Summary

We wanted to narrow down the list of issues that EAs and longtermists care about to a shortlist of topics for an Australian policy context. We collected around 120 individual topics across various lists of research areas and priorities across the community. We combined them to a longlist of 47 issues.

Based on three criteria - community consensus or prioritisation, policy relevance, Australia's role on global stage - we shortlisted the following 12 issues (alphabetically):

  1. Artificial intelligence
  2. Climate change
  3. Economic growth
  4. Epistemic Security
  5. Extreme risk management and governance
  6. Food system (including food security and animal welfare)
  7. Global governance
  8. Great power relations and strategic competition
  9. Nuclear weapons
  10. Pandemics and biological risks
  11. Safeguarding liberal democracy
  12. Space

We are now conducting a high-level scan of the Australian policy landscape for these 12 issues. We hope to identify the areas that show the greatest promise for further work, such as deeper policy analysis and research or community building in Australia.


This year could be very important for Australian policy on issues that EAs and longtermists care about, particularly existential risks. COVID-19 and the Ukraine crisis have brought extreme risks onto the radar. EA and longtermist ideas are increasingly gaining recognition. And Australia is in an election year, potentially opening up policy windows for change. Indeed, Australian Member of Parliament, Andrew Leigh, has recently written a book on existential risk. However, efforts to engage Australian policy on these causes are minimal, compared to our counterpart communities in the US, UK and Europe, and compared to the scale of the challenge. And policy efforts in smaller countries, like Australia, could enable, lab-test or complement global efforts.

 

So what are the issues we could focus on in an Australian policy context? 

Members of the EA, longtermist, and x-risk research communities are interested in a wide range of issues. We are trying to identify which issues would be best to focus on from an Australian policy perspective. By starting with the broad set of issues these communities care about, we are narrowing them down to a shortlist of focus areas.


Step 1: Collect a longlist of issues

The EA, longtermist and x-risk research communities have put in enormous research and thinking into the most pressing global problems. We’ve collected the list of priorities or research areas articulated from a sample set of organisations:

We don't mean to suggest only these lists are authoritative, but, collectively, they provide a good range of issues the community cares about. In some instances, we added specific issues that we knew aligned groups or individuals were working on, but didn’t necessarily show up within these specific lists. 

With around 120 individual topics collected, we combined them to a longlist of 47 issues.

 

Step 2: Develop a shortlist for an Australian policy context

We then sought to narrow down this list using three criteria:

  • Consensus or prioritisation - how well recognised is the problem in the EA/longtermist/x-risk research communities? How much evidence or consensus is there? How much focus, attention and prioritisation does it receive?
  • Policy relevance - how relevant is the issue to policy-makers? How much does government engage on these issues? How high is the government’s involvement or activity? Could the government be considering new or different legislation and policy?
  • Australia's role on the global stage - how much control and influence does Australia have on this issue? To what extent can Australian policy shape other countries and governments? To what extent do we have a comparative advantage?

We scored each of these issues along these criteria based on our own high-level judgment. (See Appendix below for scoring definitions.) Through this exercise, we shortlisted 12 global problems that could be worth focusing on in an Australian policy context.

Shortlist (alphabetically)

  1. Artificial intelligence
  2. Climate change
  3. Economic growth
  4. Epistemic Security
  5. Extreme risk management and governance
  6. Food system (including food security and animal welfare)
  7. Global governance
  8. Great power relations and strategic competition
  9. Nuclear weapons
  10. Pandemics and biological risks
  11. Safeguarding liberal democracy
  12. Space

There were five additional items that were not shortlisted, but may be worth considering if there is a sufficient case.

Backup shortlist

  1. Cyber
  2. Environmental degradation
  3. Global health and development
  4. Improving institutional decision-making
  5. Quantum computing

The remaining 30 items were not shortlisted, typically because they have little policy relevance or are not receiving significant attention from the community.

