Enjoyed the episode? Want to listen later? Subscribe by searching for “80k After Hours” wherever you get podcasts, or click one of the buttons below:

You might say there’s nothing you can do now [to help wild animals]… Something like that might be true, but one of the things we can do is figure out what we should be trying to attempt.

So if you try to understand the welfare of these animals, just gather basic facts about what their lives are like, this could help you understand how you should do this.

Marcus Davis

In this episode of 80k After Hours, Rob Wiblin interviews Marcus Davis about Rethink Priorities.

Marcus is co-CEO there, in charge of their animal welfare and global health and development research.

They cover:

  • Interventions to help wild animals
  • Aquatic noise
  • Rethink Priorities strategy
  • Mistakes that RP has made since it was founded
  • Careers in global priorities research
  • And the most surprising thing Marcus has learned at RP

Who this episode is for:

  • People who want to learn about Rethink Priorities
  • People interested in a career in global priorities research
  • People open to novel ways to help wild animals

Who this episode isn’t for:

  • People who think global priorities research sounds boring
  • People who want to host very loud concerts under the sea

Get this episode by subscribing to our more experimental podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type ’80k After Hours’ into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Milo McGuire and Ben Cordell
Transcriptions: Katy Moore

Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue, original 1924 version” by Jason Weinberger is licensed under creative commons

Highlights

Rethink Priorities

Marcus Davis: There are multiple types of research we do. When thinking about what type of research people take on, I find it useful to use a kind of model where there’s three different types of things.

So it could be foundational-driven research: these are types of things where someone has the general sense that this is an important issue. A lot of scientific work goes this way, but it doesn’t necessarily have a particular theory of change or a particular end goal in mind. No one directly commissioned it; they just think this is a good idea. I also would add, not just does scientific work often play out this way, but I think pre our hiring in 2018, Rethink Priorities kind of existed on this matter — where Peter and I thought, “Hey, this is an important topic. We should probably do something on it.” Of course we had other goals too, like figuring out if we were a good fit for doing this type of work. But I think this is one bucket. And this bucket, I would say Rethink Priorities primarily does not do currently.

What we do instead is primarily think tank work or consultancy work. With consultancy stuff, as you mentioned, someone directly commissions this work. They say, “Hey, we have this question, we have this specific problem; can you address it?” And we try to do our best to assess it in the manner they see fit and get them to the best solution.

Then I think the third category here is think tank stuff — where we might have a very explicit theory of change, but no one directly commissioned the project. So our work on interspecies comparisons and moral weight began this way, where we thought, “This is really important. A lot of players in this space would also think this is important.” No one said exactly, “I’m going to immediately update on this,” or “Here’s the money to do the project.” But after talking to important people or talking to key stakeholders, we come to think that this is a good way to influence people’s behaviour.

Interventions to help wild animals

Marcus Davis: I think in the short run, anything we do — with a few exceptions I might get into here — is going to have some massive uncertainties. So I’m not going to suggest right now that I have a great idea, that we should definitely do this thing, it’s going to have a positive welfare impact — particularly given the things I just said about not knowing much about the welfare of most species.

That said, I think there’s a couple domains where you might have a more robust chance if you want to have a positive impact. Now, there’s not just the direct impact of actually doing the intervention, there’s also the theoretical impacts of finding out what might work in practice, this might lead people to understand that this is a serious thing worth trying. Those types of impacts as well might matter.

But just thinking narrowly, in the short-term aspect, is this net positive for welfare, some things that might work are things where humans in particular are already culling animals.

So one project we have done this year, led by Holly Elmore, is looking at rodenticides. Just practically speaking, many rodents are killed using poisons that make them internally bleed to death, which seems very bad. It takes many hours and in some circumstances, sometimes maybe days. So basically, if you’re going to try to control the population, you could use birth control. You could use something that doesn’t do that, something possibly that isn’t as painful or last that long, or something like that — where you’re not actually “intervening” in the sense of you don’t need to convince the population that you need to fundamentally change the way you think about things, but you just need to convince them that on the margin these type of things might matter.

And then that type of welfare impact might be significantly large if you’re thinking about going from a position where many, many animals — possibly millions — are poisoned to death, versus having some birth control which might just have no hedonic effect at all. So that’s one type of intervention.

Another type of thing you might consider is something where there’s disease that’s rampant in the population, and it’s something we already understand and know how to control. In this case, Kim Cuddington was working on a project for us, looking at rabies vaccinations for dogs. So if you’re unaware, there are a lot of stray dogs in India, and I think that they already have a robust human rabies vaccine campaign. But one of the problems is dogs have rabies, they bite humans. So there’s some type of intersection here between the welfare of humans and the welfare of wild animals where you can do an intervention. Rabies deaths I also don’t think are very pleasant; they last several months and can be really painful. But you could, say, prevent rabies, which would help humans as well. So that type of intervention might work here.

Again, for basically any intervention outside of changing the type of death that’s happening, I’m not confident in the robust positive effects, particularly if you’re thinking about long-term effects. But these types of things are worth thinking about, or trying to figure out how you can do them and how you implement them at scale in reality as opposed to just theoretically sitting back and assessing, “This might have this impact, this might have that impact.” So I think those types of things are worth considering.

