Mike Cassidy

Volcano scientist at the University of Oxford and visiting scholar at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. (Soon to be Associate Professor at the University of Birmingham). Interested in global catastrophic risks, EA and broad longtermism.

Topic Contributions


Improving science: Influencing the direction of research and the choice of research questions

Thanks for writing this post and your efforts to address these issues! As someone who works in  scientific research I have frustrations about the framework/criteria by which science is funded- so I'm really glad someone connected to effective altruism is looking into this, and I agree that this a really important cause area!

Often the criteria used to judge proposals is based on things like how innovative, novel, timely the science is, if it uses cutting-edge methodology and how suited the candidate is to that study area. Also, as a reviewer of proposals I am asked to judge the proposal's 'excellence'- a quite ambiguous quality- that accounts for significant randomness and bias too.

I think this approach to judge proposals is a limited as it means that a) potentially more important or impactful work will not be funded as it may lack novelty. b) people coming from a problem from a different discipline with differing expertise-yet many scientific breakthroughs come from those from other fields. c) it can lead funding of niche fields of science, to the detriment of neglected areas of greater importance and wider scale tractability. 

Incorporation of the ITN framework would be beneficial, it may help fund more controversial or higher risk science and making decisions based on lotteries, after an initial sift, may also open up the field to more creativity and diversity, and counter some of the other biases that sadly occur. So I really agree with you here.

These issues above relate to the more open calls for proposals and how they are judged, but there are also many schemes one can apply to that are quite narrowly defined and have been decided by relatively few senior academics on a science board. It is not clear to many in the community how these grant calls are are decided, nor how rigorous and unbiased these are, making this process more transparent would be beneficial too. Your ideas based around cost-effectiveness and expected value might also provide more rigor to these decisions.

Anyway- really interested to see what you do with this, and let me know if I can be of help into the UK research council (UKRI) system. I'm currently part of the peer-review college for NERC and can find out more about specific protocols/decision making if useful.

On the assessment of volcanic eruptions as global catastrophic or existential risks

Thanks Ken! Glad you appreciate the importance of this topic.

I'm afraid I've not come across much research about the potential correlation between grand solar minimums and volcanic activity, but let me know where you've come across this and I can look into it.

On the assessment of volcanic eruptions as global catastrophic or existential risks

Thanks for this Toby. I like your suggestion about factoring the risk in this way, and we'll keep you informed about where this all leads. Regarding civilisation collapse & recovery, there's certainly a lot of parallels to abrupt cooling from nuclear and asteroid winters, though the nearer-field hazards (and resulting cascading impacts), may be significantly different. One major uncertainty in this seems to be the location of a super-eruption, which will strongly dictate its effects on society, e.g. similar magnitude super-eruption occurring in the Mediterranean versus New Zealand. So one of the things we hope to look into is identifying the regions & volcanoes where the next super eruptions are most likely to occur. Your book & the longtermism concepts have certainly made me reassess what the most important questions in our field are!

How a ventilation revolution could help mitigate the impacts of air pollution and airborne pathogens

Thanks Jackson for forwarding on these interesting posts and info on this topic, I'm glad others have interest in this issue. I wonder if the topic is slightly underrated because its effects are often manifested as 'long-lived' insidious chronic issues, meaning that judging the cost-effectiveness of different interventions with relatively short randomly controlled trials is much more difficult compared to for instance infectious disease interventions. Perhaps that's where your short-term cognitive effects might be a really useful diagnostic/measure of effectiveness of different interventions- so thanks for drawing my attention to that. 

An effectiveness comparison between vaccination and air filtration/UV light methods as GCBR mitigation is a really good suggestion for future research. I agree that air filtration may prove to be pretty effective, especially  given the time lag to develop & test vaccines too. 

During the writing of this post I spoke to some engineers developing air purifiers for private sector, so if anyone has further interest in this topic in the future - I can put you in touch. 

How a ventilation revolution could help mitigate the impacts of air pollution and airborne pathogens

Thanks Ramiro, I hadn't listened to that 80kh interview-so I'll do that! But yes it could fall into both 'Global health and well being', but also longtermism categories (bio-risk mitigation-wise). 