Not shortlisted

  1. Ageing
  2. Artificial sentience
  3. Biomedical research and other basic science
  4. Broadly promoting positive values
  5. Building effective altruism
  6. Criminal justice reform
  7. Empowering Exceptional People
  8. Extremism and terrorism
  9. Extraterrestrial intelligence
  10. Forecasting
  11. Global priorities research
  12. Global public goods
  13. Global totalitarianism
  14. Homelessness
  15. Immigration policy
  16. Improving individual reasoning or cognition
  17. Investing to give
  18. Land use reform
  19. Lie detection technology
  20. Mental health
  21. Nanotechology
  22. Physics experiments
  23. S-risks
  24. Science policy and infrastructure
  25. Supervolcanic eruption
  26. Surveillance
  27. Unknown unknowns
  28. Voting reform
  29. Whole brain emulation
  30. Wild animal welfare

 

We would greatly appreciate feedback on this shortlisting exercise. Are there any other issues we should add to our longlist? Are there any other criteria we should use? Are the criteria appropriate? Have we scored them appropriately?

Feel free to add comments directly into the document here or below on this post.

Note that this is not the list of issues we are certain should be worked on or where policy change is needed in Australia. Nor are are we suggesting that issues outside the shortlist do not deserve policy focus. It's simply a starting point to understand, discuss and debate where policy research and engagement in Australia could be best directed.

 

Now the real work begins

Step 3: High-level scan of Australian policy landscape for shortlisted issues

We are currently conducting a high-level scan of Australian policy landscape as it relates to the shortlisted issues. We are looking into the policy context in Australia for each issue and applying the importance, tractability and neglectedness framework. This effort is being shared within the Australian EA and longtermist community for feedback and engagement. The landscape scan for the 12 shortlisted issues will help us identify the areas that show the greatest promise for further policy work.

 

Step 4: ???? PROFIT!!!!

Beyond this point, we are still considering how to take this work forward. We could look to conduct deeper policy research and analysis on the most promising areas. We could use it to foster a network of policy-interested Aussie EAs and longtermists. It could help support existing or planned policy engagement by aligned individuals. It could help motivate individuals to seek funding or support to target a specific focus area we have identified. We will continue to approach this work slowly, methodically and with strong engagement with the EAs and longtermists in Australia.

If you would like to be involved - from commenting on documents to helping conduct research - please let us know.
 

Some reflections

  • The sheer variety of topics across the community is inspiring and daunting. So many major problems need solving, and (understandably) no ranked list exists. And when looking at it from a very specific perspective (location: Australia; domain: policy), it can easily be overwhelming where to start looking. We leaned towards conducting a simple process to guide us through.
  • Australia has little influence or impact on a global scale on most issues. So this criteria made little difference on the shortlisting. (Quantum was the highest on this metric - at a ‘medium’ rating - due to our world-leading capabilities.) If one were to conduct this same exercise for a different country, it would surely reveal a different set of issues worth considering.
  • ‘Extremism and terrorism’ was our best effort at combining a few topics: “Risks from malevolent actors”; and the concepts of the unilateralist curse and agential risks. If you have a better term, we are very open to it. Either way, there seemed to be little focus on this issue within the community. It didn't make the shortlist only for this reason, but our instinct is that this issue should a greater priority.
  • Food cuts across many of the issues the community cares about, such as climate change, civilisational resilience, factory farming and animal welfare. Given the cross-cutting nature, we combined these issues into ‘food system’ and think it might be valuable to be seen in this way.
  • Similarly, space cuts across a few issues, including great power relations, space governance, space settlement, asteroids and gamma-ray bursts. Viewing these issues collectively under 'space' could be useful, including for policy purposes.

 

Appendix: Criteria and rating scale

RatingConsensus, evidence and prioritisation
Very highThe issue is a very high priority for the EA and longtermist communities. There is very strong evidence and consensus in the community for the importance of the topic to long term survival and flourishing, and for betterment of current and future generations. Many organisations in these communities and around the world are working on this issue.
HighThe issue is a high priority for the EA and longtermist communities. There is strong evidence and consensus in the community for the importance of the topic to long term survival and flourishing, and for betterment of current and future generations. Some organisations in the communities are working on this issue, or a small number of organisations as their sole focus.
MediumThe issue is a medium priority for much of the EA and longtermist communities. There may be some evidence and consensus in the community for the importance of the topic to long term survival and flourishing, and for betterment of current and future generations. However, it probably requires further research or attention or is deprioritised due the issue being a focus for other research fields or communities. A few organisations in the communities are working on this issue, though no organisations label it as their sole focus.
LowThe issue is a low priority for much of the EA and longtermist communities. There may be little evidence and consensus in the community for the importance of the topic to long term survival and flourishing, and for betterment of current and future generations. However, it requires further research or attention to develop the consensus, or is deprioritised due the issue being a major focus for other research fields or communities. A few organisations in the communities are working on this issue, though no organisations label it as their sole focus.
Very lowThe issue is a very low priority for much of the EA and longtermist communities. No organisations are working on this issue. There may be very initial evidence and consensus in the community for the importance of the topic to long term survival and flourishing, and for betterment of current and future generations. However, it requires significantly further research or attention to develop the consensus, or is deprioritised due the issue being a key focus for other research fields or communities.
 