And then there’s the bigger-picture thing. You might say there’s nothing you can do now. And the bigger answer I’d say in response to that is something like that might be true, but one of the things we can do is figure out what we should be trying to attempt. So if you try to understand the welfare of these animals, just gather basic facts about what their lives are like, this could help you understand how you should do this.

Also implementing things like monitoring systems. One thing we did last year, Hannah McKay, an intern who’s now actually a RA of ours, was looking at how you might use monitoring of wild animal vocalisations to understand their welfare. So this type of thing where you’re not actually necessarily intervening right now, but it might set you up for some time down the line to understand the welfare impacts of different actions.

Aquatic noise

Marcus Davis: So aquatic noise is generated in a number of ways, and I think this report was assessing whether you could reduce this aquatic noise, which could be harmful to animals — could be everything from distressing to debilitating, depending on how loud it is. I think some of the sounds are in the 100+ decibels range, so we’re talking getting closer to aeroplane takeoffs, right? If you’re at close distance to that type of sound, like this could be…

Sometimes it’s boats, but the particular instance I think that report was addressing was looking for oil. Where there might be oil off the coast of this country, we want to find out. And the way you find out is you drill down into the seabed using very large tools that make a lot of noise. And this could be distressing. One of the biggest problems with assessing whether this is actually good to do is that we just don’t know. Again, we don’t know very much about the welfare impact of this type of thing on animals. We also don’t know very much about how far away animals can detect it from, because we don’t know enough about their basic capacities.

So this type of thing could be potentially worth pursuing, but it’s also massively uncertain. A lot of these things are. In this particular instance, much like some of the other interventions, it also is the case that you don’t actually just have to argue this purely on welfare grounds. There might be good climate change regions to care about this, or it might just be the case that this isn’t necessary. I think the case study that Saulius Šimčikas was looking at was understanding a historic case where the US was considering this and they already had some type of exploration like this planned, so this might just be duplicative in the first place.

Rob Wiblin: Right. Isn’t it super fascinating that because this is so far off of our radar, we could in principle be doing something that’s incredibly noisy under the sea and deafening animals en masse, and we wouldn’t even really ask the question or potentially notice it, because we’re not measuring whether fish or dolphins or whales or smaller animals are becoming deaf because of our behaviour. How would we ever tell?

Marcus Davis: Yeah, this is bad. But one of the things with this particular issue, of course, this is something that the non-EA community has thought about. Just generally speaking.

Rob Wiblin: Oh, it has. OK.

Marcus Davis: Environmentalists have cared about this for a while.

Rob Wiblin: Oh, I see.

Marcus Davis: And this is something where we’re trying to approach this from a welfare perspective, and looking at what could be causing possible harms that we could possibly prevent, and come to something that some people do already care about that could be useful.

Most surprising thing Marcus has learned at Rethink

Marcus Davis: Undoubtedly, the most surprising thing I’ve learned at Rethink was the number of wild-caught shrimp. It was just so mind blowing that when Daniele originally computed them, she said, “The numbers are really large, and I didn’t believe them. So I computed them again.” And then I saw the number, and I was like, “I also don’t believe this.” So yeah, so I ran it again. This is one of those things where your expectations were just like, it has to be smaller than this. It wasn’t. And this gets to the big-picture question about, it’s just a huge number of animals relative to the number of humans alive right now.

Articles, books, and other media discussed in the show

Rethink Priorities’ Leadership Statement on the FTX situation

RP’s recent work on animal welfare:

RP’s recent work on global health and development:

Other 80,000 Hours podcast episodes:

Transcript

Keiran’s intro [00:00:00]

Keiran Harris: Welcome to 80k After Hours. I’m Keiran Harris — producer of the show, and co-writer of the Happy Birthday song.

In today’s episode, Rob Wiblin interviews Marcus Davis about Rethink Priorities.

Marcus is co-CEO there, in charge of their animal welfare and global health and development research.

They cover:

  • Interventions to help wild animals
  • Aquatic noise
  • Rethink Priorities strategy
  • Mistakes that RP has made since it was founded
  • Careers in global priorities research
  • And the most surprising thing Marcus has learned at RP

And if you’re interested in hearing Rob’s thoughts on the FTX bankruptcy, head on over to our original podcast feed where he’s spoken briefly about his feelings about the whole thing.

OK, here’s Rob and Marcus.

The interview begins [00:00:48]

Rob Wiblin: Today I’m speaking with Marcus Davis. Marcus studied at Columbia College Chicago, and since 2015, has been involved in a wide range of projects related to effective altruism, community building, and research, including the Local Effective Altruism Network, Effective Altruism Chicago, and then at Charity Science as a project director and research analyst.

In 2018, he cofounded Rethink Priorities, which does global priorities research, often in a fairly empirical way. Their reports cover a wide range of topics that they think are both neglected and important, including animal warfare, artificial intelligence, climate change, and global health and development, among several others.

Today, Marcus is co-CEO of Rethink Priorities, in charge of their animal welfare and global health and development research. Thanks so much for coming on the show, Marcus.

