We recently interviewed Roland Mathiasson, vice president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center (CCC), a leading global think tank which draws together over 100 top economists to work on prioritizing the solutions to the most pressing global issues. The Center’s leader, Dr. Bjorn Lomborg, was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine and has been repeatedly named one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy. We initiated the interview after being contacted by Roland about a job opportunity with CCC.
Summary of the job opportunity
CCC is looking to hire a Project Manager to focus on organizing the promotion of their research following the setting of the new Millenium Development Goals (MDG).
We expect this role is high impact career opportunity, albeit with fairly high uncertainty, because:
- We think prioritisation is likely to be a highly effective cause (see our upcoming research)
- The CCC is one of the only organisations carrying out and promoting prioritisation, and although we don’t fully agree with their research, we think they play a valuable role, as well as offering significant potential to have even more impact
- The particular project you would focus on, promoting CCC’s research after the new MDG goals, is promising. Giving What We Can thinks that it may represent a promising, if speculative, funding opportunity.
- There seems to be substantial scope for an effective person to have outsized impact compared to the next best candidate
In addition, the career offers strong good potential to build career capital, particularly within the prioritisation cause and development policy.
- You would be one member of a team of about six. The CCC collaborates with a network of 100+ economists and promotes this research at the top level of policy using a large network of contractors. You could personally play a major role in leveraging this network to potentially influence huge flows of development assistance.
- You would have the opportunity to interact with journalists, policy makers, top foundations and leading economists
- You could build highly useful transferable skills in project management and communications.
The ideal candidate:
- Understands, can communicate and is passionate about the mission of promoting global prioritisation based on data and economic research
- Can be very independent in carrying out their goals
- Can coordinate a large project involving tens of people
- Can cope and enjoy working in a demanding professional organization
- Has strong communication skills
- Is able to deal with numbers and quantitative analysis (but a strong quantitative background is not needed)
- Is fluent in English and computer literate
We think this opportunity would be particularly good for someone who wanted to start a career within the prioritisation cause, especially if more attracted to management or outreach rather than research.
The role can either be based in Budapest or sharing offices with CEA (including 80,000 Hours) and the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford (in which case you can travel regularly to Budapest). The salary will be in the range of £1500-£2500 per month. The candidate should already be in a position to work inside the EU. The candidate can ideally start as soon as possible and will initially work for 9 months.
Summary of our other findings
This interview, along with our interview with GiveWell and our conversations with the Future of Humanity Institute is part of a broader survey of the prioritisation cause. We don’t yet have any firm conclusions, but are beginning to form the impression that the organisations within the cause are significantly under-supplied with people who have both the right skills (an unusual ability to interpret and apply academic research, as well as the key transferable skills like leadership) and dedication to the cause.
Overview of post
In the rest of this post, we outline in greater detail:
- What the CCC does
- Why the CCC might be high impact
- Why taking role might be high impact
- Who would suit this role
- How to apply
Excerpts from the interview
Note that the indented paragraphs in quotes are quotes from Roland. Other text is my commentary or questions.
What does the CCC do?
Ben: What sort of work does CCC do?
“We show philanthropists and governments where you can do the most good in the word — where you get the biggest bang for the buck. We offer smart economic reasoning from some of the world’s top economists, so you can base your decisions on effectiveness rather than what’s most fashionable, what looks the scariest or which campaigns have the best PR.”
Ben: How do you do this?
“We work with some of the top academics the sharpest minds in the world, to research solutions to major global challenges. What we want to do with it is provide assessment of all the costs and benefits from pursuing or implementing these solutions to decision makers, philanthropists and aid organizations. The main thing is that we are advocating prioritization. We want everyone who wants to do good to realize that resources are limited, you can’t do everything. You need to take a stand and begin helping with the things that actually get the biggest bang for the buck.”
Ben: How large is the team, and what are the key positions?
“Bjorn Lomborg is the ideas guy, communicator, and head academic. I’m the organizer and operating officer. We have two directors of communications: one US based and one Europe based. We have a project assistant, and we have an executive assistant to Bjorn who is very key. We’re looking to hire one or two project managers. Whoever we hire will play a significant role in the overall organization.”
Ben: How quickly are you growing?
“We actually don’t want to have too large a team. Instead, we develop the concept for a project internally and contract out all the different parts we need where we can get the best people at the best rates. That’s why these project manager roles are so exciting. It’s a way to utilize global talent for everything. We have a network of contractors and volunteers in France, Germany, the US, Italy, India, Denmark, etc. who help out to larger and lesser extents with communicating in local markets. We also have a network of writers who help out with ghostwriting and editing. We have over 100 economists, and we’re working with media production contractors. There are a lot of people loosely attached to the organization, which enables us to scale really quickly.”