RatingPolicy relevance
Very highThe issue is highly relevant to policy-makers. It directly impacts how government acts or operates. Government is the primary stakeholder in this issue and is very highly engaged in it, or is committed to reforming legislation or policy in this issue in the immediate term.
HighThe issue is quite relevant to policy-makers. It impacts how government acts or operates. Government is a key stakeholder in this issue and is highly engaged in it, even if the issue sits outside their direct control. The government may be considering reforming legislation or policy in this issue in the near term.
MediumThe issue is somewhat relevant to policy-makers. It has some impacts on how government acts or operates. Government is an important, but not critical stakeholder. The government might be considering legislation or policy on this issue.
LowThe issue is not very relevant to policy-makers. Government might be a small stakeholder in this issue and is not very engaged in it. There is little or no directly relevant policy or legislation, nor is the government considering any.
Very lowThe issue is not relevant to policy-makers. It sits purely in the corporate, academic or philanthropic space. There is no relevant policy or legislation, nor is the government considering any.
 
RatingAustralia's role on global policy
Very highCompared to other countries, Australia has very significant control and influence on this issue. Australia has an excellent international reputation on this issue and is known for pioneering and/or implementing best practices. In addition to the above, Australia has many other comparative advantages for addressing this issue (e.g. it has the specific technology or skilled labour required, or is an ideal location for trialling a policy.)
HighCompared to other countries, Australia has significant control and influence on this issue. Australia has a very good international reputation on this issue and usually implements best practices. In addition to the above, Australia has some other comparative advantages for addressing this issue (e.g. it has the specific technology or skilled labour required, or is an ideal location for trialling a policy.)
MediumCompared to other countries, Australia has some control and influence on this issue. Australia has a good or average international reputation on this issue and sometimes implements best practices. Australia has few comparative advantages for addressing this issue.
LowCompared to other countries, Australia has little control and influence on this issue. Australia has a little or poor international reputation on this issue. Australia has no comparative advantages for addressing this issue.
Very lowCompared to other countries, Australia has very little or no control and influence on this issue. Australia has a no or very poor international reputation on this issue. Australia has no comparative advantages for addressing this issue.
  1. ^

    We are aware that these research agendas could include issues that warrant further research only, and therefore do not necessarily reflect these organisations’ beliefs about the most pressing problems to work on.

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10 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:13 AM
New Comment

Really interesting thoughts! Thanks for putting this together. So useful and practical to have a priority list of this kind! 

I was quite surprised that policy around nuclear weapons isn't rated even higher. Looking at your spreadsheet, I think the 'Australia ROI' score for nuclear war might be quite strongly underrated at present.  It is currently rated on that metric as a 2 (out of 5) meaning "Compared to other countries, Australia has little control and influence on this issue. Australia also has a poor international reputation on this issue and rarely implements best practices. Australia has no comparative advantages for addressing this issue."

This seems to be a mistake to me. You're right that Australia has little sway on the likelihood of nuclear war, or on the behaviour of major nuclear powers, and it isn't a nuclear power itself. However, it still has huge advantage compared to most countries in addressing existential risk - the reason being that (according to a number of experts like Brian Martin and Toby Ord) Australia seems far more likely than almost any other country to survive a nuclear war.  So while there likely isn't much work to be done in Australia to prevent a nuclear war from occurring, it seems like there is a huge amount that could be done in Australia, and maybe only in Australia, in order to prevent the actual extinction risk attached to nuclear war. 

In particular a) having plans set up for survival of some portion of the Australian population so that nuclear war doesn't result in extinction (At present, it's my understanding that the Australian government has no contingencies in place for population survival after nuclear war at this point) and b) ensuring that Australia doesn't arm themselves with nuclear weapons/doesn't take actions that lead it to become a major nuclear target in future. As being a nuclear target would jeopardise one of the places most likely to survive. These two approaches seem like they could be powerful ways to avoid the extinction risk associated with nuclear weapons, and Australia would be better positioned to implement this than almost any other country (possible exceptions/other viable countries might be New Zealand, or possibly Argentina).

