Update on the Global Priorities Institute’s (GPI) activities
Since it has been more than a year since we last posted an update on our activities, we thought it would be time to post another one. This year, we actually prepared a short annual report that you can also read on our website.
We share this report below in full, together with information on how to access GPI’s research as well as some current opportunities to engage with GPI.
All of GPI’s working papers are now available to read on our website. The vast majority of these has been finalised this year and a selection of the highlights can be found at the end of the annual report below.
We have also started to publish talk recording on our website. At the moment this includes six talks by GPI researchers about their recent research, as well as this year’s two memorial lectures.
Early Careers Conference Programme (ECCP). The ECCP is intended for PhD students and early career researchers in economics, philosophy, and other relevant fields. Participants will come to Oxford for a month to work on a particular research project related to global priorities research and then attend a final conference to discuss their research. More info here. The Forethought Foundation also offers its Global Priorities Fellowship again this summer. Applications for both programmes close on 10 January 2020.
4th Oxford Workshop on Global Priorities Research. The 4th Oxford Workshop on Global Priorities Research will take place on 16-17 March 2020. We have still some places available for academics interested in global priorities research to join the workshop. Applications close on 20 January 2020.
Predoctoral Research Fellows in Economics. We are currently looking for Predoctoral Research Fellows in Economics to join our team in Oxford. Applications close on 24 January 2020 (noon UK time). More info on the predoc programme can also be found in this post from the last round.
Global Priorities Institute Annual Report 2018-19
Hilary Greaves, Director
The Global Priorities Institute (GPI) exists to develop and promote rigorous academic research into issues that arise in response to the question “What should an actor do with a given amount of resources, insofar as her aim is to do the most good?”. The investigation of these issues constitutes the enterprise that we call global priorities research. It naturally draws upon central themes in (in particular) the fields of economics and philosophy; the Institute is interdisciplinary between these two academic fields. This report provides a brief summary of GPI’s key activities and progress over the past academic year, and our key aims for the next year.
The academic year 2018-19 has been an exciting one for GPI. It was our first full academic year since GPI was formally established in early 2018, and correspondingly a period of intense innovation, growth and progress within the organisation. We started the year with two new postdoc hires, significantly increasing the research capacity of our team. We settled on a main research focus of “longtermism” – roughly, the idea that the most cost-effective opportunities to do good lie in the domain of beneficially influencing the course of the very far future, whether via mitigation of risks of premature human extinction or otherwise. We developed and self-published 13 working papers, most of them centrally related to this theme. We published a significantly updated version of our research agenda, and devoted significant time and energy to building a network of academic researchers based elsewhere who have similar research interests and motivations. We made significant progress on developing internal structures and processes optimised for GPI’s aims, opportunities, constraints and activities, building the core of a healthy and well-functioning organisation that should stand us in good stead for effectiveness and growth over the coming years.
Going forward, our key near-term ambitions are:
to grow our research team further, with a particular focus on economics;
to broaden and deepen our network of aligned external researchers, including providing excellent experiences for visiting early-career researchers who are interested in moving into global priorities research; and
to expand our own research output, continuing to focus mostly on longtermism for the next year.
I’d like to take this opportunity to wholeheartedly thank the many people and organisations who have helped GPI to get off to such a healthy and rapid start. This includes, but is not limited to: our funders (including the Open Philanthropy Project and several private donors), our advisors (both our formal Board of Advisors and the many people who advise us ad-hoc in an informal capacity), the many external researchers who have enthusiastically engaged with our research themes and events, and the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Oxford.
As mentioned above, our main research focus over the past year has been on “longtermism”. We have implemented a fairly tight focus around this theme, with every researcher pursuing one or more projects that are centrally related to it. This is a genuinely collaborative group enterprise, and a high proportion of our papers have more than one author (not necessarily the norm in the academic disciplines we are working in).
In September 2019, we started to publish working papers on the GPI website. We now have 13 papers published. Those will serve as the starting point for a working paper series on global priorities research. Additionally, in Trinity term we made video recordings of four GPI research talks, and one additional talk was recorded at an external event. These five talks were published on the GPI website in August 2019. We are planning to continue recording talks by researchers about their recent work to publish and disseminate.
Since our post-PhD research team is currently comprised entirely of philosophers rather than economists, this is reflected in our research output to date, although we hope to make significantly more progress on the economics side shortly. A selection of our key working papers over the past year is summarised below as an Appendix to this report.
2. Academic outreach
A key part of GPI’s mission is to increase the production of high-quality global priorities research in academia more broadly (as opposed to only conducting such research ourselves). For this reason, we have put a lot of effort into identifying and engaging with external academics with nearby research interests who are potentially interested in moving into the areas we seek to promote. (Those areas are articulated in GPI’s research agenda, which we substantially updated in February 2019.)