Marcus Davis: Thanks for having me, Rob. Happy to be here.

Rob Wiblin: Today I hope we’ll get to chat more about how Rethink Priorities is growing at a pretty phenomenal pace and how its work is changing over time. But first, as usual, what are you working on at the moment, and why do you think it’s important?

Marcus Davis: I’m managing managers, so I’m often not directly involved in any of our research projects, but some of the work we’re currently doing now includes finishing up publishing on estimating the number of farmed and wild-caught shrimp — that’s led by Daniela Waldhorn. We’re finishing up publishing a number of global health and development research projects we’ve done on behalf of Open Philanthropy — among those, perhaps one we’ll talk about today is the effectiveness of prizes for innovation, that’s led by Jenny Kudymowa and Bruce Tsai.

Rob Wiblin: As we’ll get to later, Rethink Priorities has been hiring pretty quickly. I suppose now you’ve added a level of management, where you are managing people who then manage individual researchers. How’s that transition been?

Marcus Davis: Surprisingly good. Before starting Rethink Priorities, I had an n of 1. I helped start Charity Entrepreneurship, but there I was very much involved in the projects, doing a lot of the research myself. And then I got more management there and then moved to Rethink Priorities.

Managing people, I don’t want to say it came naturally to me, because it did not, but it was a smooth transition. And the transition between having one layer of management to having two layers of management I think is actually the biggest leap, where you need to have a good process in place — for operational things and for reporting chains, making sure everyone knows this is the way we want to do things here, and that those things manifest throughout the organisation.

Rethink Priorities [00:03:01]

Rob Wiblin: In a second we’ll talk about some of the specific kinds of research that RP does. But what sorts of topics and questions do you most clearly consider as part of RP’s remit, or area of specialisation that you’re in?

Marcus Davis: Rethink Priorities tries to tackle three big questions: Who matters morally? — this might be humans or animals, people in the present or future — How can we best help them counterfactually? and How can we get better at helping them? Our research is used to inform policymakers, philanthropic foundations, and other organisations to improve their decisions — generally to make the world a better place. So that’s a pretty broad remit and naturally a lot of things fall under that umbrella.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, that makes sense. So at the moment, are you mostly deciding what to research based on what people are asking you to do research on? Because I guess you’re doing more consulting-style work now?

Marcus Davis: I think there are multiple types of research we do. When thinking about what type of research people take on, I find it useful to use a kind of model where there’s three different types of things.

So it could be foundational-driven research: these are types of things where someone has the general sense that this is an important issue. A lot of scientific work goes this way, but it doesn’t necessarily have a particular theory of change or a particular end goal in mind. No one directly commissioned it; they just think this is a good idea. I also would add, not just does scientific work often play out this way, but I think pre our hiring in 2018, Rethink Priorities kind of existed on this matter — where Peter and I thought, “Hey, this is an important topic. We should probably do something on it.” Of course we had other goals too, like figuring out if we were a good fit for doing this type of work. But I think this is one bucket. And this bucket, I would say Rethink Priorities primarily does not do currently.

What we do instead is primarily think tank work or consultancy work. With consultancy stuff, as you mentioned, someone directly commissions this work. They say, “Hey, we have this question, we have this specific problem; can you address it?” And we try to do our best to assess it in the manner they see fit and get them to the best solution.

Then I think the third category here is think tank stuff — where we might have a very explicit theory of change, but no one directly commissioned the project. So our work on interspecies comparisons and moral weight began this way, where we thought, “This is really important. A lot of players in this space would also think this is important.” No one said exactly, “I’m going to immediately update on this,” or “Here’s the money to do the project.” But after talking to important people or talking to key stakeholders, we come to think that this is a good way to influence people’s behaviour.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So you cofounded RP with Peter Wildeford, and I guess you’ve split into two, where I think Peter’s in charge of some research topics and you’re in charge of others. Can you lay that out?

Marcus Davis: Yes. Peter is in charge of our longtermism work and our survey stuff, and I oversee our global health and development and animal welfare work.

So survey stuff actually cuts across a number of domains. So it might be the EA Survey itself, which we run. But also some group interacts with us: “Hey, we want to run this survey, this would be useful.” And also some of the more foundational questions. I think I hinted at it with the think tank stuff, where this might be a really important topic, and survey work might be illuminating here. And we do that.

The longtermist stuff, I think it’s more explanatory. We have an AI governance team, and we have a general longtermist team — which is taking on a very broad umbrella: basically anything that’s not AI will fall into their remit in the longtermist space.

This split, I should say at the top, is one of convenience. So Peter and I, it’s not like we have strong ideological disagreement about the nature of the work. We have to split the organisation somehow to run this larger organisation. And then secondly, just practically speaking, Peter’s day job before us starting this was machine learning. So I think it made a lot of sense for him to work on longtermism.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It’s interesting that it’s a little bit similar to how Open Phil has ended up splitting itself, where you’ve got someone leading the global health and wellbeing crew, I guess Alex Berger, and then you’ve got the everything else (including longtermism) side of it, which is led by Holden. And you’ve got quite a similar division. I guess actually over there they have someone else running the animal stuff.

