The Future of Humanity Institute’s Research Scholars Programme launched in October 2018. It is a selective, two-year research programme, with lots of latitude for exploration as well as significant training and support elements. Each year we will offer around six salaried positions to early-career researchers who aim to answer questions that shed light on the big-picture questions critical to humanity’s wellbeing.
Humanity today may be in a position to affect the long-term future: whether and how intelligence spreads through the universe, and to what ends. Working out which actions in the world are particularly valuable for the long-term — and working out how we should think about this — are hard but crucial topics. They are studied within the Future of Humanity Institute under the name macrostrategy. We think a robust understanding of macrostrategic considerations helps people undertake better (for the long-term) projects and make better (for the long-term) decisions at many different scales.
The Research Scholars Programme aims to foster this skill of choosing actions for their all-things-considered effects, and give people space to exercise it. We give scholars tools for thinking about the long-term impact of research and other activities. In most cases we foresee participants coming out of the programme with views on topics such as: what the future might look like at timescales of tens, thousands, or billions of years; what the largest determinants of different possible futures are; which technologies are most likely to be transformative at a timescale of decades; what the largest levers in the world are for affecting these. We encourage participants to explore different research ideas they have, and practice making judgements about what to pursue. (This need not be macrostrategy research; the idea rather is that the choices are macrostrategy-driven, i.e. informed by thinking about long-term consequences first. We think research in any of the other areas studied at FHI can fall within this category, as well as some other topics.) We support scholars with mentorship and the best other feedback loops we can construct, and a collaborative, curious working environment to encourage exploration and the challenging of ideas.
Why participate in this programme?
This is a unique opportunity for people who intend to soon assume research and research-adjacent positions critical to addressing the world’s most pressing problems.
In particular, we expect that you will get a lot out of the programme if you:
- Have lots of ideas, but are unsure which ones to pursue and could benefit from research mentorship;
- Are interested in multiple different research areas, or in macrostrategy work itself;
- Would benefit from the freedom to explore your options (for instance before committing to a topic for a PhD or postdoctoral project, or working out whether you can contribute best through direct research or an adjacent activity); and/or
- Are excited by being part of a cohort of exceptional individuals with shared curiosity and desire to identify and pursue the highest-value opportunities.
On the other hand we don’t expect this to be right for everyone interested in impact-driven research. In particular this might not be the right fit for you if:
- You have a clear idea of what you want to work on long-term (especially if it isn’t one of FHI’s research areas). In this case you might well be better working on it immediately, and doing so with domain experts (for instance by doing a PhD).
- You don’t enjoy self-directed research, and would prefer to work as part of a larger research team. In this case you could be better off directly joining an organisation in such a role, or becoming excellent at the type of research tasks that you might be given.
People in the programme may work on topics in FHI’s research areas, including global priorities research, AI strategy, AI safety, and reducing catastrophic risks from biotechnology. We hope that many will go on to careers working in or adjacent to these areas, either directly pursuing or otherwise facilitating research. Direct research roles are a natural next step, but we believe that many important roles (such as working in community-building or grant-making) are helped by a good understanding of important research directions.
The programme is somewhere between a research degree, a residency, and a research fellowship. The programme will pay participants salaries according to experience. We also expect to be able to provide visas for successful applicants.
Participants spend their time on a combination of research, curriculum, and applied work, with priorities between these activities largely determined by the participants themselves.
- Research activities are meant to develop participants’ methodological toolkit, engaging with topics within cause prioritisation, existential risk, and artificial intelligence strategy to both obtain new skills and generate new insights.
- Curricular activities supplement this work, augmenting research efforts with formal thinking techniques, advanced domain knowledge, and general academic skills. While topical focus will vary greatly depending on one’s background, we will offer resources to cover both substantive and procedural topics, such as Fermi estimation, mechanism design, long-term future modelling, and data-driven analysis.
- Applied activities are meant to help researchers to ensure that people use their work. They include activities such as conference presentations, workshop design, project management, and networking.
We want to provide the structure and support which will ultimately be most useful for participants. Because the programme has been running for under six months, the details below offer our current best guesses for programme structure. We will continue to adapt and iterate in consultation with programme participants.
