16

Introducing Sentience Institute

Fish


We’re excited to announce the launch of a new EA organization,
Sentience Institute (SI). It’s a new think tank dedicated to the expansion of humanity’s moral circle. We envision a society in which the interests of all sentient beings are fully considered, regardless of their sex, race, species, substrate, location, or any other characteristic. Our mission is to build on the body of evidence for how to most effectively expand humanity’s moral circle, and to encourage advocates to make use of that evidence.

 

Because the scope of this mission is so large, we’re initially focusing on effective strategies to increase concern (in attitudes and in policy) for farmed animals. There are big changes happening in this field, such as the recent wave of corporate cage-free reforms and the development of new animal-free foods like the Impossible Burger. The farmed animal advocacy movement has a significant demand for strategic research as indicated by the rapid growth of Animal Charity Evaluators, the contributions of tens of millions of dollars by the Open Philanthropy Project, and the evidence-based approach of the leading nonprofit organizations in the space like Mercy For Animals and the Humane Society of the United States.

 

Our two founding staff (Executive Director Kelly Witwicki and Research Director Jacy Reese) previously worked for Sentience Politics, a project of the Effective Altruism Foundation (EAF). Sentience Politics worked in three areas: research, movement-building, and political initiatives, and is now splitting into two independent organizations (i.e. no longer part of EAF), one continuing under the name of Sentience Politics and running political initiatives in the German-speaking area, and the other SI. See EAF’s post about the split for more information on what Sentience Politics is doing going forward.

 

SI is collaborating heavily with others in the effective animal advocacy (EAA) field to maximize the usefulness of our research. We expect to fill the niche of expanding the foundational evidence base in EAA with a strong focus on intellectual rigor and an emphasis on far future impact. We don’t plan to conduct charity evaluations or spend much time directly moving money to effective organizations, but instead create research content that can be used to inform that work and advocacy decisions, such as randomized controlled trials, literature reviews of fields like anti-smoking and voter turnout advocacy, and case studies of social movements like British anti-slavery and environmentalism.

 

Our first completed project is our Summary of Evidence for Foundational Questions in Effective Animal Advocacy, which aggregates the foundational research in this field and will be updated with new research results. This will help us track and prioritize research projects, as well as communicate research results with impact-focused advocates. Check it out if you want to learn about the arguments for and against confrontational advocacy, individual versus institutional advocacy, reducetarian versus vegan asks, and other important questions. You can also take a look at our Research Agenda to see what’s next!

 

We are applying for our 501(c)(3) status, and in the meantime, the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA), a registered 501(c)(3), has generously offered to act as our fiscal sponsor. This means you can donate to us through a special fund for Sentience Institute on CEA’s Effective Altruism Funds – just use the link below. (UK residents can receive Gift Aid too.) In these early days, we could really use your support. We’re hoping to hire a researcher soon if we can find sufficient funding. Please also follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and consider sharing our content!

 

If you have questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at kelly@sentienceinstitute.org or jacy@sentienceinstitute.org, or comment on this post. Kelly will also be giving a talk on Sentience Institute at EA Global Boston this weekend. We’re excited to share our work with you!

 

Sincerely,

Kelly Witwicki & Jacy Reese, Co-Founders

 

More info

Outreach

While we are mostly focusing on research in the near future, we will take some low-hanging fruit in promoting research results. Our two co-founders regularly give talks on effective animal advocacy, primarily for university students and at conferences. Kelly is speaking at Effective Altruism Global: Boston, and Jacy will be speaking at the 2017 Animal Rights National Conference this fall. Jacy might also give a TEDx talk this fall. Jacy is currently writing a book on The End of Animal Farming, and its launch will involve op-eds and other forms of outreach.

 

We will also post research updates and summaries on our blog, and are running Facebook and Twitter pages. As we expand our outreach efforts, we might eventually create career content such as an EAA job board and career profiles similar to those published by 80,000 Hours in other EA cause areas.

