Summary

We’re announcing a writing competition to provide practical guidance to the US federal government on how to incorporate existential and catastrophic risks into agency cost-benefit analysis

In total, we plan to distribute $72,500 in prize money for up to 10 prizes. We are offering $1,000 to anyone who successfully refers an applicant who becomes a finalist in the competition. You can find more information on the referral bonus here.[1]

We created this competition because we believe

  • This guidance is particularly important to mitigating existential and catastrophic risks and improving agency decision-making,
  • We are entering a unique window of opportunity to inform and shape how the US conducts cost-benefit analysis, and
  • In order to do that well, we need to attract and direct the attention of relevant experts.

Submissions can be up to 10,000 words (though we encourage shorter submissions where the author can present their argument in fewer words). Submissions will include (a) a summary of the author’s proposal, (b) amended or proposed language to the regulations governing cost-benefit analysis in the US (with particular attention to Circular A-4), and (c) an essay explaining, justifying, and qualifying the proposed language and approach.

The deadline is July 31, 2022. You can find submission instructions and further information about the competition below and on our website.

The remainder of this post outlines why we are excited about this topic and approach, what the contest will entail, how to apply, and ways you can help even if you aren’t in a position to submit a proposal.

Prompt

This competition aims to produce practical guidance on how US federal agencies can more fully account for the interests of future generations and catastrophic and existential risks in their decision-making processes. We seek submissions that present and develop regulatory methods to:

  • Account for changes in the probability of national or human extinction (posed by threats like pandemics, climate change, nuclear weapons, or artificial intelligence);
  • Account for changes in the probability of catastrophic public harms; or
  • Account for the interests of future generations

Submissions must contain the following elements:

  1. A single cover page summarizing the author’s argument
  2. A second page that contains the language of your proposed amendment(s) to Circular A-4 or other regulations governing regulatory decision-making in the United States [Note: because the topic has already been highly theorized and debated, we discourage applicants from proposing or arguing for changes to the general discount rate]
  3. An essay explaining, justifying, and qualifying the proposed amendments and methodologies used. This essay must be at most 10,000 words, including citations and footnotes. This is an upper bound, and we encourage shorter submissions where the author can present their argument in fewer words. This word count does not include the cover page or amended regulatory text. Citations need not follow any particular format so long as they are consistent and allow for verification of the claims made.

 

How to apply

All submissions shall be made through this form, in .doc or .docx format. Instructions on how to submit your entry can be found at that link. Because the review process will be anonymous, please do not include identifying information in your document.

 

Prizes

  • First Prize: $30,000
  • Second Prizes (up to 4): $5,000 each
  • Third Prizes (up to 5): $2,500 each

An additional Incentive Prize of $10,000 is available to any Finalists that (a) are cited by, or (b) whose suggested language is substantially adopted by the revised Circular A-4. Please see our Terms and Conditions for further information on the prizes.

We recognize this is a lot of money for an essay competition. But high-quality advice like this is hard to come by, and the potential regulatory importance is high. In our view, we would be happy to pay someone’s salary to work on these submissions for weeks or even months, so we’re glad to make this investment and reward high-quality work in this field. 

We hope to receive entries from academics, researchers, and students, which is why we’ve offered many prizes. With such a novel question and a policy-oriented format, we expect to award at least some prizes to participants who have not previously published on these topics. All submissions will be reviewed anonymously. If you are considering making a submission, please do so regardless of your level of experience!

Winning submissions will be published on the Legal Priorities Project website.

 

Selection Process and Criteria

The selection process will be fully anonymous. Review of submissions will take place in two phases:

  1. An initial review by a panel of one or more experts coordinated by the Legal Priorities Project. This Nominating Panel will recommend up to 10 papers to the final-round Judging Panel. All submissions that emerge from the Nominating Panel review will receive a prize.
  2. A final review by a panel of U.S. law professors. This Judging Panel will determine which papers receive First, Second, and Third prizes. Only one paper may win First Prize. Up to four papers may win Second Prize. Up to five papers may win Third Prize.

