’s compatible with their incentives and reduces individual risk.
  7. We have been working together for almost six years. We are a highly complementary duo and have built deep mutual understanding over the years.

How our research has evolved

  1. We initially planned to write a book to summarize all our thinking on ‘Longterm Governance’. To increase the usefulness of our past work and iterate quicker, we will first publish a series of working papers throughout the next months.
  2. We are writing the following working papers on SI’s foundational ideas:
    1. Policymaking for the long-term future
    2. Policy change dynamics and their implications for long-term policymaking
    3. Effective strategies for longtermist advocacy
    4. Strengthening decision-making for the long-term future
    5. An agenda for research and practice in longterm governance
  3. We are working on specific publications on decision-making support: 6. Computational policy processes studies 7. Evidence and impact of strategies and technologies for group decision-making support 8. Leverage points to strengthen individual decision-making in the face of complexity

3. What SI provides to the EA community

Our main audience at this point consists of policy actors and our presentation is tailored to them. But one of our main motivators for this work is that it benefits the EA community in three ways.

Career advice and job opportunities for individuals

Because of our work in policy and our interactions with policy actors, we build knowledge on relevant career paths in policy. We are happy to provide career advice to EAs interested in pursuing careers in European or international policy. We can also make introductions, although we will assess this on a case-by-case basis. Our career advice is managed in collaboration with Effective Altruism Geneva which will filter requests and orient people to relevant staff or collaborators at SI.

In the future, SI aims to hire full-time staff, recruit interns and collaborate with external collaborations. As such, we hope to offer valuable career capital for EAs to pursue longtermist policy career paths. These options are, of course, funding-dependent.

Policy expertise and opportunities for policy engagement

We hope to serve as an interface between EA organizations who aim to inform policymaking and relevant policy actors or agencies at the international level. From Maxime’s work at the Geneva Science-Policy Interface (and from this type of advice), we have gathered that interface actors effectively enable academics to inform policy debates.

Through our work with international organizations and the European Union, we are building networks and knowledge on agenda-setting, calls for expertise and international negotiations.

Building strong networks between the EA community and the policy sphere beyond US/UK is neglected and very important if we want to influence large-scale policy efforts in the future. Moreover, we can identify windows of opportunity for EA organizations to supply evidence and/or bring experts to policy arenas and facilitate such processes.

Field-building on longterm governance

In the past years, the EA community has pioneered the development of longtermism. We aim to contribute to these developments by publishing research on how to translate longtermism into policy change. Our line of research draws from syntheses of the literature on public policy, psychology and other fields to integrate longtermism. See here.

4. Call for support

Konrad & Max, are both funded until the end of 2021. Our current room for more funding for 2021 has a lower bound of $ 113,000 and an upper bound of around $ 2m.

The lower bound allows us to continue as is until the end of 2022 by funding ~1 FTE. Any additional funding will allow us to hire staff sooner, get office space, cover event & travel expenses and build a runway to stay resilient.

The upper bound would allow us to reliably plan 2 years ahead at ~7 FTE. We aim to hire up to 5 additional FTE in the first year to maximise our chances of success. Once we can guarantee one year of salary, we will start hiring value-aligned individuals with a background in international policy and skills in:

  1. Training: designing and facilitating workshops.
  2. Development: fundraising, grant writing, relationship management, financial reporting and public relations.
  3. Operations: event planning, management and organizational administration.
  4. Research: experimental design, data analysis, computational modelling, impact evaluation.

For full-time hires, we are looking for individuals with previous experience in policymaking contexts. We are developing an intense onboarding process to empower co-founder-equivalent first employees who have the agency and knowledge to effectively advance SI’s mission without the need for supervision.

You can donate via EA Geneva until SI’s nonprofit status has been officially recognized. This automatically makes your contribution tax-deductible in Switzerland. If you are from Germany, the US, UK or Netherlands, please reach out to us. Effektiv Spenden and EA Funds are likely to grant us fiscal sponsorship if they can expect an annual donation volume of at least € 10,000 and $ 50,000 respectively.

