The Global Priorities Project aims to bring new analysis to the problem of how to allocate scarce resources between diverse global priorities such as education, health, enterprise, and future generations. The project is hosted by the Future of Humanity Institute in collaboration with the Centre for Effective Altruism.
The Global Priorities Project has moved to a new website. We will retain some content here, but future activity and functionality will mostly be at the dedicated Global Priorities Project page.
The importance of prioritisation
Every day organisations and governments make decisions about how to use their resources to benefit society. If these organisations did not prioritise certain options, they would achieve far fewer of their aims. Yet for organisations with wide remits, such as governments, allocating resources between important priorities such as education, healthcare, and the environment is a very difficult process.
There are theoretical reasons to expect large disparities between the effectiveness of different types of intervention in different fields. This effect is observed within a wide range of different fields, for example in global health the most effective interventions are hundreds of times more effective than the least effective. Similar disparities have been observed within the fields of developing–world education and among interventions to reduce climate change emissions. While comparisons are currently made among interventions within a field, comparisons between fields are rare. This project aims to investigate how to compare interventions across a wide range of different fields.
In order to compare options, we need a common scale on which to rank them. For example in climate change emissions reduction, the metric of tonnes of CO2 equivalent is frequently used used. Or in global health, Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) is one of the metrics that is often used to compare interventions. The challenge is to find ways of making comparisons between metrics. The Global Priorities Project aims to make steps towards developing a framework that can be used to compare interventions, while allowing comparisons globally and across diverse fields.
Owen Cotton-Barratt leads the Global Priorities Project’s research. He is a Lecturer in mathematics at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, and a Research Associate at the Future of Humanity Institute.
Niel Bowerman is Director of Special Projects at the Centre for Effective Altruism, has a PhD in Physics from Oxford University, and was formerly Climate Science Advisor to the President of the Maldives.
Toby Ord is a Research Associate at the Future of Humanity Institute, currently working on population ethics. He is a leading expert in health economics and practical ethics. Toby founded Giving What We Can, which has achieved pledges of $350 million and has received extensive coverage in the international media.
Robert Wiblin is Executive Director of the Centre for Effective Altruism. He has previously conducted charity evaluations for Giving What We Can, and policy analysis for the Australian Department of Innovation, Treasury and Productivity Commission.
Sebastian Farquhar is the director of the Global Priorities Project. He previously was a consultant focusing on public sector strategy with a leading strategy consulting firm.
The Global Priorities Project aims to use its research on prioritising across fields to make recommendations highlighting fields that may be being neglected. For example, the global poor, non-human animals, and future generations all have difficulty advocating their own needs in the current political system. Thus it is plausible that these groups of beneficiaries are being under-prioritised in the current socio-economic system, and are therefore deserving of further study. The Global Priorities Project will be publishing papers on new approaches to prioritisation, and on areas that these approaches suggest may be being neglected.
Global Priorities Project Articles
Unprecedented Technological Risks
Beckstead, Bostrom, Bowerman, Cotton-Barratt, MacAskill, Ó hÉigeartaigh, Ord
This policy report explains what kind of new risks we can expect from emerging technologies and why market and political failures mean these aren’t already addressed appropriately. It outlines possible policy responses to these risks.
Good policy ideas that won’t happen (yet)
During the past year the Centre for Effective Altruism has been engaged in ongoing policy discussions with policymakers in the UK Government. We generated hundreds of policy options and had many meetings with policymakers within the UK Government, both party political advisors, politicians and civil servants. This post describes some of our learnings from this process.
Requiring liability insurance for dual-use research with potentially catastrophic consequences
A policy proposal to require insurance for potentially dangerous research. These notes explain why there is a market failure with respect to risks of accident associated with research, and how a requirement for insurance could correct this market failure.
Strategy for reducing existential risk
The timing of labour aimed at reducing existential risk
Many considerations affect whether work on reducing existential risk is better done sooner or later. This article explores a tension between two key factors: current nearsightedness towards future risks reduces the expected impact of direct work early, but the ability to steer and increase the volume of future work increases the value of early work. However these ultimately weigh against each other, this has consequences for which work is best done early.
Strategic considerations about different speeds of AI takeoff
Owen Cotton-Barratt & Toby Ord
The speed of ‘takeoff’ of artificial intelligence could be crucial. This article argues that we should prefer slower takeoffs, but we should focus current work on faster takeoff scenarios.
Long-run considerations and implications for priority-setting
Will we eventually be able to colonize other stars?
An investigation into whether space colonisation is feasible. It finds that most people best informed on this topic believe that space colonisation will eventually be possible. The minority who disagree fail to address relevant counter-arguments, or argue in insufficient depth.
Human and animal interventions: the long-term view
How should we compare human- and animal-welfare interventions? Over the long-term indirect effects will dominate, and short-term comparisons may misrepresent these since most indirect effects involve influencing humans. So if any animal-welfare charities are as cost-effective as the best human-welfare charities, it must be because they change the behaviour of humans long into the future.
The first part of this article explores different definitions of the term ‘cause’ in the context of the effective altruism movement, arguing that it is preferable to define it in terms of instrumental goals. These distinctions are used in the second part to state crisper versions of the claim made in the post ‘Human and animal interventions: the long-term view’.
A relatively atheoretical perspective on astronomical waste
The ‘astronomical waste’ argument, which concludes that affecting the long-term future is overwhelmingly important, is sometimes believed to require an assumption of utilitarianism. This article shows that you can run the argument with weaker and more broadly-appealing assumptions.
Priority-setting under uncertainty
Project: Cost-effectiveness of research
How should we decide when to put more resources into research projects, or working on other problems with known benefits but unknown difficulty? In this project we build and apply models for thinking systematically about these questions, and use them as a tool for estimating the cost-effectiveness of these activities. The above link takes you to the project overview page; here are direct links to individual articles:
- How to treat problems of unknown difficulty Owen Cotton-Barratt
- Estimating cost-effectiveness for problems of unknown difficulty Owen Cotton-Barratt
- Estimating the cost-effectiveness of research into neglected diseases Max Dalton
- The law of logarithmic returns Owen Cotton-Barratt
- Theory behind logarithmic returns Owen Cotton-Barratt
- How valuable is medical research? Max Dalton
Why we should err in both directions
An exploration of a heuristic for making decisions under uncertainty: that we should choose so that we may have erred in either direction. The article gives theoretical justification for this principle, and looks at its consequences in priority-setting.
We can split the cost-effectiveness of an intervention into how good the cause is, and how good the intervention is relative to the cause. This perspective could help our efforts in prioritisation by letting us bring appropriate tools to bear on the different parts.
(Video) Discounting for uncertainty in a health context
Talk (starts 2 minutes into the video) given at the 2014 Brocher Summer Academy on Ethical Issues in Global Population Health. Looks at different reasons we might discount future health benefits, and explores how discounting for uncertainty differs from discounting for time preference.