We’re looking for submissions that provide practical guidance on how to alter the existing agency review process. Submissions should be feasible and implementable in the immediate future.

Submissions will be judged on the basis of their 

  • Potential to accurately account for existential and catastrophic risks
  • Potential to incentivize or promote more reasoned agency decision-making that accounts for such risks
  • Discussion and integration of major moral, legal, policy, political, economic, and prudential considerations
  • Feasibility and likelihood of implementation
  • Reasoning and supporting evidence
  • Clarity, persuasiveness (especially to general policymaking audiences), and ease of implementation

Winning submissions will make contributions to some, though not necessarily all of these criteria, and we may award papers that make particularly strong contributions to one of these areas while being less compelling in some other categories.

We expect that the best submissions will have clear and direct relevance to risks presented by artificial intelligence, pandemics, nuclear weapons, and/or climate change.

 

Eligibility

The Competition is open to US residents aged 18 or over only. Certain individuals are excluded due to conflicts of interest, namely 

  • Current employees of LPP, the FTX Foundation, or any affiliated entities
  • Members of the Nominating or Judging Panels of the Competition
  • The immediate family of the above

Please see the terms and conditions for further information on such exclusions.

 

Why we think this competition matters

In short,

  • Importance: US federal agency decision-making is important, and cost-benefit analysis (CBA) has a significant effect on the incentives, goals, and outputs of US federal agencies. Most directly, it determines what agencies can and cannot think about in adopting regulations, choosing enforcement strategies, and creating new programs. It also creates broader, non-compulsory norms and incentives that shape how agencies view their responsibilities, what harms they consider and prioritize, and what actions they view as legitimate. Virtually all major regulations have to go through a cost-benefit process as prescribed by OIRA (the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs), and regulations can be challenged on the basis of inadequate CBA.
  • Narrow target, broad applicability: The process governing US CBA is centralized, making changes to that process consequential to a large portion of all agency decision-making. Established by the Executive Branch in the 1980s, OIRA issues guidance to all federal agencies on how they are to conduct cost-benefit analysis. It also reviews all “significant” regulations, encompassing a large share of the regulations relevant to limiting x-risks.
  • Persistence: OIRA CBA protocols are fairly stable across administrations. For example, Circular A-4–the core protocol governing CBA–has not been amended since 2011 and has remained largely unchanged since its adoption in 1993. Thus, we expect amendments to Circular A-4 to generate persistent effects on how agencies respond to existential risks.
  • Room for Improvement/Poor Current Alignment: The current approach to CBA likely under-accounts for existential and catastrophic risks and the interests of future generations due to OIRA’s stance on temporal discounting, under-theorizing of population ethics, lack of guidance on how to account for low-probability, high-consequence events, and treatment of non-Americans.
  • Opportunity: The document that governs OIRA CBA (Circular A-4) is being revised for the first time in over a decade. In 2021, the Biden Administration tasked the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) with “producing a set of recommendations for improving and modernizing regulatory review,” including how cost-benefit analysis can account for “the interests of future generations” and “fully account for regulatory benefits that are difficult or impossible to quantify.” Our understanding is that relatively few people are both knowledgeable and interested in proposing ways to account for these interests. We believe this presents a unique opportunity to inform how these changes are made by incentivizing writing directly on these questions.
  • We need expertise: Accounting for these interests in a methodologically rigorous way is no easy task. Nor is predicting which proposals will be politically feasible. The pool of people capable of providing high-quality contributions is likely small. These people likely have deep knowledge of one or more of the facets of this problem and are experts in their field. Their time is likely limited, and most will not prioritize working on the narrow topic of existential risk, future generations, and low-probability, high-consequences events.
    • It’s worth noting that we still think that people new to the field can produce important contributions here, but even those people will likely possess deep knowledge of some subpart of this question. Moreover, people within the EA community may lack context on what approaches are most politically viable.
  • We’re hopeful we can incentivize that help: While many of the most relevant experts may not have written on this topic absent a call to do so, our initial conversations with area experts indicate that they are open to writing on the subject. We’re hopeful that having a panel of well-respected experts say, “this topic is important enough for me to judge this competition,” combined with monetary awards will counterfactually produce strong contributions.