5. How to get in touch

  1. General inquiries: contact@simoninstitute.ch
  2. For policy career advice, please contact EA Geneva: https://eageneva.org/career-advice
  3. For donations and fundraising: konrad@simoninstitute.ch
  4. For research and other policy-related collaborations: max@simoninstitute.ch

6. Ask us anything

Please ask us anything, question our plans, and propose ideas.

  1. You might wonder “Who is Simon?” Herbert Simon (1916 - 2001) was a political scientist, cognitive psychologist, computer scientist and economist. We chose to name the institute after him as his research represents much of the knowledge SI is building on and aims to contribute to. He formalized the concept of bounded rationality, i.e. that humans make decisions with cognitive constraints. In 1978, he received the Nobel Prize in Economics and a Turing Award in 1975. He is known for having seminally contributed to the fields of behavioural economics, public administration, complexity science and artificial intelligence. ↩︎

  2. Geneva is the key operational and diplomatic hub of international policymaking. If you want to influence global coordination directly, it is most effective to start here. ↩︎

  3. A wide range of actors inside and outside of political institutions contribute to the creation of policy: elected officials, civil servants, academics, civil society, lobbyists and more. It is this dynamic co-creation process SI seeks to support. ↩︎

  4. Concrete examples include the UN Sustainability Agenda and the EU’s work on foresight. ↩︎

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Wow! This is a model for how to write a "new org" post. I look forward to sending it to many other founders in the future.

I especially liked this:

We give ourselves 24 months to scale up operations and generate first signs of impact (until mid-March 2023). Our governing board will decide whether we succeeded or failed to do so. After at most 1.5 years of work, via surveys and case studies, we expect to see:

  • Policymakers use insights and tools from our trainings in their work;
  • Policymakers better understand global catastrophic risks and longtermism;
  • Longtermists better understand international policymaking;
  • Individuals improve their career plans;
  • Our research can pass academic peer-review.

While the metrics seem a bit fuzzy in some cases, I'm impressed by the short timeline and the basic commitment to "review whether this should exist". 

(Though I might be misunderstanding the consequence of the governing board review; if they determine that you haven't achieved your goals, what happens next?)

Thanks a lot for the compliments! Really nice to read.

The metrics are fuzzy as we have yet to establish the baselines. We will do that until the end of September 2021 via our first pilots to then have one year of data to collect for impact analysis.

The board has full power over the decision of whether to continue SI’s existence. In Ralph Hertwig’s words, their role is to figure out whether we “are visionary, entirely naïve, or full of cognitive biases”. For now, we are unsure ourselves. What exactly happens next will depend on the details of the conclusion of the board.

It would be great if you could update this when you've posted some of your writing, to help potential donors decide whether to donate

To avoid spamming more comments, one final share: our resource repository is starting to take shape.  Two recent additions that might be of use to others:

In the works: a brief guide to decision-making on wicked problems, an analysis of 28 policymaker interviews on "decision-making under uncertainty and information overload" and a summary of our first working paper.

We have set up an RSS feed for the blog (or just subscribe to the ~quarterly newsletter).

And last but not least, we now have fiscal sponsorship for tax-deductible donations from the US, UK and the Netherlands via EA Funds and a lot of room for more funding.

Hi! We uploaded drafts for two pieces last week: 

Hi Khorton, thanks for the pointer - we will make sure to update. Is there something you'd be particularly keen on reading? We're happy to share drafts - just drop me an email konrad@simoninstitute.ch

Happy to see the new institute take form! Thanks for doing this, Maxime and Konrad. International long-term governance appears very high-leverage to me. Good luck, and I'm looking forward to see more of your work!

To build up confidence in policy engagement, it is necessary to start locally before recommendations can be advocated for publicly. Public attention can shift political agendas but drawing a lot of attention can easily backfire without sufficient organizational capacity.

This seems like a reasonable claim. It also reminds me of the post Hard-to-reverse decisions destroy option value, which I liked. And I don't know this area well, so by default I trust your judgement here more than mine. 

