Introducing the Simon Institute for Longterm Governance (SI)

We (Konrad Seifert & Maxime Stauffer) have the pleasure to announce the Simon[1] Institute for Longterm Governance (SI):

The website caters to our initial target audience of international policymakers. This post introduces our theory of change and provides additional information relevant to the EA community and potential funders. The following is structured into:

  1. An overview of SI

  2. Key decisions we made in founding SI and underlying assumptions

  3. An overview of the value SI provides to the EA community

  4. Call for support

  5. How to get in touch

  6. Ask us anything

We thank Nora Ammann, Haydn Belfield, Ollie Base, Michael Aird, Devon Fritz, Rumtin Sepasspour, Christine Peterson, Julia Wise and Helen Toner for their invaluable feedback on this announcement. All errors and shortcomings are ours.

1. Overview of SI

Our theory of change

  1. SI aims to contribute to the long-term flourishing of civilization.

  2. For 1., humanity needs to anticipate and mitigate global catastrophic risks (GCRs) and build resilient systems so that civilization can survive and flourish.

  3. Policymaking in national governments and international organizations is the most influential form of explicit value-driven coordination and can, therefore, be used to achieve 2.

  4. To build long-term governance there are at least four improvements we can make to 3.:

    a. The dominant societal narratives require the inclusion of future generations and an understanding of human progress on long timeframes

    b. Institutions must be reformed to take the interests of future generations into account (e.g. see Tyler John’s EAGxVirtual talk (2020) and Gonzalez-Ricoy & Gosseries (2016)).

    c. Policy agendas must account for tail risks and their interaction effects (e.g. Avin et al. (2018)). For example, the post-2030 UN agenda should include GCRs beyond climate change.

    d. Decision-making needs to (i) be more anchored in ethics, (ii) use more scientific evidence and sound reasoning, (iii) navigate complex systems and understand tail risks, (iv) make better decisions in the face of uncertainty and urgency, and (v) deal more productively with diverging preferences and groupthink.

  5. SI focuses on 4.d. to build the capacity for achieving 4.a.-c. and contribute to 2. and 1.

Our first working paper will outline this theory of change in more detail. A first draft will be published on our website in April 2021.

Our approach

SI aims to embed concern for future generations within the incentive structures and decision-making processes of the international public policy ecosystem, leveraging our personal connections to the United Nations[2] and European Union systems. We are building organizational capacity via three focus areas:

  1. Policy support: We develop training programs aiming to improve the collective capacity of policy networks[3] to make sense of tail risks, the abundance of information, competing objectives, complexity and uncertainty in a timely manner.

  2. Field-building: We strengthen research coordination and policy decisions by building a Geneva-based community of longtermist international civil servants and researchers to share knowledge and exchange strategic insights.

  3. Research: We seek to understand and improve long-term policymaking by synthesising research, formalizing system dynamics and empirically testing tools and hypotheses in policy contexts.

Current projects include a table-top exercise on pandemic preparedness for the ecosystem of the UN Biological Weapons Convention; building a Geneva-based network of long-term focused international civil servants & GCR governance researchers; and writing working papers operationalizing what it might take for public policymaking to benefit the long-term future. See here for more.

How we will know this is valuable

We give ourselves 24 months to scale up operations and generate first signs of impact (until mid-March 2023). Our governing board will decide whether we succeeded or failed to do so. After at most 1.5 years of work, via surveys and case studies, we expect to see:

  • Policymakers use insights and tools from our trainings in their work;

  • Policymakers better understand global catastrophic risks and longtermism;

  • Longtermists better understand international policymaking;

  • Individuals improve their career plans;

  • Our research can pass academic peer-review.

How SI differs from and complements existing longtermist policy organizations

  1. The key differentiator is that SI focuses on international instead of national-level policymaking.

  2. CSER, FHI, LPP, FLI, GCRI supply information on GCRs. SI supports GCR-relevant policy networks by increasing their ability to integrate the supplied information into their work.

  3. APPGFG and Alpenglow seem closer to our approach. They help policy networks understand GCRs. SI, in addition, is researching longterm governance processes and structures.

  4. SI can provide contacts and knowledge to engage with international policymaking. We have developed a workshop to support longtermist policy engagement. Get in touch for more info.

  5. Other organizations conduct some activities similar to SI in terms of policymaking support but not focused on safeguarding the long-term future. Examples include Simply Rational, Decision-making under Deep Uncertainty, Chatham House, Improbable Defence, and Centre for Collective Learning.

