Locke_USA

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Case study: Reducing catastrophic risk from inside the US bureaucracy

Thanks for writing this up, both as a lesson-learning exercise and just as an inspiring example.

It was cited a bunch of times in this post, but for anyone who missed it, I think Schlosser's book "Command and Control" (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/303337/command-and-control-by-eric-schlosser/) is a fascinating read for anyone concerned with the bureaucratic management of safety technologies and global catastrophic risk. Not always encouraging — though examples like Peurifoy are — but definitely educational.

Free-spending EA might be a big problem for optics and epistemics

Thanks for writing this! Especially agree with: "We should be careful with how we advertise EA funding. For example, we should avoid the framing of ‘people with money want to pay for you to do X’ and replace this with an explanation of why X matters a lot and why we don’t want anyone to be deterred from doing X if the costs are prohibitive."

I've had a good experience with framing decisions around (reasonable) costs not getting in the way of high-impact work — not only from the perspective of optics, but also as a heuristic for where to draw boundaries (e.g. where to draw the line on what salaries to offer).

Working at a (DC) policy think tank: Why you might want to do it, what it’s like, and how to get a job

I think the basic inference we can draw from those anecdotes (and lived experience in DC) is this line from the post:

Whereas the potential for impact is widely accepted, the average level of think tank impact is far more uncertain.

The best-known studies on the question of impact (to my knowledge) are included in Appendix A, but I don't know that they'd fully satisfy you (they don't fully satisfy me either).

Questions about average impact (or "systemic estimates") are tough to answer, in part because all the concepts involved are rather underspecified. "Think tank work" involves many things, and varies widely in quality. Some types of work and some think tanks could be quite effective, whereas others may not be. "Impact" can also mean many things, most of which are by definition hard to observe and measure (I myself work at a think tank and probably >50% of the impact I've had is talking policymakers or government staff out of bad ideas, which means 0 observed action in the world).

Even if you had months to collect data, or had the ability to run an RCT, I'm not sure (a) what variables you would include in a regression model or (b) even if you did manage to come up with something, what useful things we could learn from the coefficients/average relationships. Due to the wide variety of think tank work that exists, the relevant reference class for any given think tank-related decision (e.g. if you are a funder assessing a specific proposal or an applicant considering whether to take a job) is going to be rather narrow (much narrower than "think tank projects" or "think tank jobs" writ large).

Improving EAs’ use of non-EA options for research training, credentials, testing fit, etc.

For more on "Example intervention: Funding EAs to work at think tanks", see here. That post and those notes are specific to the US system; I'm not sure it would work (or at least work the same way) in other systems. Think tanks are also much bigger parts of the policy research ecosystem in the US than in other countries. I'm a big fan of this model, but I'm not sure anyone has checked whether it could work outside of the US context.

A couple of other caveats:

Think tanks tend to have more flexibility than academia in what they write about, as their reports don’t have to pass peer-review, fit into established journals, etc.

I don't think this is true. Think tank researchers indeed face fewer journal/peer review constraints, but they have some additional ones, especially perceptions of policy relevance. There are academic journals/conferences for most topics, but you're going to have a hard time finding a think tank interested in speculative longtermist research. My guess is a large majority (probably >75%) of EA researchers (even those who would self-identify as being interested in "policy") would have a rather hard time with think tank constraints.

apparently some (or many?) think tanks are able and willing to essentially just accept funding for a specific person to work on a specific topic (with the funder deciding on the person and the topic).

From a think tank perspective, there is a big difference between flexible individual-level funding and individual-level funding to work on a specific topic from a specific perspective. Most think tanks are very sensitive about the optics of being "bought" by outside interests. They're fine with outside funding and eager for free labor, but I think many (especially reputable/high-quality) think tanks would not want to accept someone who comes in saying "I come to you from X funder and they want me to write Y and Z." The easiest way to get around this issue is joining a think tank that has overlapping interests (e.g. if you want to work on nuclear nonproliferation, you can join the Nuclear Threat Initiative or the Arms Control Association teams already working on that issue).

Working at a (DC) policy think tank: Why you might want to do it, what it’s like, and how to get a job

Overall, I would say there's a fair bit of flexibility in the think tank world (certainly more than in government). But it does vary across think tanks, and across teams within think tanks.

As far as I know, the variance isn't strongly correlated with the type of think tank. The nature of the work/team may be more predictive — if you're in an external-facing communications role, you may have to be available/monitoring your email at certain times. Research and writing roles tend to be more flexible, but you could still end up on a team with a strong 9-to-5 culture.

If this is important to you and you're considering think tank jobs, I'd encourage you to ask around — former or current employees of specific think tanks should at least be able to tell you about the norms at that think tank, even if they can't give blanket answers.

Working at a (DC) policy think tank: Why you might want to do it, what it’s like, and how to get a job

I agree Twitter is probably underrated in the EA community. However, I would disagree with (or at least strongly caveat) this statement: "I imagine someone who sought to talk to staffers in a particular area could after about 6 months of posting for 3 hours a week."

One meeting with a staffer is not difficult to get if you've been in DC for a while. The question is what you do in that meeting and what you want to get out of it. Twitter is a tool that you can use to promote ideas/research/etc., so you need those pieces before Twitter is useful. Staffers won't find it very helpful if you meet with them and you can't go deeper than Twitter-level conversation. Typically, real impact from staffer engagement comes only after the third or fourth meeting, and those follow-ups require trust and deep analysis.

So I think Twitter is useful, but I don't think it's a substitute for more "traditional" think tank work, and I would discourage people who don't have much of a policy background from using Twitter in order to get a meeting with a staffer — I'm not sure if you were suggesting that, but it's possible to interpret your statement that way, so I just want to flag that before people start rushing to Twitter en masse. :)

Working at a (DC) policy think tank: Why you might want to do it, what it’s like, and how to get a job

I think that's correct. The same arguments apply if a non-US citizen has a plausible path to becoming a US citizen, but, if not, much of the career capital (DC networks, understanding the US policy process, etc.) does not really transfer across borders. (Though I can also imagine some exceptions, for example a European who wants to work on transatlantic issues from Brussels or their national capital and who could leverage their time in DC for those purposes.)

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