Self-evaluation

We’re committed to evaluating our own efforts and changing directions or even disbanding the organization if we determine that we can make a greater impact elsewhere. If our research fails to generate new, actionable insights that make a significant difference to advocates’ decisions, we plan to shift our priorities towards outreach and movement-building, such as the career content described above. Or if we do generate new, actionable insights but feel that advocates are neglecting the cost-effective strategies those insights point to, we will consider pursuing them ourselves.

Research standards

We will strive to maintain the best possible research standards, such as preregistering our randomized controlled trials and seeking out peer review on all our research, mostly from other people who study EAA but also from other experts when possible, such as a social movement’s historian for a case study on that movement. Additionally, we plan to stay up-to-date on the latest research and expert opinions on research standards so we can update our methods accordingly.

Transparency

We also plan to publish financial records, internal policies, regular updates, and a Mistakes page similar to those of GiveWell and Animal Charity Evaluators. We’re committed to building a collaborative environment so we can help advocates, donors, researchers, and everyone in the effective animal advocacy community.

Finances

The Effective Altruism Foundation has granted SI $60,000 to cover our initial costs and all expenses through December. Once we’ve raised $23,000, we’ll start interviews for a third team member so we can conduct more research. (We have some promising candidates in mind.) Funding beyond that will enable us to run several polls and surveys, costing approximately $1,000-5,000 each, and will secure salaries beyond our first half year. If we are able to raise over $100,000 in the near future, we could make a fourth hire, run more polls and surveys, and conduct more outreach. We are also open to restricted funding from excited donors for specific purposes such as increasing salaries to more competitive rates to attract top talent, creating EAA career content, or conducting research focused specifically on wild animals.

Comments (12)

Comment author: thebestwecan 14 June 2017 12:33:58PM 5 points [-]

I'd like to ask the people who downvoted this post to share their concerns in comments if possible. I know animal content tends to get downvoted by some people on the EA Forum, so this might just be another instance of that, rather than for more specific reasons.

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 02 June 2017 07:06:09PM 5 points [-]

We’re committed to evaluating our own efforts and changing directions or even disbanding the organization if we determine that we can make a greater impact elsewhere. If our research fails to generate new, actionable insights that make a significant difference to advocates’ decisions, we plan to shift our priorities towards outreach and movement-building, such as the career content described above.

Your philosophy is very admirable. How do you plan to track this, more concretely?

Comment author: thebestwecan 02 June 2017 11:32:46PM 8 points [-]

We're planning to make predictions about movement progress (e.g. rate of corporate welfare reforms) as well as our own goals (e.g. amount of evidence our research generates (ideally will be evaluated by an external party), number of influential advocates who change their minds based on our research). This is similar to what ACE and OPP do, and I think other EA orgs. With the self-predictions, we've been thinking we'll have some lower bounds where if we're consistently underperforming, we'll note that on our Mistakes page and consider big-picture reprioritization such as doing more outreach work.

We're currently in touch with several influential animal advocates because of our survey for the Foundational Summaries page on how EAA researchers currently view the evidence on these questions. We've had positive feedback on it so far, above our expectations, but it'll give us a good first feedback loop to see if our work is useful.

I'd also note that we wanted to get a 'minimum viable product' out there ASAP, so lots of our specific plans are still up in the air. We're still very interested in feedback, and now that we've got the website published, we'll be able to spend more time on the nitty gritty. Full disclosure, we're still going to need to spend a lot of time fundraising in the coming weeks, and then of course we need to do the actual research, so I'm not sure how much we should prioritize progress-tracking relative to that work..

Comment author: Ekaterina_Ilin 05 June 2017 07:32:45PM 2 points [-]

SP used to work on a research agenda with questions concerning sentience as a phenomenon itself, the list still resides here: SP former Research Agenda

SI's research is now much more advocacy centered, as you write:

Our mission is to build on the body of evidence for how to most effectively expand humanity’s moral circle, and to encourage advocates to make use of that evidence.

What is the reason for this strategic shift?

Comment author: thebestwecan 06 June 2017 02:09:34PM *  2 points [-]

We (Kelly and Jacy) weren't working at SP when its agenda was written, but my impression is that SP's research agenda was written to broadly encompass most questions relevant to reducing suffering, though this excluded some of the questions already prioritized by the Foundational Research Institute, another EAF project. I (Jacy) think the old SP agenda reflects EAF's tendency to keep doors open, as well as an emphasis on more foundational questions like the "sentience as a phenomenon itself" ones you mention here.