Who we are

We, Max and Konrad, met by studying international relations in 2014 and founded EA Geneva in 2015. Max complemented his bachelor’s by studying complexity science and Konrad discontinued his studies in 2016 to focus on professionalising and scaling up EA Geneva’s projects. Max conducted forecasting research at the Graduate Institute Geneva, advised the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre on evidence-based policymaking, co-founded the Social Complexity Lab, and currently works at the Geneva Science-Policy Interface.

For the past three years, as a working group at EA Geneva, we have been leading research and network-building efforts on “understanding and improving policymaking”. SI’s governing board members and advisers are direct evidence of the strong network we have built up. Our governing board is:

  • Director of the Max Planck Institute’s Centre for Adaptive Rationality, Prof. Ralph Hertwig;

  • Director of the Geneva Science-Policy Interface, Nicolas Seidler;

  • Executive director of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risks, Dr. Catherine Rhodes;

  • Research Fellow at the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, Martina Kunz;

  • Head of research at the University of Southampton’s Department of Decision Analytics and Risk, Prof. Konstantinos Katsikopoulos; and

  • Senior Science and Technology Manager at the US Army Corps of Engineers, Igor Linkov.

A selected group of advisers covers the additional technical expertise we expect to need to build up solid foundations: international diplomacy & relations, ethics, evidence-informed policymaking, global catastrophic risks and computational modeling. See the team here.

2. Decisions and underlying assumptions

We are committed to explaining our decisions and assumptions because we care about transparency. We want to reflect on them and think that sharing organizational strategy and experiences in founding longtermist policy organizations will be especially valuable in the early days of longtermist policy efforts. This should make it easier to receive feedback, correct course and allow others to build on our ideas and lessons learned.

We are hoping for scrutiny and will engage with questions and feedback.

Why we start by focusing on policy support

  1. Policymaking is an argumentative process: consensus emerges gradually through interaction.

  2. Focusing on supporting GCR-relevant policymaking processes allows us to engage in-depth with policy actors and understand their needs and gaps.

  3. In-depth engagement builds the necessary network strength to provide an effective interface between longtermist research and policymaking and connect talent with relevant opportunities.

  4. To scale beyond personal networks, we needed to bring all threads together in one organization.

Why we are focused on building organizational capacity

  1. To build up confidence in policy engagement, it is necessary to start locally before recommendations can be advocated for publicly. Public attention can shift political agendas but drawing a lot of attention can easily backfire without sufficient organizational capacity.

  2. Adoption and implementation of policy proposals require extensive, sustained resource investment by longtermist actors at all relevant levels of governance.

  3. To build capacity, we engage with local networks, building alliances and the know-how to contribute to longer term changes within global policy networks.

  4. This capacity will allow us to advance longtermism by identifying, or even creating, rare windows of opportunity that require established networks to seize (see Lundgren et al., 2017 and Aviram et al., 2019).

  5. This approach allows building capacity to accelerate the development and implementation of longtermist policy proposals in a flexible way, seizing opportunities as they arise.

  6. It requires integrity for other policy actors to seek high-bandwidth engagement. To become a trusted collaborator, we have to prove that we’re serious about our values to first build the reputation we need to rely on.

Why we use a longtermist branding

  1. We consider the study and practice of longterm governance as an important field to develop. Naming SI accordingly will contribute to its establishment.

  2. Concern for future generations is already within the Overton window.[4] A focus on the long-term future is rare but not off-puttingly exotic. It seems valuable to seize such opportunities to expand the amount of future generations commonly taken into account.

  3. Having our values explicit in our branding eases communication, differentiation and the identification of allies to coordinate with.

  4. We want to avoid the risk of organizational value drift (e.g. by choosing projects that are too far from our values). Therefore, we want to encode longtermist values as clearly as possible and remind us of them as often as possible.

  5. Due to our low-profile approach, we expect to be able to mitigate potential reputational damage. We have taken appropriate steps to ensure we stay on top of this, see section on downside risks.

Why we focus on multilateralism

  1. GCR mitigation is a transgenerational global public good (Bostrom, 2013), which makes them especially neglected and requires global coordination to tackle them, as many emerge from the interaction of countries (e.g. nuclear war) and require coordinated oversight and response (e.g. pandemics).

  2. Improving global coordination requires identifying which activities to focus on for which issues (e.g. enforcing the Biological Weapons Convention vs developing a new treaty for biorisk), as well as building the capacity to influence global key events like the development of the post-2030 UN agenda. Both are achieved by engaging with the international policy community.