But for the sake of discussion, here are some things that seem like potential confusions about / counterpoints to those sentences. (This is adapted from a comment I made on the draft.)

  1. I don't feel totally sure I know what you mean by "build up confidence in policy engagement", "start locally", or "sufficient organizational capacity".
    • (That said, I didn't thoroughly read this latest version of the post - I just read the earlier draft and then skimmed this latest version.)
  2. Those sentences seem to imply that the only options you/we have are advocating for recommendations publicly or "starting locally"/"building organisational capacity". But it seems to me that other options include (a) researching what recommendations to make or (b) already doing targeted, non-public, high-fidelity advocacy (i.e., making recommendations rather than just building capacity, but only making recommendations in high-fidelity ways to small-ish groups of key people like actual policymakers).
    • Targeted, non-public, high-fidelity advocacy may be especially effective for policies that don't require huge budgets and focus on relatively technical things that most people don't pay much attention to. This perhaps connects to the idea of "pulling the rope sideways".
    • My rough impression is that some longtermists are indeed focusing on doing that sort of advocacy for specific recommendations (or at least that that's one of their focuses).
      • E.g., CSET, CSER, Alpenglow.
  3. It's possible that the problems are urgent enough that it's worth rushing things a bit, even if a slower approach would mean a lower risk of backfire.
    • I don't personally believe this, but it's plausible.
    • By "the problems are urgent enough", I mean things like it being possible that important windows of opportunity will close soon.
      • The most dramatic version of this would be an existential catastrophe happening quite soon. 
      • But it could also be things like the broad course of some future policy area being set now, such that it's valuable to act on our best guess now in order to pre-empt someone else doing something that's less sensible and longtermism-aligned.
  4. It seems like we could get more info on whether your claims are correct via analysis of historical case studies (probably a mixture of qualitative and quantitative analysis).
    • I.e., we could try to find prior cases where people/groups started with public advocacy for policy recommendations, cases where people/groups started with targeted non-public high-fidelity advocacy for policy recommendations, and cases where people/groups started with building organisational capacity.
    • We could then try to assess how many benefits and harms came from each case.
    • And we could try to assess how similar each case is in relevant ways to the situation we care about, what the underlying mechanisms for the benefits or harms might have been, etc.
    • Do you know if there have been analyses like that? Do you know if they do - or expect they would - support your claims that it's better to start with building organisational capacity? (It's very plausible to me that they would; I mean this just as a question, not an implied criticism.)

I really liked this comment. I will split up my answer into separate comments to make the discussion easier to follow.  Thanks also for sharing Hard-to-reverse decisions destroy option value, hadn't read it and it seems under-appreciated.

4. Two of our forthcoming working papers deal with “the evidence underlying policy change” and “strategies for effective longtermist advocacy”. A common conclusion that could deserve more scrutiny is the relative effectiveness of insider vs outsider strategies (insiders directly work within policy networks and outsiders publicly advocate for policy change). Insider strategies seem more promising. What is well-validated, especially in the US, is that the budget size of advocacy campaigns does not correlate with their success. However, an advocate’s number of network connections and their knowledge of institutions do correlate with their performance. These findings are also consistent with this systematic review on policy engagement for academics.  

As it’s not our top priority, we’re happy to share what we’ve got with somebody who has the capacity to pick this up. To do so, get in touch with Max (max@simoninstitute.ch).

Oh, nice - good to see that you've already looked into empirical evidence (beyond just anecdotal evidence and expert opinion) relevant to that part of your theory of change! 

I also find this an interesting small update in favour of insider as opposed to outsider strategies more generally. (I already leaned a bit towards insider strategies, but don't think I'd seen what systematic analyses of empirical evidence on the question said. Though the update is only small given that I still haven't checked out those links and you imply they're not conclusive.)

1. Quick definitions first, an explanation below. “Policy engagement” - interacting with policy actors to advance specific objectives; “start locally”: experimenting with actions and recommendations in ways that remain within the scope of organizational influence; “organizational capacity” capability to test, iterate and react to external events in order to preserve course.