Also, sorry if this is stupid, but it seems that, unlike CO2, risks from many pollutants (like particulate matters and pathogens) could be significantly mitigated by effective dispersion; so even a normal ventilator could have observable effect on indoor air quality, right? Thus, I wonder if there are / could be any relevant policy recommendations along this line - like for urban design, e.g., "locate potential air pollution emissions by the sea, or spread through areas where they can be dispersed by winds". Does it make any sense?

Yes you're right. I guess there's a difference between ventilation (dispersing the air around, either 'natural' - e.g. windows, or 'mechanical' e.g fans would also do the job) and purification (sucking the air through a filter to scrub out the pollutants/pathogens). I think both go some way to help this problem and just alone ventilation alone is more cost effective (table 1), however ventilation alone may not work in some instances. For instance, if the outside air is poor-quality (dense urban areas/near intense farming), or where there access to outside air is limited (high rise flats/offices where the windows don't open), or for poorly-insulated buildings which are difficult to heat, so fresh air may be limited, it's also hard to judge how much air needs to be replaced, which is where the CO2 and other monitors come in use. 

Regarding the urban design idea, I'm not quite sure how effective this could be, a lot of the sources of air pollution are lots of individual sources, things like vehicle emissions, home heating, agriculture, which would make it hard to disperse by design, but it maybe more feasible with industry. But perhaps policy suggestions that control how much PM2.5/NO2 is emitted by industry might be warranted, which they could control by adding scrubbers/ filters to the outgoing air, if successful that might be applied to the smaller individual scale too.  Thanks for these thoughts!

How a ventilation revolution could help mitigate the impacts of air pollution and airborne pathogens

Quite timely - I've just noticed the first peer-reviewed 'real-life' study showing that air filters (HEPA) used in Covid wards in one hospital significantly reduced the presence of airborne SARS-CoV-2: Press-release:  https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/air-filter-significantly-reduces-presence-of-airborne-sars-cov-2-in-covid-19-wards 

Paper: https://academic.oup.com/cid/advance-article/doi/10.1093/cid/ciab933/6414657?guestAccessKey=248e14cc-d920-4782-99b7-634e47cdaa0e 

(For context: In the UK more than 11,000 people were thought to have died from catching COVID at hospitals).

On the assessment of volcanic eruptions as global catastrophic or existential risks

Hi Marc, 

Clive Oppenheimer's, 'Eruptions that shook the world' is a great introduction to volcanoes and their role on society. Cheers!

On the assessment of volcanic eruptions as global catastrophic or existential risks

Hi David, yes totally agree and meant to add this to my answer above. In fact, I think our post only strengthens the case for looking into resilient foods.

On the assessment of volcanic eruptions as global catastrophic or existential risks

Hi Gordon, I think by reading the 'challenging assumptions and why we think the current risk may be underappreciated' and 'Conclusions and the future' sections, you'll get a summary of most of the main points. 

On the assessment of volcanic eruptions as global catastrophic or existential risks


As the authors put it in that paper: 

"Interventions that delay the eruption have the risk of making the future eruption more intense"

I think this is right, and until we can competently model how a magma will respond to any interventions that we might do, it's perhaps too risky to do at the moment. Nevertheless volcanologists have gone the other way and completely dismissed this whole concept of intervention. Personally, I think it be very worthwhile to investigate this concept in the lab and with numerical models, as after all, humans have  drilled directly into magma reservoirs by mistake (while looking for geothermal energy) (~4 times in fact!) with limited negative consequences. So the knowledge we can find out by drilling  magmas (one of the links I shared in the conclusions) would be highly informative for the coming decades of volcano science.

At the moment, there are far less risky options that could do to mitigate the risk in the short term, for instance we haven't even identified all the volcanoes capable of climate-altering eruptions, and how we can best to monitor them (many of these will not even be monitored, especially in resource-poor, volcano-rich countries like Indonesia and the Philippines).

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