  3. Working with multilateral organizations to improve global coordination is neglected within the EA community, as existing longtermist policy organizations work on national policy in the US or the UK, and marginally in the EU.

  4. Multilateral institutions facilitate bilateral and multilateral action through information exchange and the provision of neutral spaces (e.g. see Vasconcelos et al., 2013 on polycentric governance and Lavelle, 2020 on challenges of multilateralism).

  5. International law, soft power, international culture, norms and standards affect both regional policymaking and global coordination (see Ainscough et al., 2021; Nikogosian & Kickbusch, 2021; or Nossel, 2021). There is a need to better understand these processes which is done by engaging with them.

  6. Working with multilateral institutions can provide additional access to national governments. Almost all national governments are represented in Geneva. What happens in Geneva ripples back to national governments.

  7. Advancing multilateralism complements efforts at the national level, as these seem heavily constrained by concerns over national security.

Choosing Geneva as our base

  1. Geneva is a dense international policy hub, hosting the heart of the UN and most other international organizations, as well as key multilateral events. Every year, more than the equivalent of its 300,000 inhabitants attend policy events in Geneva.

  2. Geneva is a philanthropic centre, with a total of $ 17 billion stored in local foundations that are almost impossible to access if one is not based in Geneva, as most of it is locally bound.

  3. Geneva is a dense private sector hub with policy importance, as these actors (1) are part of policy networks and (2) major funders of public projects.

  4. It is easy to access the rest of the world from Geneva—not just through its airport but also via the diplomatic missions of almost all countries.

  5. We have lived in Geneva since 2014. Through our studies and work, we have built up the necessary strong network and stable living situation to sustain engagement.

  6. Why not Brussels? If SI produces value, we expect to support similar efforts in Brussels. We are in active exchange with a range of people at the interface of EU science-policy already.

How we plan to deal with downside risks

  1. We engage with comparatively small communities in high-bandwidth settings via personal contacts.

  2. We do not plan on making policy recommendations or conducting advocacy campaigns in the foreseeable future. Wherever the opportunity to do so exists, we will collaborate closely with relevant longtermist organizations.

  3. We maintain strong feedback loops with the longtermist community to develop our strategy collaboratively. Similarly, we seek longtermist funders to receive support that values our prudence.

  4. We embed our work in other organizations’ projects. Our training is implemented together with the Geneva Science-Policy Interface, the United Nations Institute for Training and Research and the Swiss Mission.

  5. We do not use EA branding, to avoid (1) reputational risk; (2) politicization; (3) conflict with other EA activities (see this post).

  6. We will ensure integrity through transparency and consistency by going the extra mile in communicating and documenting our work.

Why we think we can pull this off

  1. We, Konrad Seifert & Maxime Stauffer, have received validating feedback from our contacts in EA, policy and academia. We have been refining our ideas for the past two years and have sought harsh feedback to make sure we’re on a robust path.

  2. We receive public support from the Geneva Science-Policy Interface and our board members and advisers.

  3. For public-facing projects, we collaborate with well-established institutions inside our target networks.

  4. We are receiving support from longtermist individuals within the UN, EU and US that unfortunately cannot be publicly associated with other organizations due to their professional functions.

  5. Over > 50 interviews with policymakers and researchers have led to the design of SI. There is demand for our work, as most policy actors we have interviewed see a need for support.

  6. SI has been welcomed by high-profile “inside activists”, as outside actors can initiate change and discussions that insiders cannot due to internal politics or career progression. With their support, SI provides a network to coordinate change in a way that’s compatible with their incentives and reduces individual risk.

  7. We have been working together for almost six years. We are a highly complementary duo and have built deep mutual understanding over the years.

How our research has evolved

  1. We initially planned to write a book to summarize all our thinking on ‘Longterm Governance’. To increase the usefulness of our past work and iterate quicker, we will first publish a series of working papers throughout the next months.

  2. We are writing the following working papers on SI’s foundational ideas:

    1. Policymaking for the long-term future

    2. Policy change dynamics and their implications for long-term policymaking

    3. Effective strategies for longtermist advocacy

    4. Strengthening decision-making for the long-term future

    5. An agenda for research and practice in longterm governance

  3. We are working on specific publications on decision-making support: 6. Computational policy processes studies 7. Evidence and impact of strategies and technologies for group decision-making support 8. Leverage points to strengthen individual decision-making in the face of complexity

3. What SI provides to the EA community

Our main audience at this point consists of policy actors and our presentation is tailored to them. But one of our main motivators for this work is that it benefits the EA community in three ways.

