"Even if an outside expert spots a significant risk (think AI risk), if there's not a clear department responsible (in the UK: Business, Enterprise, and Innovation? Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport?) then nothing will happen." - I disagree with this point. You yourself pointed out the environmental movement. You can get x-risks onto the agenda without creating an entire branch of the government for it. Also, having x-risks identified by experts in the field who can talk about it amongst each other without immediately assuming “this is an x-risk” is useful and leads to better dialogue.
EA people aren't the only rational people around. Funding decisions aren't made entirely arbitrarily. Also, weighting current humans as more valuable than future humans is something that governments will naturally tend to do, because governments exist to take care of people who are currently alive. Additionally, governments don’t care about humanity so much as their people. No government on earth is dedicated to preserving humanity; they are concerned for the people living in their borders.
Nuclear proliferation is a real threat, and for a government agency to address it and suggest policy would be potentially undermining other goals that the government may have. A sensible policy to mitigate the threat of nuclear war would be to get the US to disarm, but this obviously goes against the goal to retain its status as military superpower.
Government agencies typically have very well defined roles or domains. X-risk crosses way too many domains to be effective as an agency. X-risk think tanks are great because they have the ability and the freedom to sprawl across many different domains as needed.
But let’s say we get this x-risk agency. In practice, how do you expect this to work out?
It seems to me that you're mostly concerned about identifying new risks and having a place for people to go if they've identified risks. So, let's say you get this agency, and they work on it for a year, and don't come up with any new risks. Have they been doing their job? How do we determine if this agency should continue to get funding or not? With regard to your point about identifying new risks, if I'm working in Health or Defense, I'm not even going to be thinking about risks associated with AI. Identifying new risks takes a level of specific expertise and knowledge. I'm a biologist - I'm never going to point out new x-risks that are not associated with biology. I simply don’t have the expertise or understanding to think about AI security, just as an AI security person doesn’t have the knowledge base to determine exactly how much of a risk antimicrobial resistance is. To this point, if you hire specific people to think about "what could go wrong?", they're almost certain to be biased to looking for risks in the areas they already know best. You can see this in EA - lots of computer science people in EA, and all we talk about is AI security, even though other risks pose much bigger near-term threats.
If the goal isn’t to identify new risks, but to develop and manage research programs, that’s pretty much already done in other agencies. It doesn’t make sense for Xrisk Agency to fund something that a health agency is also funding. If the idea is to have in house experts work on it, that also doesn’t make sense, and can also be problematic. Even within some x-risk areas, experts disagree on what the biggest things are - example in antimicrobial resistance is that lots of people cite agricultural use as a big driver, but plenty of other people think that use in hospitals is a much bigger problem. If you only have a set budget, how do you decide what to tackle first when the experts are split?
Given all that, even within agencies, it's super hard to get people to care about the one thing your office is working on. Just because you have an agency working on something doesn't mean it's 1) effective or 2) useful. As a student, I briefly worked with an office in DHHS and half of our work was just trying to get other people in the same department, presumably working on the same types of problems to care about our particular issue. In fact, I can absolutely see an x-risk agency as being more of a threat than a boon to x-risk research - "oh, Xrisk Agency works on that; that's not my problem, go to them."
You'd have to get a ton of people with minimal overlap in professional interests/skills to work together in such an agency. And depending on the 'pet projects' of the people at the highest levels, you might get a disproportionate focus on one particular risk (similar to what you see in EA right now - might be difficult to retain biologists working on antimicrobial resistance, or gene drive safety). Then the politics of funding within such an agency would be another minefield entirely - "oh, why does the bioterrorism division get x% more funding than the halting nuclear proliferation division?".
How do you figure that X-risks are interdisciplinary in nature? AI safety has little crossover to, say bioterrorism. Speaking to what I personally know, even within disciplines, antimicrobial resistance research has very little to do with outbreak detection/epidemic control, even if researchers are interested in both. You already have agencies who work on each of these problems, so what's the point in creating a new one? It seems like unnecessary bureaucracy to have to figure out what specifically falls under X-risk Agency's domain vs DARPA vs the CDC vs DHS vs USDA vs NASA.
I think governments ARE interested in catastrophic risk; they're just not approaching it in the same ways as EA. They don't see threats to humanity's existence as all under one umbrella -- they are all separate issues that warrant separate approaches. Deciding which things are more or less deserving of funding is a political game motivated by different base assumptions. For one, the government is probably more likely to be concerned about risk of a deadly pandemic over AI security because the government will naturally weight current humans as higher value than future humans. If the government assigns weights that the EA community doesn't agree with, how are you going to handle that? Wouldn't the relative levels of funding that causes are currently getting already kind of reflect that?
Also, what about x risks that are associated with the government to begin with?
I am not sure you are giving governments enough credit. Wrt things like gene drive safety, certain agencies are already working on these things. I know some researchers who just got a grant to work on how to contain and manage gene drives. US military research also includes plenty of stuff on bioterrorism - both agricultural and through pathogens. Grantmaking efforts are relatively rapid ways to get this stuff done, I think?
X-risk is so broad and cuts across so many different fields that dedicating an entire agency to it seems difficult, especially if you consider effectiveness.
I think, in this type of analysis, for an infectious disease, it's really important to look at potential for spread as well.
Malaria is region-constricted (only places with the right mosquitoes), whereas HIV is not. Therefore, there's a natural cap at the amount of malaria we can have if malaria control ceased to exist, whereas HIV's 'natural cap' is potentially "all susceptible humans".
If you include "all future infections" into the analysis, how much suffering due to HIV can be avoided due to current efforts to control HIV?
I mean, you can sort of see this in a natural experiment created by South Africa's HIV denialism - 18.5% of the population there is infected, compared to 6% of Kenya and 3% of Nigeria, despite both Kenya and Nigeria having lower GDP/capita than South Africa. There's an article on the costs of HIV denialism in SA here. Obviously, societal dynamics are different in SA than other places, but 3x the amount of HIV is a pretty significant number.
Anyway, the CBAs on interventions like promoting condom use, testing services, education campaigns, and such are (obviously) difficult to do, but that... really doesn't mean we shouldn't be funding them.
As for agony of HIV over malaria - are you sure? Does this include the 'psychic' cost of HIV (mental stress, stigma, constrained social mobility, shunning from society/friends/family) along with the physical cost?