119Joined May 2022


Another comment from a longtime China-focused CIA analyst:

"I read your pitch and very much enjoyed it, thanks for sending it!  Here are some scattered thoughts and reactions:

My general view is that two things are true: 

  1. Lack of understanding is not a major contributor to the risk of Sino-US war, or indeed to the most important aspects of US policy toward China.  BUT ALSO:
  2. Improving public analysis and understanding of China is a good and very cheap thing that we should do!  And yours are the best suggestions I have seen on how to do it.

I know little about the effective altruism approach, but I think I'm guided by a different set of criteria. The question for a philanthropist might be "where can I best spend my money amid the vast universe of worthy causes" and for me it's more like, "should the US reallocate national resources from existing national security investments to this?" And I think the answer to the latter is unambiguously yes.  Another CSET probably costs like 1 training sortie for a fighter jet...

I personally would ascribe drastically lower probabilities than you that philanthropic funding can influence PRC or US policy to materially reduce China-related risk. (Although again, I think it's still absolutely worth bolstering our knowledge base and talent pipeline!)  I'm skeptical because I think the primary drivers of policy decisions are other things like material factors, ideological dispositions (derived from an emotional base that is hard to move with fact-finding and analysis), and self-interest on the part of organizations and states. 

I had a few other random specific comments, not really disagreeing with what you've written but just thoughts that your piece sparked: 

  • I agree that on the kind of overarching strategic questions that guide major policy decisions, the intelligence community and outside observers are on an even playing field. Mostly that's because those strategic questions are about "mysteries" that nobody knows the answer to (including Xi Jinping) rather than "secrets" that are knowable but hidden.  I think there are many useful insights that can be gleaned from secrets to illuminate those broad questions and address them with more granularity, but this doesn't yield dramatically different answers to many of the questions that policymakers care about.
  • This is sort of a side note, but I think sometimes people overlook the fact that some important datapoints are available to non-government observers because they have been first collected by intelligence sources and then publicized or leaked.  For example, the fact that Iran is apparently supplying Moscow with drones seems like an important marker of Iran's strategic calculus and the status of Russia's war effort, and the reporting on that seems to be derived from intelligence collection.  To be clear I think this kind of information transmission is a minor factor in strategic analysis, but it's an interesting wrinkle that's easy to overlook.
  • I do think there is a large difference between what the intelligence community knows about military capabilities and what is knowable outside -- here the playing field is extremely uneven. I'm not talking about questions of intention like "does Xi intent to invade Taiwan by 2027" or whatever, I'm talking about more operational-level and tactical-level information about what the PLA is doing, where it's doing it, how well it's doing it, strengths and weaknesses of crucial military platforms, etc.  Those questions are peripheral to many of the conversations in DC about China, but obviously they become absolutely essential in wartime, and the US devotes a massive amount of resources toward collecting information about these issues.  So that's the one area where I think your piece may underweight the knowledge that is present in the USG, although it may not be relevant from an EA catastrophic risk prevention point of view. 
  • Your point about improving US procurement to reduce the risk of war was thought-provoking.  You point out that enhanced US military capabilities will deter Beijing and therefore make catastrophic war less likely, which makes sense.  But couldn't enhanced US capabilities also make the US more likely to commit forces or escalate a war with China, because Washington was confident it could win it?  I'm all for more effective US capabilities but I wonder if someone was approaching this from a pure EA framework if they'd have questions!  (I'm aware that I'm kind of making a too-cute-by-half argument but oh well!)

Again I really enjoyed your pitch, it was very thought-provoking, and I hope your suggestions are getting audience and traction!"

Maybe there’s some backwards reasoning going on of philosophy grads and STEM majors defining priorities around their skill sets…

“the gender ratio of EA is iirc around 70/30. Quick googling tells me that this is the same ratio as in Philosophy graduates and STEM workers, backgrounds that are fairly naturally overrepresented in EA due to the nature of the EA project and the careers the movement is focussing on most strongly. So I wouldn't agree that it's ridiculous.”

Posting some anonymous feedback I received from someone who has spent a number of years in a Mass Ave think tank:

"First, one place where I think you can further reinforce the argument is doubling down that corporate support for think tanks is not going to solve this problem. In my experience, little of that funding trickles down to providing for early career staff - to the point where using expanded funding to grow the number of early career roles is highly unlikely. Think tanks would rather spend that money on senior scholars or research trips, not adding new RAs. That feeds into a second point on think tank culture...

Second, while it varies between institutions, I think it's important to note that even with more unrestricted funding, multiple think tanks around town don't see it as part of their mission/culture to foster the next generation of experts. There are think tanks in town, like Brookings, that have deep challenges in this space. On the other hand, CSET, among other strengths you mention, seems pretty good at this. CNAS remains the gold standard for me. But I think it's worth grappling with the fact that there are places around town that - though they wouldn't say it out loud in public - wouldn't want a big infusion of money tightly tied to adding early career staff because senior scholars would see "dealing with" those people as impinging on their time. So there's a toxic culture dimension here that more money alone won't fix. But I do think that's addressable in your model by calling out some places suck at professional development and avoiding funding them for this purpose; that public pressure might push them to do better!