One of the key vehicles for this “outreach” activity has been a series of two-day workshops at which both GPI and external researchers present work in progress. For this purpose, we construe “work in progress” very broadly – participants are free to give very short (10 minute or even 3 minute) outlines of very early-stage thoughts for discussion, in addition to more conventional academic presentations of work that is already relatively well developed. The workshops have also served as a very effective vehicle for informal discussion, allowing all parties to identify like-minded potential collaborators. We have so far hosted the first two workshops in our series of “Oxford Workshops on Global Priorities Research”, as well as a special themed workshop on the economics of catastrophe.
During the summer we ran, for the second year, our Early Career Conference Programme (ECCP). This programme hosted 14 early career researchers for periods of up to about eight weeks, working closely with a GPI researcher on a project closely related to GPI’s research agenda, and often unconnected to their own previous work. The culmination of the programme was the titular conference at which all participants presented their projects, with a prize issued for the best project write-up. We also hosted ten more senior academic visitors for varying periods of time (most of whom visited during the summer, to overlap with the ECCP).
3. Current team and growth ambitions
GPI is keen to expand significantly over the coming few years. We have made good progress in generating research output with the limited capacity we currently have, but there is a vast amount more to be done. To this end, we are keen to hire additional post-PhD researchers (at all levels of seniority), as fast as the combination of available talent and organisational capacity permit. We are actively building our hiring pipeline via events like our workshops and ECCP, and are excited by the level of enthusiasm expressed in our enterprise by (especially) younger researchers in both economics and philosophy. We are particularly keen to build our economics team.
In GPI’s short history to date, we have been funded by grants totalling £2.5m from the Open Philanthropy Project and donations totalling £3m from other private donors. We are fundraising on an ongoing process to facilitate our growth plans.
Appendix: Selected working papers published by GPI during the academic year 2018-19
Hilary Greaves, William MacAskill: The case for strong longtermism
Let strong longtermism be the thesis that in a wide class of decision situations, the option that is ex ante best is contained in a fairly small subset of options whose ex ante effects on the very long-run future are best. If this thesis is correct, it suggests that for decision purposes, we can often simply ignore shorter-run effects: the primary determinant of how good an option is (ex ante) is how good its effects on the very long run are. This paper sets out an argument for strong longtermism. We argue that the case for this thesis is quite robust to plausible variations in various normative assumptions, including relating to population ethics, interpersonal aggregation and decision theory. We also suggest that while strong longtermism as defined above is a purely axiological thesis, a corresponding deontic thesis plausibly follows, even by non-consequentialist lights.
Christian Tarsney: The epistemic challenge to longtermism
Longtermism holds that what we ought to do is mainly determined by eﬀects on the far future. A natural objection is that these eﬀects may be nearly impossible to predict—perhaps so close to impossible that, despite the astronomical importance of the far future, the expected value of our present options is mainly determined by short-term considerations. This paper precisifies and evaluates a version of this epistemic objection.
Andreas Mogensen: Staking our future: deontic long-termism and the non-identity problem
Greaves and MacAskill argue for axiological longtermism, according to which, in a wide class of decision contexts, the option that is ex ante best is the option that corresponds to the best lottery over histories from t onwards, where t is some date far in the future. They suggest that a stakes-sensitivity argument may be used to derive deontic longtermism from axiological longtermism, where deontic longtermism holds that in a wide class of decision contexts, the option one ought to choose is the option that corresponds to the best lottery over histories from t onwards, where t is some date far in the future. This paper argues that there are strong grounds on which to reject the crucial bridge principle (concerning stakes-sensitivity) that is involved in Greaves and MacAskill’s argument.
Andreas Mogensen: ‘The only ethical argument for positive 𝛿 ’?
This paper considers whether a positive rate of pure intergenerational time preference is justifiable in terms of agent-relative moral reasons relating to partiality between generations, an idea I call discounting for kinship. It responds to Parfit’s objections to discounting for kinship, but then highlights a number of apparent limitations of this approach. The paper argues that these limitations largely fall away when we reflect on social discounting in the context of decisions that concern the global community as a whole.
Owen Cotton-Barratt, Hilary Greaves: A bargaining-theoretic approach to moral uncertainty
This paper explores a new approach to the problem of decision under relevant moral uncertainty. It treats the case of an agent making decisions in the face of moral uncertainty on the model of bargaining theory. The resulting approach contrasts interestingly with the extant “maximise expected choiceworthiness” and “my favourite theory” approaches, in several key respects. In particular, it seems somewhat less prone than the MEC approach to ‘fanaticism’: allowing decisions to be dictated by a theory in which the agent has extremely low credence, if the relative stakes are high enough.