When we were founding SI, we knew we wanted to have a relatively narrow focus. This was the recommendation of multiple advocacy/EA leaders we asked for advice. We also wanted to have a research agenda that was relatively tractable (though of course we don't expect to have definitive answers to any of the big questions in EA in the near future), so we could have a shorter feedback loop on our research progress. As we improve our process, we'll lean more towards questions with longer feedback loops. We also think that the old SP agenda was not only broad in topic, but broad in the skills/expertise necessary for tackling its various projects. Narrowing the focus to advocacy/social change means there's more transferability of expertise between questions.

Finally, it seemed there had been a lot of talk in EA of values spreading as a distinct EA project, especially moral circle expansion, which arguably lies at the intersection of effective animal advocacy and existential risk/far future work, meaning it's been kind of homeless and could benefit from having its own organization.*

All of this led us to focus SI on moral circle expansion and the more narrow/tractable/concrete/empirical research agenda than that of the old SP.** We've considered keeping the old agenda around as a long-term/broad agenda while still focusing on the new one for day-to-day work. I think it's currently still up-in-the-air what exactly will happen to that document.

*The analogy that comes to mind here is cultured/clean meat, i.e. real meat grown from animal cells without slaughter. People in this field argue it's been heavily neglected relative to other scientific projects because it's at the intersection of food science (because the product is food) and medical science (because that's where tissue engineering has been most popular).

**We think even our current mission/agenda is very broad, which is why we have the even narrower focus on animal farming right now. We think that narrower focus could change in the next few years, but we expect SI as an organization to be focused on moral circle expansion for the long haul.

Comment author: thebestwecan 14 June 2017 02:00:54AM *  1 point [-]

I (Jacy) was asked a good question privately that I wanted to log my answer to here, about how our RCT approach compares with that of academic social science RCTs, which I also discussed some in my response to Jay.

While there are many features of academic social science research we hope to emulate, e.g. peer review, I think academia also has a lot of issues that we want to avoid. For example, some good science practices, e.g. preregistration, are still uncommon in academia and there are strong incentives other than scientific accuracy, e.g. publish or perish, that we hope to minimize. I'd venture a speculative guess that the RCTs ran by nonprofit researchers in the EA community, e.g. the Mercy For Animals online ads RCT, are higher-quality than most academic RCTs. The most recurrent issue in EA RCTs is low sample size, which seems like more of a funding issue than a skillset/approach issue. (It could be a skillset/approach issue in some ways, e.g. if EA nonprofits should be running fewer RCTs so they can get the higher sample size on the same budget, which I tentatively agree with and think is the current trend.)

With our Research Network, we're definitely happy to support high-quality academic research. We'd also be happy to hire academics interested in switching to nonprofit research, though we worry that few would be willing to work for the relatively low salaries.

In terms of communicating our research, our lack of PhDs and academic appointments on staff has been at the top of our list of concerns. Unfortunately there's just not a good fix available. Ideally, once we're able to make our first hire, we'd find a PhD who's willing to work for a nonprofit EA salary, but that seems unlikely. We do already have PhDs/academics in our advisory/review network. I've also considered personally going back to school for a PhD, but everyone I've consulted with thinks this wouldn't be worth the time cost.

Comment author: Andy_Schultz 26 June 2017 02:37:58PM 0 points [-]

In the linked Summary of Evidence document, in the section "Farmed animal vs. wild animals vs. general antispeciesism focus", some of the rankings in the grid do not match the explanations below. For example, under Scale, the grid has Farmed animal focus as rank 1, but the explanation below has General antispeciesism as rank 1.

Comment author: thebestwecan 26 June 2017 08:49:45PM *  0 points [-]

Thanks, Andy. That table had the values of the previous table for some reason. We updated the page.