Marcus Davis: Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s right. I think some of this is also that we work a lot with Open Philanthropy. It’s also more convenient if I’m managing one, two relationships — it’s much harder if we’re constantly having to communicate back and forth about “Hey, have you talked to so-and-so about this?” But even more practically internally, it’s just way easier, because the nature of the projects overlap better, and then the nature of the types of researchers you want to hire or the way you want to approach your problems is just going to be different.

Rob Wiblin: OK, I think it would be helpful to lay out some of the range of different questions that RP has looked into over the years. Because I think it’s one of the things that most struck me, and probably would strike other people landing on the website: just the incredible breadth of topics that you are all willing to bite off. I think it’s fair to say it’s quite an eclectic range of questions. I suppose if someone didn’t understand anything about effective altruism, they might find it quite baffling to understand what’s the common thread that connects all of these different issues. What are some research projects that you’ve been involved in since it was founded in 2018?

Marcus Davis: Again, hedging that I haven’t done direct research probably since 2018 really. But I’ve been involved in working on invertebrate sentience, trying to figure out which features invertebrates have that might be likely to influence the probability that they’re sentient. I’ve been involved in interspecies moral weight, which I just mentioned, which is trying to assess for different species how likely they are to have different capacities that would be relevant to assessing how intense their experiences are, how many subjective experiences they have moment to moment, and whether they have a unity of consciousness. So assessing those types of things. I’ve also been involved in work on wild animal welfare, I oversee Will McAuliffe, our manager on that.

But on global health and development, I mentioned some work on prizes we’re thinking about, but other projects we’ve done on global lead burden, work on scientific capacity in sub-Saharan Africa, work on better weather forecasting.

And this is not even including the longtermism stuff, where we’ve done everything from forecasting — we’re trying to assess how you can do forecasting things, or trying to assess what the probability of nuclear war is with Russia and the US or with other countries, and how we should shape our actions based on this.

So I guess that’s a pretty wide range of things. But as you said, I think that the key factor here is we’re trying to maximise our return, where we’re doing things we think are really counterfactually valuable, and not just counterfactually valuable, but in itself high impact.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. On your homepage you say the key thing that you’re looking for with questions is that they be really important, really consequential, and that also that they’d be super neglected. And I think that really cuts across all of these different questions. Especially the neglectedness thing: many of the topics you’re biting off are kind of shockingly neglected relative to their seeming importance, at least from an impartial wellbeing perspective.

Marcus Davis: I think that’s one of the bigger things. Peter and I used to have a bit of a joke explanation for why we were taking on things: “someone really should have done this already.” So it’s like, there are a lot of people spending money in this space. In global health and development, it might be hundreds of millions of dollars, and in animal welfare it’s not quite that much. In longtermism, it’s definitely grown in the last few years to be hundreds of millions of dollars. And with that type of spending going on, it becomes really important to answer some of these questions.

Perhaps one of the ones that really jumps out there again is: which species are actually sentient? Or how many animals are there? — this is even a more fundamental question on farmed animals in particular. So you think about, before we started Rethink Priorities, the biggest estimates people usually had was chickens. If you’re unfamiliar, 70 billion farmed chickens are slaughtered per year. So that’s a huge number obviously, but pretty reasonable guesses.

We’re thinking, well, how many farmed fish are there? How many farmed shrimp? And it turns out Daniela looked into shrimp as I mentioned earlier, and there’s something like — if you’re listening to this, you should probably sit down — something like 10 to 60 trillion wild-caught shrimp slaughtered every year, and 320 billion farmed shrimp every year. So again, for the wild-caught numbers, that’s a ludicrous number. It’s hard to comprehend that. It’s like 1,200 wild-caught shrimps slaughtered per year per person on Earth.

And this type of question, before the last few years, no one —

Rob Wiblin: Had even tried to figure out what the number might be.

Marcus Davis: Yes. Obviously the probabilities of different species that might be sentient might be different — they might have different capacities, as I talked about. But just fundamentally, just before you try to assess a problem, you have to know how big it is. And in the animal welfare space in particular, no one’s really thought about this yet, because animal welfare as a more developed discipline is probably only — being generous — 20 years old or something like that. Whereas global health and development is decades old.

I know that similar problems arise with the longtermist space, where just no one’s really been thinking about this in the past. So everyone’s trying to start from scratch. “How do you do this?”

Rob Wiblin: Totally. Especially with the wild animal numbers and consciousness and welfare stuff, since this kind of got onto the radar a little bit 10 or so years ago — at least that’s when I first started hearing about it regularly — people would say there’s nothing really that can be done. There was a sense that the issue was really untractable and it was very unclear what the next steps would be. But I suppose a very natural first thing to do is just collect the extremely basic information: let’s count the number of animals, and let’s collect some basic facts about their physiology.

It’s going to be very hard to build a credible field and seem like serious people who are studying a real issue if even just the very basic facts that one would bring to the table to describe the issue are not established. And if wild animal wellbeing goes on to become a serious thing, which I kind of expect that it probably will, then these numbers are going to be referred to a tonne. And the fact that these numbers exist is going to be adding substantial credibility to whenever people introduce the topic.