Achieving policy change requires organizational capacity to sustain engagement for indefinite amounts of time because (a) organizations have to have sufficient standing within, or strong connections to, the relevant networks in order to be listened to and (b) the funding to hire staff with appropriate experience to react to what arises. 

For example, we wrote this announcement because input from the EA community is of high quality and worth engaging with. If, instead, we had written a big online newspaper announcement for international Geneva and beyond, the reactions would likely have been more overwhelming and interactions more likely to harm SI’s standing than here. This illustrates one way in which SI currently lacks the “capacity” to react to big events in its direct environment and thus needs to build up first.

3. I sympathize strongly with the feeling of urgency but it seems risky to act on it, as long as the longtermist community doesn’t have fully elaborated policy designs on the table that can simply be lobbied into adoption and implementation. 

Given that the design of policies or institutional improvements requires a lot of case-specific knowledge, we see this as another reason to privilege high-bandwidth engagement. In such settings, it’s also possible to become policy-entrepreneurs who can create windows of opportunity, instead of needing to wait for them. 

Whenever there are large-scale windows of opportunity (e.g. a global pandemic causing significant budget shifts), we’d only be confident in attempting to seize them in a rushed manner if (a) the designs are already on the table and just need to be adopted/implemented or if (b) we were in the position to work in direct collaboration with the policymakers. Of course, SI leverages COVID-19 in its messaging but that’s to make its general case, for now.

If an existential catastrophe is happening very soon, SI is not in a position to do much beyond supporting coordination and networking of key actors (which we’re doing). Being overly alarmist would quickly burn the credibility we have only begun to consolidate. Other actors are in positions with higher leverage and we hope to be able to support them indirectly. Overall, we see most of SI’s impact potential 5-20 years down the line - with one potential milestone being the reassessment of the 2030 UN Agenda.

In such settings, it’s also possible to become policy-entrepreneurs who can create windows of opportunity, instead of needing to wait for them. 

This is an interesting point.

It also calls to mind a possible counterpoint to your overall views here (though I think I agree with the views): 

Maybe instead of (a) waiting for windows of opportunity (while building capacity) or (b) creating windows of opportunity through insider approaches, it's sometimes best to (c) create windows of opportunity through outsider approaches like public advocacy?

E.g., I'd guess that public advocacy about climate change has played a substantial role in creating windows for acting on that issue, e.g. because now voters will vote partly based on that issue and politicians are aware of that. And my impression is that public advocacy or similar things like marches and protests have played a key role in creating policy windows in the past, e.g. in the case of the civil rights movement. (I haven't looked into this stuff closely, though.)

I'd be interested in your thoughts on that. (Though again, I do think I lean in favour of your approach. And in fact I tentatively think some existing longtermism-related public advocacy is sufficiently likely to be counterproductive that it was a mistake for it to be started without further analysis up front, partly because that better preserves option value.)

Yeah, public attention can also be a carrot, not just a stick. But it’s a carrot that grows legs and will run its own way, possibly making it harder when you want to change course upon new learnings.

Our current take here is something like “public advocacy doesn’t create windows of opportunity, it creates windows of implementation”. When public pressure mounts, policymakers want to do something to signal they are trying. And they will often do whatever looks best in that moment. It would only be good to pressure once proposals are worked out and just need to be “pushed through”.

To influence agendas, it seems better, at least mid-term, to pursue insider strategies. However, if all you have is one shot, then you might as well try public advocacy for reprioritization and hope it vaguely goes into the right direction. But if you think there’s time for more targeted and incremental progress, then the best option probably is to become a trusted policy actor in your network of choice.

This sounds reasonable to me.

I think another framing/argument that would also make sense would be something like this: "We (i.e., longtermists) have substantial uncertainty about when relevant windows of opportunity will arise. As such, the longtermist community should have a portfolio which includes efforts targeted at both nearby windows and further away windows (just as it should have a portfolio which includes efforts targeted at a variety of different risks, technologies, countries, etc.). Simon Institute is focused on windows of opportunity other than extremely nearby existential risks."