Comment author: JesseClifton 09 June 2017 05:53:20PM 0 points [-]

Have animal advocacy organizations expressed interest in using SI's findings to inform strategic decisions? To what extent will your choices of research questions be guided by the questions animal advocacy orgs say they're interested in?

Comment author: thebestwecan 13 June 2017 12:34:51PM *  1 point [-]

We've been in touch with most EAA orgs (ACE, OPP, ACE top/standout charities) and they have expressed interest. We haven't done many hard pitches so far like, "The research suggests X. We think you should change your tactics to reflect that, by shifting from Y to Z, unless you have evidence we're not aware of." We hope to do that in the future, but we are being cautious and waiting until we have a little more credibility and track record. We have communicated our findings in softer ways to people who seem to appreciate the uncertainty, e.g. "Well, our impression of this social movement is that it's evidence for Z tactics, but we haven't written a public report on that yet and it might change by the time we finish the case study."

I (Jacy) would guess that our research-communication impact will be concentrated in that small group of animal advocacy orgs who are relatively eager to change their minds based on research, and perhaps in an even smaller group (e.g. just OPP and ACE). Their interests do influence us to a large extent, not just because it's where they're more open to changing their minds, but because we see them as intellectual peers. There are some qualifications we account for, such as SI having a longer-term focus (in my personal opinion, not sure they'd agree) than OPP's farmed animal program or ACE. I'd say that the interests of less-impact-focused orgs are only a small factor, since the likelihood of change and potential magnitude of change seem quite small.

Comment author: jayquigley 08 June 2017 11:29:45PM 0 points [-]

I worry that SI will delineate lots of research questions usefully, but that it will be harder to make needed progress on those questions. Are you worried about this as well, and if so, are there steps to be taken here? One idea is promoting the research projects to graduate students in the social sciences, such as via grants or scholarships.

Comment author: thebestwecan 09 June 2017 01:48:47PM *  1 point [-]

The Foundational Summaries page is our only completed or planned project that was primarily intended to delineate research questions. Because of its fairly exhaustive nature, I (Jacy) think it does only have to be done once, and now our future research can just go into that page instead of needing to be repeatedly delineated, if that makes sense.

None of the projects in our research agenda are armchair projects, i.e. they all include empirical, real-world study and aggregation of data. You can also find me personally critiquing other EA research projects for being too much about delineation and armchair speculation, instead of doing empirical research. We have also noted that our niche as Sentience Institute within EAA is foundational research that expands the EAA evidence base. That is definitely our primary goal as an organization.

For all those reasons, I'm not very worried about us spending too much time on delineation. There's also just the question of whether these research questions are so difficult, at least to make concrete progress on, that our work will not be cost-effective even if such progress, if achieved, would be very impactful. That's my second biggest worry about SI's impact (biggest is that big decision-makers won't properly account for the research results). I don't think there's much to do to fix that concern besides working hard for the next few months or couple years and seeing what sort of results we can get. We've also had some foundational research from ACE, Open Phil, and other parties that seems to have been taken somewhat seriously by big EAA decision-makers, so that's promising.

We'd be open to giving grants or scholarships to relevant research projects done by graduate students in the social sciences. I don't think the demand for such funding and the amount of funding we could supply is such that it'd be cost-effective to set up a formal grants program at this time (we only have two staff and would like to get a lot of research done by December), but we'd be open to it. Two concerns that come to mind here are (i) academic research has a lot of limitations, especially when done by untenured junior researchers who have to worry a lot about publishing in top journals, matching their subject matter with the interests of professors, etc. (ii) part-time/partially-funded research is challenging, to the point that some EA organizations don't even think it's worth the time to have volunteers. There's a lot of administrative cost that could make it not cost-effective overall, and better to just hire full-time researchers.

Those concerns are mitigated by considerations like: (i) grad students, even at that early stage, could have valuable subject matter expertise. For example, I'm always on the prowl for someone who both knows a lot about the academic social movement literature and also approaches it with an EA perspective. I've found few people who have both features to a significant degree. (ii) some might be willing to do relevant research with only minimal amounts of funding and supervision, and that could be very low-hanging fruit. We have our Research Network for this sort of work, and we do hope to continue trying to capture low-hanging fruit with it.