 

What do we hope to produce through this competition?

Ultimately we hope to produce:

  1. A set of proposals containing draft regulatory text and supporting arguments in favor of those proposals to (a) share with and promote among key agency decision-makers, (b) publish online, (c) incorporate into our and others’ thinking on cost-benefit analysis.
  2. Public comments to submit to OIRA and OMB when they review Circular A-4 and/or other regulations governing CBA.

We believe the outputs of this competition will (in expectation) improve US CBA in a few ways:

  1. Directly increasing the odds that OIRA adopts favorable CBA guidance reducing existential and catastrophic risks and protecting future generations. We hope that by generating direct, actionable guidance and providing model language, we can alter what amendments are ultimately adopted. Making it easy for OIRA to adopt these changes, increasing the salience and perceived importance of these changes, and having those views approved by respected figures in the field (either through judging or direct submission) all seem to increase the odds of favorable regulation.
  2. Increasing policymakers' valuation and awareness of existential risks. Related to the point above, we hope that producing high-quality recommendations from trusted experts and drawing scholarly attention to this topic will increase policymakers' openness to and knowledge of efforts to mitigate existential and catastrophic risks.
  3. Improving our collective understanding of how governments can account for existential and catastrophic risks. These are hard questions that have thus far been undertheorized. Soliciting a range of expert views on the subject may enhance our understanding of the available options, their potential impact, and the tradeoffs involved.
  4. Producing novel methodologies to account for existential and catastrophic risks. Given the limited scholarly resources dedicated to this topic so far, it’s possible that the competition will yield new contributions.
  5. Distilling existing best approaches to accounting for existential and catastrophic risks and translating those approaches into practical policy guidance. Experts may already have initial ideas on how to account for these risks. Asking experts to distill those thoughts into a short essay and amended regulatory language could hasten the transformation of those ideas into policy-ready recommendations.
  6. More clearly and persuasively making the case for adopting these methodologies in terms amenable to agency decision-makers.
  7. Incentivizing future scholarly work on this topic. Researchers are more likely to write on topics they’ve previously written about, so getting experts to work on this question could shape their future work. Additionally, researchers are responsive to the signals of their colleagues, so successful work now may encourage future researchers and academics to write on related topics.

 

How can I help?

If you’re in a position to make a submission, please do. 

If you aren’t, you can still help!

In order to generate the highest quality submissions, we’re offering a $1,000 reward to anyone who refers to us a candidate whose submission is ultimately selected as a Finalist by the Nominating Panel. The Nominating Panel will select up to 10 finalists.

To qualify for the referral reward, please fill out this referral form detailing how we should reach out to the candidate. You may also want to contact the candidate directly and send them the competition overview and rules

More information on our referral program as well as the terms and conditions that govern it can be found here.

We’d also appreciate any feedback on our approach or ways to make the most of the submissions we receive.

 

FAQs

If you have a question that isn’t listed here, contact us anytime at competition@legalpriorities.org. We would love to hear from you.

 

Can I submit work I’ve done in the past?

Yes. You are welcome to submit past work that you think fits our criteria, even if it’s already been published elsewhere. These submissions should meet our specific requirements, like including proposed, amended text to Circular A-4. In general, we would advise candidates to submit only papers that directly address catastrophic and existential risks, rather than trying to adapt tangentially related papers to the competition.


Can I work with a coauthor?

Yes, you may work with any number of authors. Please note, that prizes will be awarded per Finalist paper, not per author. If there is more than one author for a single Finalist paper, LPP will divide the Prize that paper receives evenly between the authors.

 

What will happen to the winning works?

LPP hopes that this contest will yield concrete policy changes. Therefore, we may, at our discretion, choose to cite or distribute submissions to maximize their impact.