Career advice and job opportunities for individuals

Because of our work in policy and our interactions with policy actors, we build knowledge on relevant career paths in policy. We are happy to provide career advice to EAs interested in pursuing careers in European or international policy. We can also make introductions, although we will assess this on a case-by-case basis. Our career advice is managed in collaboration with Effective Altruism Geneva which will filter requests and orient people to relevant staff or collaborators at SI.

In the future, SI aims to hire full-time staff, recruit interns and collaborate with external collaborations. As such, we hope to offer valuable career capital for EAs to pursue longtermist policy career paths. These options are, of course, funding-dependent.

Policy expertise and opportunities for policy engagement

We hope to serve as an interface between EA organizations who aim to inform policymaking and relevant policy actors or agencies at the international level. From Maxime’s work at the Geneva Science-Policy Interface (and from this type of advice), we have gathered that interface actors effectively enable academics to inform policy debates.

Through our work with international organizations and the European Union, we are building networks and knowledge on agenda-setting, calls for expertise and international negotiations.

Building strong networks between the EA community and the policy sphere beyond US/​UK is neglected and very important if we want to influence large-scale policy efforts in the future. Moreover, we can identify windows of opportunity for EA organizations to supply evidence and/​or bring experts to policy arenas and facilitate such processes.

Field-building on longterm governance

In the past years, the EA community has pioneered the development of longtermism. We aim to contribute to these developments by publishing research on how to translate longtermism into policy change. Our line of research draws from syntheses of the literature on public policy, psychology and other fields to integrate longtermism. See here.

4. Call for support

Konrad & Max, are both funded until the end of 2021. Our current room for more funding for 2021 has a lower bound of $ 113,000 and an upper bound of around $ 2m.

The lower bound allows us to continue as is until the end of 2022 by funding ~1 FTE. Any additional funding will allow us to hire staff sooner, get office space, cover event & travel expenses and build a runway to stay resilient.

The upper bound would allow us to reliably plan 2 years ahead at ~7 FTE. We aim to hire up to 5 additional FTE in the first year to maximise our chances of success. Once we can guarantee one year of salary, we will start hiring value-aligned individuals with a background in international policy and skills in:

  1. Training: designing and facilitating workshops.

  2. Development: fundraising, grant writing, relationship management, financial reporting and public relations.

  3. Operations: event planning, management and organizational administration.

  4. Research: experimental design, data analysis, computational modelling, impact evaluation.

For full-time hires, we are looking for individuals with previous experience in policymaking contexts. We are developing an intense onboarding process to empower co-founder-equivalent first employees who have the agency and knowledge to effectively advance SI’s mission without the need for supervision.

You can donate via EA Geneva until SI’s nonprofit status has been officially recognized. This automatically makes your contribution tax-deductible in Switzerland. If you are from Germany, the US, UK or Netherlands, please reach out to us. Effektiv Spenden and EA Funds are likely to grant us fiscal sponsorship if they can expect an annual donation volume of at least € 10,000 and $ 50,000 respectively.

5. How to get in touch

  1. General inquiries:

  2. For policy career advice, please contact EA Geneva: https://​​​​career-advice

  3. For donations and fundraising:

  4. For research and other policy-related collaborations:

6. Ask us anything

Please ask us anything, question our plans, and propose ideas.

  1. You might wonder “Who is Simon?” Herbert Simon (1916 − 2001) was a political scientist, cognitive psychologist, computer scientist and economist. We chose to name the institute after him as his research represents much of the knowledge SI is building on and aims to contribute to. He formalized the concept of bounded rationality, i.e. that humans make decisions with cognitive constraints. In 1978, he received the Nobel Prize in Economics and a Turing Award in 1975. He is known for having seminally contributed to the fields of behavioural economics, public administration, complexity science and artificial intelligence. ↩︎

  2. Geneva is the key operational and diplomatic hub of international policymaking. If you want to influence global coordination directly, it is most effective to start here. ↩︎

  3. A wide range of actors inside and outside of political institutions contribute to the creation of policy: elected officials, civil servants, academics, civil society, lobbyists and more. It is this dynamic co-creation process SI seeks to support. ↩︎

  4. Concrete examples include the UN Sustainability Agenda and the EU’s work on foresight. ↩︎