Marcus Davis: Yeah, I think that’s right. I also would say I was referencing animals that are affected directly by humans, but of course that’s not most wild animals. With wild animals, that 1,200 number would be more like 99,000 or something like that, with every wild animal on Earth. I think it’s a pretty plausible case that wild animals have most of the welfare at any given moment on Earth.

And yet not only do we not have credible numbers in this case — this adds a lot complexity, trying to estimate the total number of wild animals — but just fundamentally, for mostly every species, we know basically nothing about their day-to-day lives, nothing about their capacities, basically no evidence on how much time of the day do they spend hungry or thirsty or cold or looking for shelter? We just don’t know any of those things. So it’s very difficult to assess how, if you wanted to, you should improve their welfare if you just don’t know anything about them. And that’s kind of the world we face right now, and one of the reasons why assessing wild animal welfare is on our agenda.

Interventions to help wild animals [00:14:32]

Rob Wiblin: So on the animal stuff, in prepping for this interview, I heard you talk a bit about RP’s work on trying to figure out which animals are plausibly sentient, or at least build a database of different animals and the characteristics they have, which people might think are plausibly relevant to their standing as potential moral patients.

So let’s talk instead about a different topic, which I haven’t heard you talk about, which is the interventions that people might plausibly consider trying to help animals that are outside of the traditional farming system that’s been considered. This is always the thing that people run up against when you talk about wild animals — or animals that are being hunted or caught in the wild, like shrimp in the sea or rivers — is that people just say there’s nothing that can be done, so this has to be a nonissue. What kinds of things have you found that might plausibly be done?

Marcus Davis: This is a great question. I think in the short run, anything we do — with a few exceptions I might get into here — is going to have some massive uncertainties. So I’m not going to suggest right now that I have a great idea, that we should definitely do this thing, it’s going to have a positive welfare impact — particularly given the things I just said about not knowing much about the welfare of most species.

That said, I think there’s a couple domains where you might have a more robust chance if you want to have a positive impact. Now, there’s not just the direct impact of actually doing the intervention, there’s also the theoretical impacts of finding out what might work in practice, this might lead people to understand that this is a serious thing worth trying. Those types of impacts as well might matter.

But just thinking narrowly, in the short-term aspect, is this net positive for welfare, some things that might work are things where humans in particular are already culling animals.

So one project we have done this year, led by Holly Elmore, is looking at rodenticides. Just practically speaking, many rodents are killed using poisons that make them internally bleed to death, which seems very bad. It takes many hours and in some circumstances, sometimes maybe days. So basically, if you’re going to try to control the population, you could use birth control. You could use something that doesn’t do that, something possibly that isn’t as painful or last that long, or something like that — where you’re not actually “intervening” in the sense of you don’t need to convince the population that you need to fundamentally change the way you think about things, but you just need to convince them that on the margin these type of things might matter.

And then that type of welfare impact might be significantly large if you’re thinking about going from a position where many, many animals — possibly millions — are poisoned to death, versus having some birth control which might just have no hedonic effect at all. So that’s one type of intervention.

Another type of thing you might consider is something where there’s disease that’s rampant in the population, and it’s something we already understand and know how to control. In this case, Kim Cuddington was working on a project for us, looking at rabies vaccinations for dogs. So if you’re unaware, there are a lot of stray dogs in India, and I think that they already have a robust human rabies vaccine campaign. But one of the problems is dogs have rabies, they bite humans. So there’s some type of intersection here between the welfare of humans and the welfare of wild animals where you can do an intervention. Rabies deaths I also don’t think are very pleasant; they last several months and can be really painful. But you could, say, prevent rabies, which would help humans as well. So that type of intervention might work here.

Again, for basically any intervention outside of changing the type of death that’s happening, I’m not confident in the robust positive effects, particularly if you’re thinking about long-term effects. But these types of things are worth thinking about, or trying to figure out how you can do them and how you implement them at scale in reality as opposed to just theoretically sitting back and assessing, “This might have this impact, this might have that impact.” So I think those types of things are worth considering.

And then there’s the bigger-picture thing. You might say there’s nothing you can do now. And the bigger answer I’d say in response to that is something like that might be true, but one of the things we can do is figure out what we should be trying to attempt. So if you try to understand the welfare of these animals, just gather basic facts about what their lives are like, this could help you understand how you should do this.

Also implementing things like monitoring systems. One thing we did last year, Hannah McKay, an intern who’s now actually a RA of ours, was looking at how you might use monitoring of wild animal vocalisations to understand their welfare. So this type of thing where you’re not actually necessarily intervening right now, but it might set you up for some time down the line to understand the welfare impacts of different actions.

Rob Wiblin: Interesting. So the idea would be that you would set up microphones in some habitat, and then I guess you can teach it to recognise calls of distress versus calls of pleasure or neutral calls. And then you can kind of just run a survey using the microphone of how the different animals feel, and maybe how their wellbeing is changing over the year or changing in different conditions. Is that the basic idea?

Marcus Davis: Yes, that’s the basic idea. Of course, in reality it’d be very complicated. It’d be like machine learning, but the basic idea, yes, that’s the premise.