Third, both in terms of great power conflict, but also even more so around competitiveness, it seems worth discussing why corporate won't fill some of the gap in its own for-profit need rather than through non-profit philanthropy. You mention Eurasia Group and ASG in a line, but I could see some thinking as corporations need to manage their interactions with an increasingly fraught China market, won't they have to hire knowledgeable China experts and won't that be a demand signal? I think you and I would agree the answer is (a) possibly no; and (b) even if yes, it wouldn't be a sufficient number or make sure good public policy is made by private-trained  people (not that they can't contribute, of course; we just benefit most from a healthy mix). So that just suggests 2-3 sentences defanging a counter-argument that would further strengthen yours.  

Fourth, your highlighting early career bottlenecks make a lot of sense to me. Just one additional point you could make on that is those bottlenecks also spur a lot of early career drag. It's not just that the limited numbers of opportunities box people out, even the people who make it through the eye of the needle are hampered in their productivity because they have to spend an inordinate amount of time fighting to get through the bottleneck and preparing for the next one. Early career opportunities are often time bound, so even when successful they immediately have to invest time in finding the next fellowship, job hunting, etc. Even the fortunate ones are not working/developing at anywhere near their capabilities because of this persistent time suck. 

Finally, on scaling the CSET model, I think it's right in substance. More CSETs are what the policy community needs to inform their work. My question about whether it works in practice comes from my read of the think tank world as a traditional biological ecosystem. To compete and survive, each organism finds its specific niche based on a combination of (a) the substance they focus on; (b) the types of products they produce; and (c) any political leanings. Having many of a single type doesn't quite work because they crowd each other out for attention and struggle for funding. Will philanthropic funders be OK with their investments being one of several good think tanks doing work on this, or will there be pressure to focus on the best in a way that drives competitors out of the market? To put it another way, does the think tank market make sense to build several CSETs or to super-size the existing CSET to do more? I think from a good policy perspective, multiple CSETs providing different analytical inputs is better; what I don't know is if funders will see that value as sufficient to long-term support something seen as "good but not the clear best." 

Just some thoughts as you continue on next steps. But none of it takes away from the fact that I think the piece stands extremely well as-is in terms of being correct in its analysis, making a necessary point, and doing it well. It's just fingers crossed funders see the wisdom!"

Adding some commentary from folks who aren't on EA Forum but gave me their permission to post:

Dr. Lin Zhang (

"I agree with lots of the ideas you put forward in the proposal. From my perspective as a communication scholar working in a public university who has been studying and later working in the US since 2007, I see a drastic change since the latter years of 2010s in terms of interest in and funding for China studies in academia...though we hear more about China in the news. I am quite concerned by the representation of China in mainstream media.

I agree with you that many academics are perhaps not policy-oriented with their research, but I believe academic research has its own merits. They often more historicized, contextualized, and take a long-term view. I think the key here is to establish more channels to translate academic research to serve policy goals. Yours and several other media outlets like Sinica Podcast does a good job giving academic research some more public exposure and get academics to become more policy-minded.

Also, from my own perspective as a China-born international scholar who has been studying Chinese international studies and more recently US-based ethnic Chinese scholars in STEM, I think there's also a concern about how inclusive the US will be to ethnic Chinese scholars given the deteriorating US-CHina relations. Personally, I think these scholars play an important role of bridging the two societies. They could offer more policy support if given a better platform in the US.

Another big issue here is how to fill the vacuum left open by the Confucius society. For public universities like ours, Chinese language teaching used to be heavily reliant on funding from CI, now they are gone from most American campuses, who will fund Chinese language studies?

CI also used to organize a lot of cultural events and to bring in speakers for academic talks, now we no longer have that budget."

Thanks for the comment! The TSMC bit at the beginning is more illustrative of how important Taiwan is than anything. Aside from the capacity and expertise that TSMC brings to the table, it's equally if not more the case that all the dependencies up and down the global semiconductor supply chain which run through Taiwan. Samsung and Intel fabs, for instance, would not be able to produce chips without Taiwanese inputs, and replacing those inputs in another geography would take years. 

There is intense geographic concentration of fabs and factories that make inputs to fabrication around Hsinchu. If someone starting planting bombs or doing missile strikes in this neighborhood, it would be incredibly disruptive to the global economy. 

How easy is it for chip fabs to reconfigure their factories and start producing new kinds of chip? Not that easy, again you need specific machines to make different types of chips.

fwiw I think conventional political science literature or most historians would tell the idea is really out there

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