Senior Researcher @ Rethink Priorities
4201Bow Rd, London E3, UKJoined Dec 2015


My name is Saulius Simcikas. I am a researcher at Rethink Priorities. I currently focus on topics within farmed animal welfare. Previously, I was a research intern at Animal Charity Evaluators, organised Effective Altruism events in the UK and Lithuania, and earned-to-give as a programmer. I'm also considering switching to longtermism.


Topic Contributions

We should at least try this once and see what happens

yes, what Linch said is correct in terms of my reasoning. I think that collecting pregnant females from the wild decreases the number of cochineals who die young, but I imagine that it doesn't decrease long-term cochineal populations much, otherwise it would be unsustainable. It took me a long time to get my head around all this and I'm still unsure about a lot of stuff, due to a lack of information and it being a bit confusing.

 I think the counterfactuals here are tricky to think about and I wouldn’t confidently claim that wild harvesting prevents more suffering than it causes.

I totally agree, this is all very speculative.

And, if current demand were to sustain or increase it seems like a marginal increase in industry would come from the farmed side. E.g., 

This makes sense and substantially increases my probability that the grant is net-positive.

One thing to think about here is whether to make the research public. If it’s public, I’d still worry about it causing more suffering than it prevents because we don’t know how it might impact the supply and what will be the future of carmine. But if it’s not public, then I’m not sure how the research would make an impact. I imagine that it would be public because it’s by a university. I would consider first commissioning an economic analysis of how synthetic carmine would alter farmed and wild-caught quantities.

Cameron Semper ($40,000): Research funding to explore biosynthetic alternatives for the production of carmine.

I worry that this might increase rather than decrease animal suffering. Here is my old comment on it:

I just wanted to inform that I looked into the possibility of doing public campaigns against carmine and decided that it would not be a good idea. The main source of suffering in carmine production seems to be due to farmers adding many cochineal juveniles that suffer from natural deaths early in their life, just as they would in uncontrolled wild populations. However, around 80% of carmine is wild-harvested and I found out that they actually harvest pregnant females before they lay most of their eggs. Hence, wild harvesting prevents the very same type of suffering that farming introduces. And I think it prevents more suffering because the scale is bigger. I am not totally sure about all this, it wasn't easy to find reliable information about the industry, but based on what I found I decided to not look any deeper. I also didn't manage to come up with any way to decrease the number of farmed cochineals but not wild-harvested cochineals. If someone wanted to look into this industry deeper, please contact me and I can share sources that I found.

I don't think that deferring to manager is always optimal, and I'd support EA tenure for some EAs too (I even suggested a mechanism of how that could work for less trusted researchers). Sorry that I didn't make it clear in my comment, I just thought that you did a good job at presenting the pros of researchers doing what they want, so I wanted to give arguments for the other side to paint a fuller picture :)

Well, I work as a researcher in animal welfare, but I think that longtermist stuff is orders of magnitude more important, so if I was left to do whatever I want, I'd start looking into longtermism and try to find my place there. And I might quit my job and do that one day, but I'm not fully sure if researchers would have more impact if left to do what they want.

In terms of which cause to work on, OpenPhil thought more about which cause should receive how much money than I or probably any other researchers did. So I'm unsure if allocation between causes would be better if everyone did what they wanted. Maybe more people would work on interesting, obvious, or high-status problems. This applies not just to major cause-areas, but also to problems within causes.

In terms of what concrete projects to work on, I think that managers often know better what research would be more impactful because they are often more senior. And maybe researchers need less coordination and are more motivated if they work on what they want, but I think that the impact the project will have depends much more on the topic. And it's great to be able to abandon projects when they no longer seem impactful, but needing to justify abandoning to your manager seems like a good safeguard against abandoning projects too much. And that is all I'd need to do to abandon my current project if I had a good reason to do that.

In practice, I sometimes was allowed to work on what I wanted, and sometimes I was given projects, and I haven't noticed a clear correlation in which projects end up seeming more impactful in retrospect. I'm thinking about my two projects that seem most impactful per hour spent. In one case, I was passionately opposed to doing the project, argued against it in person, and wrote a longish document about why it's a bad idea. I was told to do it anyway and I'm happy I did. In another case, everyone I talked to told me that the project I wanted to do was a very bad idea. I did it anyway during a free week we have at Rethink Priorities where we can do whatever we want, and later people who opposed the project agreed that it was a good idea. So ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

Humans kill 800,000 cows, 1.6 million sheep, 4 million pigs, 200 million chickens, and 300 million fish.

I think you mean 300 million farmed fishes. But there are also wild-caught fishes. According to fishcount, “It has been estimated (in 2019) that between 0.79 and 2.3 trillion* fish (i.e. 790,000,000,000 to 2,300,000,000,000) were caught from the wild”. That’s 2.1 billion to 6.3 billion wild fishes killed per day. It doesn’t include illegal and unreported fishing (which would increase numbers a lot) and bycatch (some estimates on that here). Of course, we kill many more wild fishes by pollution, etc. And these are just finfishes, the number of shellfishes humans kill are many times higher.

Something I have heard from many campaign groups is that having research conducted in their country in their own language would be really useful for working with local goverments, companies and producers.

Are there any particular existing texts that would be useful to translate to other languages? Perhaps the Welfare Footprint books on hens and broilers? This wouldn't be as good as research conducted in their own country but perhaps still useful and probably very easy to organize and fund.

No, I never looked into it, it didn't seem relevant for interventions I was examining. I'm unsure for what WAW interventions it would be relevant. Looking at my list, the only one where it's very relevant seems to be "Eradicate or reduce populations of invasive species that suffer a lot (e.g., have very many offspring) or otherwise create a lot of suffering (e.g., parasites like screwworms)." But even then, species longevity seems to depend a lot on what the future of humanity (or TAI)  will look like and no one knows the answer to that.  We are currently causing a mass extinction event and no one knows how long it will last. 

My opinion on fish: I worry that consuming wild-caught fish increases the general demand for fish, and that extra demand is fulfilled by fish farming, which can involve a lot of suffering. As you can see in the graph below, wild fish catches have been stable for many years because we can't sustainably catch more wild fish than we do now.

But this may not apply for all species of wild-caught fish. 

But there are many other complicating factors. For example: 
* Wild animal welfare effects of catching wild fish likely dominate, and they are complex and we are clueless about them, just like we are clueless about everything else
* Michael St. Jules pointed out that in some cases reducing the demand for wild-caught fish prevents unsustainable fishing which increases how many fish will be caught in the long-term. So it's unclear what to do if you are worried about suffering during capture which can be long and intense (more on that suffering here).
* If eating wild fish increases fish farming, the effects of that are also complicated. Fish farming is limited by the amount of feed fish that can be caught from the wild. But those are also mostly fished at capacity, or over capacity. Some plan to farm insects in trillions and feed them to farmed fish for a protein source to supplement feed fish. It's possible that those insects will be sentient and will suffer in farms. The bigger demand for fish, the more likely this will happen.

So yeah, it's super complicated.

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