(This would be similar to Owen Cotton-Barratt's arguments in this talk. There are also some relevant arguments and sources in my post Crucial questions about the optimal timing of work and donations.)

Yup, the portfolio approach makes a lot of sense to us. Also, as always, thanks for the summary and links!

A big question is how to define “extremely nearby”. Within the next 5 years, SI should be in a position to directly take meaningful action. Ironically, given SI’s starting point, making short-term action the main goal seems like it could make it less likely to attain the necessary capacity. There’s just no sustainable way in which a new actor can act urgently, as they first have to “stand the test of time” in the eyes of the established ones. 

2. You’re right. We’re assuming that policy analysis is being done by more and more organizations in increasing quantities. Highly targeted advocacy is well within the scope of what we mean by “building capacity locally”. There are some things one can propose to advance discussions (see e.g. Toby Ord’s recent Guardian piece). The devil is in the details of these proposals, however. Translating recommendations into concrete policy change isn’t straightforward and highly contextual (see e.g. missteps with LAWS). As advocacy campaigns can easily take on a life of their own, it seems highest leverage to privilege in-depth engagement at this point in time. 

Toby’s Guardian article is an interesting edge case, as it could be seen as “advocacy campaign”-ish. But given its non-sensationalist nature and fit with the UK’s moves towards a national health security agency - in which a bunch of EAs seem to be involved anyway - that’s a well-coordinated multilevel strategy that seems unlikely to catch on fire.

Oh, so you're saying Simon Institute will initially focus on both building up capacity, connections, credibility, etc., and doing some highly targeted advocacy for specific recommendations? 

Or is it like you plan to build up capacity, connections, credibility, etc., then do highly targeted advocacy, then maybe do public advocacy?

It’s all somewhat mixed up - highly targeted advocacy is a great way to build up capacity because you get to identify close allies, can do small-scale testing without too much risk, join more exclusive networks because you’re directly endorsed by “other trusted actor x*, etc. 

Our targeted advocacy will remain general for now - as in “the long-term future matters much more than we are currently accounting for” and “global catastrophic threats are grossly neglected”. With increasing experience and clout, it will likely become more concrete. 

Until then, we think advocating for specific recommendations at the process level, i.e. offering decision-making support, is a great middle way that preserves option value. We are about something very tangible, have more of a pre-existing knowledge base to work with, do not run into conflicts of interest and can incrementally narrow down the most promising pathways for more longtermist advocacy.

Regarding public advocacy: given that we interact mostly with international civil servants, there aren’t any voting constituencies to mobilize. If we take 'public advocacy' to include outreach to a larger set of actors - NGOs, think tanks, diplomatic missions, staff unions and academics - then yes, we have considered targeted media campaigns. That could be impactful in reframing issues/solutions and redirecting attention once we’re confident about context-appropriate messaging.

Thanks, that all sounds reasonable to me.

Regarding public advocacy: given that we interact mostly with international civil servants, there aren’t any voting constituencies to mobilize.

Wouldn't Members of European Parliament also be in a position to support/block longtermism-relevant policy changes? And wouldn't that mean the voting constituencies for MEPs are relevant? 


  • Obviously this is just for the EU, not other bodies like the UN.
  • I know very little about how the EU actually works, so maybe the answer to either/both of those questions is "No." 
  • And my impression is that a large portion of British people at least didn't know that MEPs existed or that they could vote for them, so maybe most of the public in other EU countries will also in practice pay very little attention?

Also, even for e.g. delegates at the UN, it seems like they're influenced by the governments of their countries, who are in turn influenced by voters. Obviously this indirectness (and the - probably related - fact that most voters pay very little attention to the UN) reduces how important voters' views are to UN decisions, but it still seems like voters can matter?

(As one example, I think I've heard of cases where voters' views seemed to make a difference to countries' stances on international nuclear weapons treaties, which seems like a related thing. But currently my understanding of these areas is limited, so I may be mixing things together in a naive way.)

Thanks for this post! As I mentioned in a comment on the draft version, this seems like an interesting and potentially quite valuable project.

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