The current structure of the programme includes:
- A majority of time kept clear for scholars to pursue their own projects, which could include research ideas as well as more applied research-adjacent activities (e.g. organising a workshop).
- Every couple of months, a research workshop of one to four days to dive into a topic more intensely and generate ideas.
- Fortnightly workshops covering a range of macrostrategy-relevant topics, as well as research exercises to help train research-relevant skills (e.g. Fermi estimate and calibration exercises; ways of writing clearly without getting bottlenecked).
- Fortnightly work in progress seminars and collaborative research sessions to generate and share research insights.
- Fortnightly one-on-ones with Owen to discuss projects and directions.
- Opportunities to collaborate within RSP and FHI and with partner organisations such as the Centre for Effective Altruism and OpenAI.
- Weekly reading groups on a variety of topics.
- Weekly group check-ins and walks.
- Daily lunches in our office, which is shared with the Centre for Effective Altruism, the Global Priorities Institute, and the Forethought Foundation.
- Trips to visit partner organisations within the UK and internationally.
We think people will typically need less structure as the programme goes on. We will be very happy for people to make an extended visit away from Oxford to work with collaborators, or to leave for another opportunity part-way through the second year.
In general, we expect programme participants to be active stakeholders in decisions about what will best benefit them. We therefore avoid a prescriptive curriculum, enforced project formats, and forced collaborations. Instead, we focus on offering infrastructure and mentorship as guidance and support. We expect participants to identify and pursue appropriate goals for them — for example we think in some cases people will choose to publish academic papers, but in some cases this will not be the most effective way of disseminating research.
The programme so far
The first cohort of the programme arrived in late October. You can see the profiles of current research scholars here.
Much of the scholars’ work so far has been exploratory, as scholars engage with the work of senior researchers at FHI, develop their own research agendas, and gain understanding of the particular topics and skills which are relevant to their research directions. RSP has arranged discussions with researchers from the Global Priorities Institute and the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. Scholars have also attended events (including a Good Judgement workshop and the Biological Weapons Convention), published blog posts (see for example here and here) and secured grant funding for several projects (see here).
“I feel very grateful to be part of a group that consists of incredible, smart people who don’t shy away from big challenges. I love that I now have dedicated time to identify and follow through with my own research projects – a luxury that I value highly. The working environment at FHI is inspiring, stimulating and, most importantly, welcoming to new ideas.”
“The RSP cohort come from a range of backgrounds with different interests, which provides fresh perspectives, ideas and expertise – a perfect team for the interdisciplinary nature of FHI’s work.”
The Research Scholars Programme has a short track record. Another relevant reference class is people who have been mentored by the programme director, Owen Cotton-Barratt. Max Dalton and Ben Garfinkel worked for around a year as junior researchers with significant freedom in research directions and mentorship from Owen. Max now heads the research and content team at the Centre for Effective Altruism. Ben is now a researcher at the Center for the Governance of AI at FHI.
Applications for the fall 2019 (Michaelmas term) cohort have now closed. Sign up to our newsletter to be notified of future developments.
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The Research Scholars Programme accepts exceptional people who are interested in research questions from the perspective of securing a flourishing future for humanity. Participants do not need to have significant research experience, but they must be able to demonstrate aptitude.
Ideal candidates will:
- Be sharp and curious. The best researchers are often primarily motivated by captivation. This likely describes you if you read papers in a range of disciplines for fun, or are inclined to dive into fields even (and especially) if they’re confusing or seem wrong.
- Pay attention to scope and long-term impact. Habitual quantitative thinking is a powerful tool for informing decisions. Focus on long-term outcomes is central to macrostrategy, so intuitive access to it will be useful throughout the programme and helpful to others in the cohort.
- Be engaged and proactive. Crucial research questions are often in uncharted territory. It’s therefore critical that candidates are not paralysed by too much choice, but happy to strike out and try things. Similarly, since the programme is so new, we’re seeking candidates who see a flexible structure as an opportunity, and instinctively do something to fix problems they notice