Rob Wiblin: That’s fascinating. Have you had any reaction to that proposal?

Marcus Davis: I don’t think we were the originators of this proposal, but as far as I know there’s not exactly a tremendous amount of, “We’re going to actually implement this.” But I do think this is one of those things where you can develop the basic idea, then you can refine it. And obviously thinking about it at an abstract level of “You could do this” is very different from, “Now we’re actually going to do this for this particular species in this particular domain” — particularly given, again, even for something like this, you need to know what the calls of distress are. So there has to already have been some basic science on the species in question. And if there’s not, you have to do that first, and then a couple years later you can do this type of monitoring.

Aquatic noise [00:20:13]

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Another report I saw on your website was about aquatic noise. Can you talk about that? I hadn’t heard of this issue before.

Marcus Davis: So aquatic noise is generated in a number of ways, and I think this report was assessing whether you could reduce this aquatic noise, which could be harmful to animals — could be everything from distressing to debilitating, depending on how loud it is. I think some of the sounds are in the 100+ decibels range, so we’re talking getting closer to aeroplane takeoffs, right? If you’re at close distance to that type of sound, like this could be…

Rob Wiblin: Is this boats or what?

Marcus Davis: Sometimes it’s boats, but the particular instance I think that report was addressing was looking for oil.

Rob Wiblin: Oh, oil exploration.

Marcus Davis: Yes, oil exploration. Where there might be oil off the coast of this country, we want to find out. And the way you find out is you drill down into the seabed using very large tools that make a lot of noise. And this could be distressing. One of the biggest problems with assessing whether this is actually good to do is that we just don’t know. Again, we don’t know very much about the welfare impact of this type of thing on animals. We also don’t know very much about how far away animals can detect it from, because we don’t know enough about their basic capacities.

So this type of thing could be potentially worth pursuing, but it’s also massively uncertain. A lot of these things are. In this particular instance, much like some of the other interventions, it also is the case that you don’t actually just have to argue this purely on welfare grounds. There might be good climate change regions to care about this, or it might just be the case that this isn’t necessary. I think the case study that Saulius Šimčikas was looking at was understanding a historic case where the US was considering this and they already had some type of exploration like this planned, so this might just be duplicative in the first place.

Rob Wiblin: Right. Isn’t it super fascinating that because this is so far off of our radar, we could in principle be doing something that’s incredibly noisy under the sea and deafening animals en masse, and we wouldn’t even really ask the question or potentially notice it, because we’re not measuring whether fish or dolphins or whales or smaller animals are becoming deaf because of our behaviour. How would we ever tell?

Marcus Davis: Yeah, this is bad. But one of the things with this particular issue, of course, this is something that the non-EA community has thought about. Just generally speaking.

Rob Wiblin: Oh, it has. OK.

Marcus Davis: Environmentalists have cared about this for a while.

Rob Wiblin: Oh, I see.

Marcus Davis: And this is something where we’re trying to approach this from a welfare perspective, and looking at what could be causing possible harms that we could possibly prevent, and come to something that some people do already care about that could be useful.

Rob Wiblin: I see. So a whole bunch of research can potentially be repurposed that’s been used for environmentalist or conservationist work. I suppose potentially they’ve been doing work on calls from animals as well in order to tell how many there are and how well they’re doing. And then this can all be applied potentially to wellbeing interventions as well.

Marcus Davis: I hesitate to say “all” applied, but some of it definitely.

Poisons that kill rodents [00:23:20]

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Might be. OK, let’s back up and talk about the poisons that kill rodents. What did that report uncover? Are there any alternatives? Are there any suggestions that could be made to people who are killing rodents at the moment?

Marcus Davis: Yeah, so there are a number of possible changes you could make here. So you could change to controlling what humans have often considered “pest” populations by just reducing births, which would greatly reduce the need for control means. You can do this by resource reduction — this might be containing food waste. You could do it by habitat reduction — so filling in abandoned barrels, filling in cracks that give access to interior spaces. Or you could use effective birth control agents — such as a birth control agent approved by the FDA called Contrapest, which is designed in a similar fashion to human birth control. In this particular case, because of course they’re not humans, you supply bait and they eat the bait and then that has birth control impacts.

Rob Wiblin: Wow, okay. You kind of give them the pill or you provide food that has the pill in it, more or less.

Marcus Davis: Yes.

Rob Wiblin: Do you recall whether the birth control method was at all cost competitive with these extremely painful poisons?

Marcus Davis: Presently there’s not a cost-competitive birth control that is similar to the poisons, and this is one of the reasons why people use poisons. Nonetheless, I do think several localities have already banned some rodenticides that work through anticoagulation, because they’re particularly painful and they have off-target impacts.

Rob Wiblin: I see. So it’s interesting to write a report about this and that product. Where were you hoping that it might end up, and how are you hoping that it might have influence?