Ben: In addition to the post-MDG project, what else are you working on?
“We’re working more to set priorities in specific areas, like we did with smart investments to end HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. We are doing that now with the American Prosperity Consensus, where we look at the developed world. What are the smart investments you can make today that will ensure a prosperous society in a generation’s time? Is it about investing in broadband or other infrastructure like high-speed rail, or do we need more resources in education? Like would America benefit from compulsory preschool? What is the evidence for these kinds of investment? Usually in the political debate, you don’t discuss the long-term effects of things because politicians needs to be reelected, the US House of Representatives are elected every second year.”
Why might the CCC be high impact?
A good overview, focused on this post-MDGs promotion project, is provided by Giving What We Can here.
- Although we don’t wholly endorse all of their research findings, we believe CCC fills a valuable, neglected research niche within the prioritisation cause. It takes the views of top economists on the solutions to the most pressing global problems, and aggregates them with a common framework, into reports that policy makers can understand.
- There is reasonable evidence CCC has effectively promoted this research in the past. For instance, CCC is cited by several key policy agreements and its research gets wide coverage.
- It seems that CCC has a reasonable chance of positively influencing future development assistance spending. Since these flows of money are very large, this offers a large expected pay-off compared to the costs. The costs are only several million dollars per year and a team of six.
Ben: Why isn’t someone else doing what the CCC does?
”Most academic research focuses on just one topic, often even a subsidiary issue within that area. CCC ask the researchers to get back to the top level, talking about what matters across the world, across a lot of different topics from hunger, to climate, to diseases. This is hard — which is why it is so rare — but also crucially necessary.”
“Second, most media focuses on simple scary stories or images with cute animals. Stories focus on single-issues like ‘this solution will cost a lot’ or ‘the problem here is immense’. There is a crucial need to integrate both costs and benefits, and across all relevant issue areas. But again, that is hard, which is why it happens so rarely. CCC provides both an academic and an outreach platform for this.”
“Third, most agencies are wary of prioritization: in principle, of course, everyone say it is a good idea, but true prioritization also leads to saying what we shouldn’t do first. And that means some parts of the organization losing their existence.”
Some of these reasons are discouraging. If prioritization is hard and unpopular, then CCC may not be able to make much progress.
Other reasons are more encouraging. Academics are incentivised to work on narrow issues in-depth. This means there’s a large body of research that isn’t brought together and applied to prioritise global problems. CCC can fill this gap. Politicians and agencies also find it difficult to carry out or promote prioritisation because it’s politically unpopular. As a relatively independent body, CCC is in a better position to fill this gap.
CCC also has several comparative advantages in this field. First, Bjorn Lomborg has a strong public platform. Second, they’ve already built large economies of scale, most importantly their relationships with top economists.
We also believe that prioritisation is neglected in general, as we’ll explain in upcoming research.
Why is there an opportunity for you to have an outsized impact within this role?
Ben: What will the job involve?
“The post-MDG project will kick off in September, after the summer break. On the administrative side, we need project plans and charts, mainly because there are so many people involved in this project. There will be perhaps 50 economics professors involved, so just to get a hold of them is quite a project. You need to give and adapt instructions for each one of them. Once they have written their draft papers, this person will read and then discuss all these papers with the rest of the team, with Lomborg, with me, and then also get back to each of the academics with suggestions for what they might need to elaborate on or improve. Then this person will also need to co-ordinate rounds of peer reviewing from other economics professors. Once all the research is in place, a very large part of this project will be about communicating the academic results to different stakeholders. That will involve the general public, both in the developing world and in the developed world. I’m not suggesting that this person will be writing the magazine articles or making the short videos by himself or herself, but he will be a key player in that process. Another part of it will be actually facilitating seminars or workshops with UN people, with politicians, and with national aid agencies. And of course there will also be a lot of reading and writing reading the research papers and giving feedback and then writing up scripts, taking out the essentials of the research papers so they can be made into presentations, web pages, magazine articles, press releases. This person will not do all of this entirely on his own. There are a lot of people helping out, but he or she should be the facilitator or driver to make sure that all of it happens.”
Our impression is that this role offers a significant opportunity for an excellent candidate to add value. This is because the possible outcomes can potentially vary a huge amount in impact. Part of the role involves improving the promotion of prioritisation and carrying out outreach. This is somewhat similar to a sales role, in which the best people are very much better than the average. A slight difference in candidates, therefore, could significantly influence the outcomes of the outreach. Since this outreach is very important, that could result in a large impact.
Another way an excellent candidate could have outsized impact is by freeing up the time of the other, more experienced staff, including Bjorn Lomborg. First, being more competent than average would mean that you would require less management time, and could take on more work. Second, since the team is small and flexible, an excellent candidate can quickly take on responsibility and some of the high value tasks the existing time-constrained staff are currently doing.
