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jayquigley comments on Introducing Sentience Institute - Effective Altruism Forum

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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.