Marcus Davis: I think this is an area where if you talk to localities or certain governments, I think they might be particularly sympathetic on grounds that this is harmful to the animals relative to something else. They might be, “It’s more expensive,” but it might just be slightly more expensive than some other effort they could do. Particularly if the only change you’re asking is, instead of using purely some of these methods that might be particularly harmful, you take some effort to do things like fill in the cracks in your buildings or restrict access to food. Or there’s another thing, which is, I think, carbon monoxide used in burrows rather than anticoagulants — because once you know where the burrow is, you don’t actually have to use the most painful possible method. You could just use something else.

Rob Wiblin: Absolutely. Do you know if anyone has made use of this report, or has it been cited by anyone who’s thinking about these issues in practice?

Marcus Davis: This is very recent, so “cited” might be too strong. However, I do believe Holly Elmore gave an interview to Boston’s NPR about this topic, and I think they were thinking about these type of things. I don’t know if this is necessarily going to lead to policy change imminently, but I do think that this is an area where there might be at least somewhat sympathetic public support. This is also something we’re investigating: what the public thinks about this type of issue.

Rob Wiblin: I mean, I know nothing about pest control as a policy issue or practical matter. I’m guessing though, I might speculate that the conversation in the past, before you had alternatives like this, might go, “This is an extremely cruel method of killing mice and rats.” And then the farmer will respond and say, “Well, there’s no alternative realistically.” And so it just kind of gets shut down because people will accept it — “I guess it’s evil but necessary.” But if you can point to reports saying there is this other method, it is totally scalable, it’s far better on welfare grounds, then potentially it makes it a lot easier to ban these extremely cruel pest control methods. Because you can just say, “Well, it’s a bit more expensive to do this other thing, but it’s totally viable.”

Marcus Davis: Yeah, I think that’s right. Of course, I guess the proof is when it happens. I’m by nature, very sceptical about predicting facts on this type of thing. I’m optimistic that some changes like this might be made, particularly if the effort required here might be something where instead of thinking about this as an intervention where you’re paying all the costs yourself, you’re shifting the cost to maybe a local government which is doing the intervention for you, then it could in theory even be at least modestly cost effective.

Rethink Priorities strategy [00:27:33]

Rob Wiblin: Let’s maybe push on from these specific reports, and talk about Rethink Priorities — how it’s set up, its strategy, its potential paths to impact. It feels to me like Rethink Priorities has just been changing a tonne in the last few years, and it seems to have some pretty big plans for the future. So yeah, tell us all about that.

Marcus Davis: We have grown from 10 people as of about two years ago, to I think we have 46 permanent staff right now, and 12 fellows. With a few additional hires we’ve made in the coming months who haven’t started yet.

So we’re fully remote, we coordinate largely on Slack and video calls. And the growth has happened in chunks, particularly earlier this year where we hired a round of 25 people, including fellows. This was a lot of work, but I think it went really well. I feel very good about where we’re currently standing, and I feel that we are in a strong position to continue to put out high-quality research, and across a wider set of topics than ever before.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Wow. Are you the biggest research org in the effective altruism community these days? I guess it’s like competitive full-time equivalent staff to Open Phil, or GiveWell? It’s larger than 80,000 Hours, that’s for sure.

Marcus Davis: Yeah, I think we’re somewhere in there. I haven’t checked the numbers recently. I think we’re in the top four for sure. GiveWell has maybe a few more people than we do. And then Open Phil not just has more people than we do, but they’re also expanding. So I think they’re going to stay ahead for a while.

Rob Wiblin: Right, OK. How challenging has it been to hire lots of people? What does the process for finding people look like?

Marcus Davis: As you might be aware, the EA space is very competitive in the hiring domain. We don’t do anything novel about recruiting. Actually, one of our best sources for possible hires is the 80,000 Hours job board. We ask people, “Where did you find out about this job?” and oftentimes that’s the case.

Rob Wiblin: That’s fantastic.

Marcus Davis: But yeah, we do that. We promote the jobs on our Twitter, our social media, things like that. But we also do a lot of one-on-one outreach. So we try to develop a list of, “This person might be interested in this job, it might be a good fit.” And we do direct referrals. We’d say, “Hey, if you’re interested, you should apply.” Directly send emails to them. I think in this past round, we probably sent hundreds of such emails, or direct contact through LinkedIn and other channels like this. And we find that pretty effective at finding people.

Rob Wiblin: Are you hiring specialists who might know something about a particular topic to then go and work on that topic? Someone who knows something about pest control, perhaps to do a whole lot of work on the animal welfare implications? Or are you hiring almost entirely generalists?

Marcus Davis: I think this is different across areas, but maybe I’m just hedging on that. We typically don’t hire to the specificity of a typical report. We might use contractors for that. Actually, a really big project we’ve worked on over the past year, which maybe we should get to, is moral weight work that followed up our prior moral weight work. We’ve used 18 different people across a number of disciplines — so veterinary science, ecology, entomology, neuropathology — and for those areas, obviously we’re looking for pretty specialised people to do the work.

But at a more general level, when we’re hiring researchers, typically we’d be hiring them more into a particular cause. Though it might be the case that we’re looking more for, say, someone with some policy background, or we’re looking more for someone with particular quantitative skills for a particular role. But just generally speaking, we don’t have a lot of generalist researchers at RP. People are fit within cause areas.