We expect to publish all Finalists on our website. We may also work with Finalists to publish their submissions as part of our working paper series.

 

Can I refer someone?

If you think someone would be a particularly good fit for this competition, please fill out this form. If our Nominating Panel selects their paper as a Finalist, we will send the referrer $1,000 for the referral. 

Only one person per Finalist will be credited with a referral. The person who receives credit for a referral will be the first person who brings the candidate to our attention, counted from the time of receipt of the referral form response or email.

 You may refer multiple people and receive multiple referral bonuses.

You can find more information about our referral bonus here.

 

Can I submit multiple entries?

Yes. If you’re up for the work, we’re up to review. Please avoid duplicative submissions that make only minor changes between versions.

 

Why did you choose this focus?

In short, we want to make the world a better place, and we think that one of the most important ways to do that is to protect future generations and reduce existential and catastrophic risks that threaten people today and tomorrow. Ensuring that government decision-making accurately accounts for these critical values is central to that goal. 

If you’d like to learn more about our focus areas, please visit the Legal Priorities Project website, fill out our general expression of interest form, or read more about some of the key principles that influence our work— effective altruism and the longtermism paradigm.

 

This competition is organized by the Legal Priorities Project. The Legal Priorities Project is an independent, global research project founded by researchers from Harvard University. We conduct and support foundational legal research and develop legal strategies to tackle the world’s most pressing problems. This currently leads us to focus on mitigating existential risk and promoting the flourishing of future generations. Our research is influenced by the principles of effective altruism and the longtermism paradigm.

 

Who is funding this?

The FTX Future Fund provided the Legal Priorities Project with a grant to run this competition, at the recommendation of Cullen O’Keefe and an anonymous co-recommender. We are very thankful for the Future Fund’s support!




 

  1. ^

    This referral bonus is governed by our competition terms and conditions.

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7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:47 PM
New Comment

Is there any way for non-US residents to take part in the contest?

Thanks for the interest, Jaime. Unfortunately only US residents are eligible to apply for the competition. If you (or others outside the US) would nonetheless like to weigh in on the comments we plan to draft following the competition, please reach out to us at competition@legalpriorities.org to discuss. 

 

A side note: Non-US residents are eligible to apply for LPP's other programing including the upcoming Summer Institute. (Applications due June 17th)

What about US citizens who are not current residents?

Thanks for the patience here. We've reached out to our legal advisors on this questions and hope to have an answer soon. If you (or anyone else reading this) has a particular person in mind who this question would be relevant to, please reach out at competition@legalpriorities.org.

I wonder if you have any other suggested reading on US regulatory analysis processes?

– – 

Specifically:  Having read circular A-4 I am somewhat confused by US regulatory analysis. Circular A-4 only covers various forms of cost benefit assessment. But where is all the rest of the regulatory analysis? Is that it? Like where is the assessment of quality of evidence, or the assessment of how easy it is to review and change, or the assessment of risk? Surely A-4 is not the complete regulatory analysis process? There must be something else right?

For example in the UK policy makers have access to guidance on a range of topics that A-4 doesn't even touch on such as:

  • Analysis of things like "Strategic dimension: What is the case for change, including the rationale for intervention? What is the current situation? What is to be done? What outcomes are expected? How do these fit with wider government policies and objectives? Management dimension: Are there realistic and robust delivery plans? How can the proposal be
    delivered?" (here in the Green Book)
  • Analysis guidance includes at least some (minimal) advice on topics such as generating a long-list of option or adjusting the results to account for common biases of researchers
  • There is much more guidance on what good regulatory policy should look like to support good decisions making. Like the Regulators Code (and papers such as Regulation for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the Regulatory Futures Review.)

Does anything similar exist in the US?

Thanks for this question as well. You're right that other regulations, statutes, and advisory documents guide how regulatory analysis is conducted. 

On the statutory side there is the Regulatory Flexibility Act, the  Unfunded Mandates Reform Act, the Paperwork Reduction Act, and the Information Quality Act, to name a few. 

