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An open question is the degree to which governments can do good technical research, either in-house or commissioned. Some possible ways in which this could be relevant:

  • Evals (although this likely could be contracted in a successful way) 
  • More straightforward technical research (do any other safety-research areas use this? Nuclear security and areoplane safety seem to be done by the private sector and the role the of government is creating good incentives here) 
  • The potential for governments to become the dominant actor in advancing towards TAI

Examples of governments (particularly US government) doing in-house or contracting technical research 

This list is not exhaustive–it’s just examples I happen to know about. 

Defense examples 

  • Sandia national lab, the US governments lab for nuclear weapons safety. Run by Lockheed Martin since the 1980s. Hires an extremely large number of electrical engineers
  • Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Oakridge national labs – develop US nuclear weapons 
  • DARPA – US government acting as a grant maker for science research. Extremely good track record. 
  • Cyber offence and defence work by intelligence agencies. My impression is that the US and the UK are 2 levels above private groups in cyberoffence and have a seemingly inexhaustible supply of zero-days. I’m unsure the degree to which this is done in house. 
  • Generic defence contracting for new, high tech military hardware. 

Regulatory agencies 

  • The EPA has a large in-house team of environmental scientists informing their regulatory policies. About half of their staff of the EPA are environmental scientists. 
  • The Fed has an extremely large in-house team of economists who do economics research, often for regulatory purposes. The Fed’s economists are considered amongst the best in macro and financial economics. 

Other US government 

  • US army corps of engineers. An unusual example since the military is such an unusual institution that does a very unusual about of in-house training with an unusual amount of market power over its technical staff. Also does engineering rather than technical research 
  • NASA. Independent agency of the US government. 
  • Department of Energy. Don’t know the specifics 
  • Cybersecurity department within the department of homeland security. Are quite poor. 

UK government 

  • NICE cost-effectiveness assessment of medical interventions for the NHS. Done in-house and my impression is that it is a very high-quality specific type of technical research which is statistics focused and reviews large numbers of existing medical research.
  • UK independent regulatory bodies. Notably different from the rest of the UK civil service which, hire generalists, these organizations hire specialists, and these individuals stay in their areas rather than moving around regularly as is done in the rest of the civil service 
  • The NHS does lots of biomedical research. Unsure how much of this is in-house. 

 Some patterns that emerge 

  • Defence dominates government technical research 
  • Reasonable balance of in-house and contracting. No obvious pattern in which is more successful.
  • Some bias towards independent agencies doing more and better technical research. Particularly notable in the UK where there’s such a generalist focus in the civil service. 





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Great post as always, Nathan :)

  • Defence dominates government technical research 
  • Reasonable balance of in-house and contracting. No obvious pattern in which is more successful.

It's a weird one because the actual military has extraordinary problems attracting talent in these areas because they can't compete with the salary, perks, or lifestyle of the private sector in any respect at all. So the military itself doesn't do much technical R&D in a large scale that isn't led by government or private enterprise.

However, the defence industry (the private entities who manufacture much of the gear) has the funds and the network to hire top-tier specialists, and due to the extremely high levels of regulatory oversight and compliance evidence required, they generally have really good safety systems in place. As a result it's an attractive place to work for the upskilling of the technical staff. If you spend 25% of your workday talking to legal and governance, you pick things up.

The downside for many government and almost all defence roles though is the significant amounts of (very personally invasive) clearance required to work on projects. An academic can't just collaborate with those industries on a whim. Even most defence fellowships (like RAND) require at least SC level of clearance. It's pretty much why there's such a quality divide, in that someone who knows they can pass a clearance will do so for the double salary and long-term career benefits. This means though that hiring someone 'fresh' will take 6 months to a year, which is a long runway. But most of these projects have very long runways. There's lots of IT staff now trying to gain clearances just to get into that industry on a contractor basis, but the vetting is very much a bottleneck for them.

An exception to the high quality I'd say is criminal or national intelligence where the actual intelligence agencies have super-high levels of qualified individuals top in their field, whereas policing itself is the opposite in that they're like the military itself where they just can't compete for talent. When working together it's not a problem, but solo technical endeavours by police forces (at least in the UK) have a pretty spotty hit rate. Some great. Some not so great.

One thing to consider is that the line between government and not-government can get super blurry in technical research, or R&D in general.

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