Any change of score here - even a change by one point on this one metric - would make nuclear risk the #1 highest priority option to address in Australia in your spreadsheet. As it currently scores as the equal most important option in you list.

It seems valid using your metrics too, as rating it a 3 would mean that "Compared to other countries, Australia has some control and influence on this issue." and " "Australia has few comparative advantages for addressing this issue." (instead of no comparative advantages), which, even under conservative assumptions seems highly likely to be true. 

Given Australia's uniquely good positioning with this issue, is there a reason it wasn't rated higher on this metric? Perhaps there's something I've missed.

This is a great point, Jack. I agree, I think we should change it to a 3. In fact, I wrote an op-ed last month arguing that Australia could even lead globally on nuclear risk. So you would have thought we should have rated it as a 3 to begin with!

Our instinct when putting nuclear risk (and other issues) at a 2 was not to over-egg Australia's role. Australia punches above its weight on many issues, but then seems also over-interpret its relative importance.  We were probably too wary of falling into that trap. But on nuclear risk, we do have some comparative advantages that would put us a bit higher on our rating scale.

Rumtin, I think Jack is absolutely right, and our research, in the process of being written up will argue Australia is the most likely successful persisting hub of complexity in a range of nuclear war scenarios. We include a detailed case study of New Zealand (because of familiarity with the issues) but a detailed case study of Australia is begging to be done. There are key issues (mostly focused around trade, energy forms, societal cohesion, infectious disease resilience, awareness of the main risks - not 'radiation' like many public think, and for Australia not climate impacts or food either, which is where most nuclear impact research has focused) that could be improved ahead of time, with co-benefits for climate impact, health, resilience to other catastrophes etc. Australia is indeed uniquely positioned here (for a number of reasons that go beyond 'survival' and into 'resilience' and 'reboot' capacity, etc) and policy should include interconnections with NZ policy (sustaining regional trade, security alliance, etc, we've identified other potentially surviving/thriving regional partners too) Happy to collaborate on this. I can send you a draft of our paper in maybe 2 weeks. 

Thanks Matt! Yes, would be very keen to see the paper.

We had definitely not factored in enough the resilience side of Australia's role on nuclear issues into our scoring. We'll be sure to include it as part of the more detailed scan of each of these policy issues. Your paper will be a really useful guide for that work.

Thanks for writing this up Rumtin and Krystal! 

Does the scope of the project allow for engagment with academics as well as policy-makers/public servants? While there obvious risks with expanding the scope too broadly, I wonder whether collaboration with academia could be valuable for research efforts. There is also the possibility that some academic work (e.g. gain-of function research) could undermine policy efforts, so perhaps coordination between EA-aligned policy-makers/public servants and academics could reduce this risk? 

Really useful work and well-written post with linked resources! 

I'd be curious to see lists of global problems ranked for the policy context of many more countries too, to see how large differences there are and what rare context-related opportunities we might discover (e.g. nuclear weapons in Australia, as argued in other comments here). I think this could also help decide whether or not there's a strong case for increasing EA policy efforts in smaller countries (and where).

Thanks Eirik! I'd really like to see it done for other countries too.  

Related to your point, we will also be looking at what niche of an issue could Australia play a global role on. For example, perhaps we are a 'low' on climate change at large, but a 'high' on a specific part of climate change. This might change the calculus on what policy effort is required. For policy efforts in smaller countries, this approach might help identify opportunities to have global impact.

This was a great post! Really enjoyed reading it! 

That said, the ordering in the shortlist in this post is a touch confusing - it doesn't seem to map to the total scores in your spreadsheet? e.g. AI scores as equal 4th-6th most important in your spreadsheet, but is listed 1st in the short list. Meanwhile nuclear war and pandemic risk score as equal 1st-3rd, but are listed 9th and 10th in the shortlist. I wonder if it would make more sense to list the options that scored the highest first (as presumably, they should be prioritised the most)?

Hi Jack, Thanks for the comment! We decided to list it alphabetically in the post. Although some shortlisted items rated higher overall, we felt that the post shouldn't make too hard of a distinction - mostly because it's a relatively simple rating system, so we didn't want to give the impression that we are definitively rating some as higher than others.  I'll edit the post just to make that  clear.

Ahhhh I see! Thanks for clarifying! 

And thanks again - this was a great read.