On the regulatory/executive side, there are several  executive orders besides 12866 that contain analytical requirements. OMB has issued other guiding documents like this, and the GAO has its own Greenbook. And some agencies have adopted their own guidelines and requirements.

We chose to highlight A-4 because the most recent Executive Order calling for alterations to these processes specifically cited Circular A-4 as a potential target for alteration.

Because I had fun reading Circular A-4 and vehemently hated it I decided to write up my views. I have done this in the form of drafting two entries to this competition. If anyone wants to borrow some of these ideas in their entry then they would be welcome (I am not a US resident so not entering). Referencing me would be nice. See ideas below (or in a Google Doc here).
 

1. Going beyond quantitative analysis

Summary 1

Circular A-4 provides advice to regulatory analysts. However it focuses almost exclusively on quantitative Benefit-Cost Analysis (BCA). This risks missing the woods for all the trees. There are clear limits to BCAs and it is important to only use BCAs in conjunction with other methodologies. There are many other types of evidence out there that decision makers can be made aware of that analysis should look into. There is good precedent for this, for example advice for government analysts in the UK suggests this.
 

Suggested amendment 1

I suggest radically amending the kind of analysis that Circular A-4 guides analysts provide to decision makers along the following lines.

Amendments to the introduction should be made as follows:

A good regulatory analysis should include the following three six basic elements: (1) a statement of the need for the proposed action, (2) an examination of alternative approaches, and (3) an evaluation of the benefits and costs—quantitative and qualitative—of the proposed action and the main alternatives identified by the analysis [Add: (4) an evaluation of the past success, case studies, past precedent and quality of evidence for the proposed action (5) an evaluation of the strategic case and practical considerations for delivering the proposed action, and (6) a  summary of expert views on the proposed action].

Furthermore additional sections (not drafted in full here) should be added to the guidance after Section G to cover:

H. Case study and historical analysis

I. Analysis of strategic and practical considerations

J. Summary of expert views
 

Essay 1

​See the Google Doc here

 

2. Adjusting for presentism and optimism bias

Summary 2

Quantitative analysis is prone to be affected by analysts and decision makers' biases. Explicitly adjusting for these biases should be done as part of the analysis. There is good precedent for this, for example advice for government analysts in the UK suggests this. Adjustments can be made for both optimism bias (especially for any decisions that require government procurement or major infrastructure to be developed) and for presentism bias.
 

Suggested amendment 2

In section H the following should be added:

Adjustments to account for biases.

When conducting appraisal consideration should also be given to optimism bias – this is the proven tendency for appraisers to be optimistically biased about key project parameters, including capital costs and operating costs, project duration, and resulting benefits delivery. Optimistic rather than realistic projections result in undeliverable targets and if permitted across the board create institutional failure as all proposals fall consistently far short of promised results. For this reason, specific optimism bias adjustments must be applied as numbers are initially identified. Ideally adjustments should be based on an organisation’s own evidence base for historic levels of optimism bias. In the absence of robust organisation-specific estimates generic values are provided in the table below. There are currently no generic values available to be applied to benefits, only to costs, however an adjustment should be applied based on an organisation’s own evidence base.

[A table should then be inserted with figures for different kinds of cost inputs and how to adjust them for optimism bias, based on historical analysis of past BCA]

When conducting appraisal consideration should also be given to presentism bias – this is the tendency for decision makers to favour the short run benefits over the long run benefits and disfavour short-run costs over long-run costs. This leads to short term decision making. For this reason, specific presentism bias adjustments can be applied at the same time as a discount rate is applied. This should be in the form of a small positive amount that effectively lowers the discount rate. Ideally adjustments should be based on an organisation’s own evidence base for historic levels of presentism bias. In the absence of robust organisation-specific estimates a generic value of 1.5% per annum should be used. The resultant output should be provided to decision makers alongside the non-adjusted figure to support their decision making (not as a replacement to the unadjusted output)

 

(Note text borrowed from the UK government Green Book.)