”We have a really valuable resource in Bjorn Lomborg, because he can get our message out to a wide audience. We can get him on CNN or BBC. And he’s a very skilled communicator. But obviously there’s only 24 hours a day. So if we can add people who can free up Bjorn’s time, they are extremely valuable.”
In addition, we expect this role to be relatively under-supplied with good candidates. First, relatively few people are passionate about prioritisation, reducing the level of skill compared to the salary. Some evidence for this is that CCC was keen to reach the members of 80,000 Hours and find more people who “get the mission.”
Second, there is evidence CCC is moderately under-funded, perhaps reducing wages, so attracting fewer candidates.
Third, our speculative impression is that the skills required are in shortage everywhere – the ability to follow through on projects, strong communications skills, a quantitative mindset and the ability to work independently.
We tried to put a rough figure on the benefit of a good candidate by asking:
Ben: Would you prefer a good employee tomorrow or £100,000?
“I’d prefer the person. If you were talking about more like £1,000,000, we’d take the money, then it could free up Bjorn’s time on fundraising, which could allow him to speak to more policy makers.”
If this is true, then it suggests that a good candidate is several times more valuable than an average one. Further, it would be hard outweigh your added value through Earning to Give, since it would be hard to donate these amounts (though note that Earning to Give is more flexible, which is a significant advantage).
What’s the potential to build career capital?
Ben: What sort of future opportunities will the job provide?
“If the candidate turns out to be really successful, we are doing projects on a regular basis, and to be honest, if he or she is really good, it could easily become a permanent position, even if we don’t know what the next project is right now. There is also cost for the organization to find new project managers, so we would rather have a permanent one. What this person will learn and take with him or her is basic project management skills and, to be more specific, really being able to utilize a network organization which is really in demand because more and more organizations are going virtual, contracting out and are increasingly international. Then, of course, this person will build his own network. They will interact with researchers, media people and also the decision-makers that we are trying to influence.”
Who would suit this role?
Ben: What sort of person is CCC looking for?
“We need someone who can move things forward. It’s a person who is not afraid of taking on responsibility and a person who takes initiative. In general, I think the very most important thing is actually that the person follows through, delivers what they promise to deliver. We need someone who helps us achieving the goals that we already set and that believes in what we are trying to accomplish. We’re kind of impatient. We don’t want to spend time explaining basic things. This is one of the personality traits we assess: that you’re really interested in and passionate about what we’re doing. You can be passionate about policy, or passionate about numbers, or passionate about economics, or politics. ”
Ben: What kinds of concrete achievements would be good evidence of being a strong candidate. For instance, would you prefer someone who had founded their own small non-profit or had a very strong academic record?
“Definitely either of these would demonstrate it. If I were choosing between the two, then I would go for the one with the excellent academic record. If you set up your own NGO, then you’re probably too independent to be team player. Or to be honest then your time is probably more valuable. We need someone who helps us achieving the goals that we already set.”
“If you’ve been a youth politician that can be great; we’ve had a very good experience with those.”
Ben: What are the qualifications an applicant will need?
“You need close to native English skills, both written and spoken. There will be a lot of writing up reports and collaborating with our network of economists who are 80 or 85% US based. One vital part of all of our projects are about communications with economists and journalists. You need writing skills, you probably also will help design / layout the reports and websites you work on, and you need to be able to communicate clearly in English. Then also computer literacy. We do want them to be a bit quantitative or to have an economics degree. It’s not a requirement, but you can’t be afraid of numbers and models. Some people are very qualitative in their thinking, and they won’t be successful working with academics in economics. We look for personality fit with the team and really being self-motivated. Since we’re a network organization, you need to be able to work on your own.”
How can I apply?
Ben: What is the application process like?
“My colleague reads through the CV and the personal letter to get a sense of who has the qualifications, then she sets up a 15-minute call with all who have the right qualifications, where she asks standardized questions to assess their level of English but also to get a sense of their motivation. Half of the candidates are usually sorted out because they don’t have the qualifications, then we do a really simple personality test an online thing that only takes ten minutes which is a very good talking point when we then meet the candidate. Then we also have them do a very simple computer skills test, which is also online. If you fail that test, then you have an issue with computer skills, and to be honest, some candidates do. The candidates that are interesting then submit a writing sample to check three things: if they get back to us in time, if their language is advanced or professional enough, and some qualitative assessment of what they chose to send us. The last thing is the personal interview where we try to see if they like us and we like them. That’s obviously very qualitative, so it’s really hard.”
For more details and application instructions, see here.
Send your application to Zsuzsa Horvath on [email protected]
Please also drop us an email at [email protected] to let us know that you’ve applied.
You may also be interested in: