I am taking leave from the University of Toronto to serve as the Director of the Global Priorities Institute (GPI) at the University of Oxford. I can’t express enough gratitude to the University of Toronto for enabling this. (I’ll be back in the fall to fulfill my teaching obligations, though – keep inviting me to seminars and such!)
GPI is an interdisciplinary research institute focusing on academic research that informs decision-makers on how to do good more effectively. In its first few years, under the leadership of its founding director, Hilary Greaves, GPI created and grew a community of academics in philosophy and economics interested in global priorities research. I am excited to build from this strong foundation and, in particular, to further develop the economics side.
There are several areas I would like to focus on while at GPI. The below items reflect my current views, however, I expect these views to be refined over time. These items are not intended to be an exhaustive list, but they are things I would like GPI to do more of on the margin.
1) Research on decision-making under uncertainty
There is a lot of uncertainty in estimates of the effects of various actions. My views here are coloured by my past work. In the early 2010s, I tried to compile estimates of the effects of popular development interventions such as insecticide-treated bed nets for malaria, deworming drugs, and unconditional cash transfers. My initial thought was that by synthesizing the evidence, I’d be able to say something more conclusive about “the best” intervention for a given outcome. Unfortunately, I found that results varied, a lot (you can read more about it in my JEEA paper).
If it’s really hard to predict effects in global development, which is a very well-studied area, it would seem even harder to know what to do in other areas with less evidence. Yet, decisions still have to be made. One of the core areas GPI has focused on in the past is decision-making under uncertainty, and I expect that to continue to be a priority research area. Some work on robustness might also fall under this category.
2) Increasing empirical research
GPI is an interdisciplinary institute combining philosophy and economics. To date, the economics side has largely focused on theoretical issues. But I think it’s important for there to be careful, rigorous empirical work at GPI. I think there are relevant hypotheses that can be tested that pertain to global priorities research.
Many economists interested in global priorities research come from applied fields like development economics, and there’s a talented pool of people who can do empirical work on, e.g., encouraging better uptake of evidence or forecasting. There’s simply a lot to be done here, and I look forward to working with colleagues like Julian Jamison (on leave from Exeter), Benjamin Tereick, and Mattie Toma (visiting from Warwick Business School), among many others.
3) Expanding GPI’s network in economics
There is an existing program at GPI for senior research affiliates based at other institutions. However, I think a lot more can be done with this, especially on the economics side. I’m still exploring the right structures, but suffice it to say, if you are an academic economist interested in global priorities research, please do get in touch. I am envisioning a network of loosely affiliated individuals in core fields of interest who would be sent notifications about research and funding opportunities. There may also be the occasional workshop or conference invitation.
4) Exploring expanding to other fields and topics
There are a number of topics that appear relevant to global priorities research that are not currently established at GPI. One field that we are trying to expand into is psychology. Within the existing economics and philosophy teams, we are also looking into whether there are any useful ways we can contribute to conversations around AI, as AI has the potential to be highly consequential in the near future.
5) Mentoring students and early career researchers
Young people are often interested in global priorities research, but an academic career can be difficult to navigate. GPI already has several programs targeted at students, such as the Global Priorities Fellowship Programme, the Open Student Workshop on Global Priorities Research, and a pre-doctoral fellowship program. However, academia can be notoriously competitive, so we will also pay more attention to mentoring early career researchers, including supporting researchers in finding external mentors where appropriate.
Finally, it is unfortunate for there to be a large pool of talented people that is relatively untapped. I think it is important to continue working on improving the diversity and reach of GPI. GPI has several initiatives to try to reach talented students, and I expect to see continued improvement here.
While I am directing GPI, I will also be continuing on with my own research, including work on the three largest US guaranteed income programs and improving the evidence-to-policy pipeline. That is all to say, it’s going to be a very busy few years, and I won’t be able to respond to all e-mails. But if you are interested in contributing in some way to global priorities research, please do get in touch! GPI is also planning to refresh the research agenda over the summer, so feedback is very welcome.