Rob Wiblin: I see. I guess you’re hiring something like two people a month at the moment, on average. Has it been hard to find enough people who you feel really confident enough in that you do want to hire them?

Marcus Davis: Surprisingly, no. I think some of this is that, as I said, the space is competitive. One of the positive things is, unlike a couple years ago when we first started, I think we pay reasonably well now. I think this is something true for lots of EA spaces. It’s not something, of course, that we’ve done long. The space has grown a tonne, and I think there’s better support for doing this type of thing.

But I think the push to reach out to particular people we think are a good fit, and then also publish on relevant job boards, along with being on your job board itself, that type of stuff helps a tonne here. And then of course the filtering process through the hiring. We’ve put a lot of effort and time and thought into it to make sure that we try to find people who don’t just have the requisite skills, in the sense of they have the hard skills, but also have the required open-mindedness and scepticism.

Rob Wiblin: Has it been a big benefit, potentially, that being a fully remote team you can hire people who are interested in doing this kind of work anywhere in the world? And maybe people might be really interested in working for you because there are some other research organisations that only do local hiring, and people would have to come into the office. There are so many folks who realistically just can’t pick up and move country, or move city, in order to take one of those jobs.

Marcus Davis: Yeah, I think this is a huge pro. So the cities with the most RP staff, depending on how you’re counting, it’s either London or Philadelphia. And I think it’s five or six people. Philadelphia area, I’m a little bit cheating — there are suburbs I’m counting here. But that’s obviously not most of our organisation, so most people are not in those cities. We have a few people in the Bay Area, a few people obviously in London, but the centralisation we don’t have as much.

And on top of this, I would add that we have people working in at least 11 countries, I believe, if you include the fellows now. Maybe I’m a bit undershooting. I imagine not all the people could have moved even if we wanted them to. And obviously a lot of the staff doing this work find remote work itself appealing. Even if we had a local office, they find the idea that they could work from home appealing, and I think it’s just been a huge boon for our ability to scale.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, that’s fantastic. I mean, I can see the benefits both of having a full office culture, and being fully remote. But it’s fantastic that there’s some range of options, so that people who want to work in an office could potentially go to an organisation that does that. And people who want to be fully remote, or just live in Sydney or something like that, could potentially get a job with you guys.

The other big shift has been that you’re doing more consultancy work for specific clients. My impression is that in the past you were largely doing work with the goal of publishing it, and then encouraging people to read it and hoping that it would influence their decisions. But now people are coming to you. Can you talk a bit more about that?

Marcus Davis: Yeah. I think this transition comes from some of that work we did trying to put it in front of the people. It was well received, in that when that happened, I think there was a push from some people who thought, “Hey, they could help us answer this question. We don’t have the capacity, or for whatever reason we don’t have the desire to do it right now. Could you do this?”

And we’ve taken on work in a number of areas that’s like this. So we have some grants from Open Phil, where we’re working on global health and development, pretty direct consultancy work with them. And then some of our animal welfare work with their animal welfare department is very similar, in the sense of, “Hey, they’re interested in X topic, we can help you answer this question.”

Naturally, I guess one of the downsides about this is I’m being kind of vague, not telling you exactly what we did, because a lot of the work ends up being things that maybe has some private details. That said, I can say we’re actually sitting on quite a large backlog of global health and development reports that we are trying to get out throughout the back part of this year. I think we’ve done maybe a dozen or so reports, and maybe three of them have been published. So we’re going to try to get that stuff out there.

So if you step back to that original framework — where we’re trying to answer questions on which groups are morally relevant, how can you help them, and how can you get better at helping them — those latter questions get very narrow sometimes with particular consultancy work. So it might be the case that someone says, “We’re working within this framework, we’re going to spend X millions of dollars. Can you help us identify a particular intervention?” Or “We’re working within this particular framework, we’re thinking about investing more in the topic. We’re not really sure. Can you help us?” In those scenarios, I think the return there is pretty obvious, where someone’s just really directly considering spending millions of dollars on this. And if you don’t take it on, often no one will.

I think there’s a very compelling case to work on these things, even with sometimes the inability to say things publicly. But of course Rethink Priorities isn’t in this necessarily to only get our name out there; it’s actually just trying to generically do the most good we can.

Rob Wiblin: Absolutely. So the situation with some of those reports that were produced for Open Phil is that they’ve gone off to Open Phil, but they need to be rejigged before they go on the website basically. So they need to be reworked for a public audience, and hopefully they’ll go up later in the year.

Marcus Davis: Yeah, yeah. That’s basically the situation. Again, conservatively, a dozen reports or so this year, with several more coming. And that’s just on global health and development. I would also add, even though this isn’t necessarily my department, this is true I think on the other side of the organisation, of longtermism and surveys. Particularly on surveys, where a lot of stuff we do is pretty directly commissioned by other groups, often EA meta orgs looking for help on the messaging, or trying to assess what the public thinks about X, Y, or Z. And we do a lot of that type of work, but it just never sees the light of day.

Examples of RP’s influence [00:37:04]

Rob Wiblin: Totally. I guess you can’t talk about all examples of impact or influence that you’ve had, but what’s an example of Rethink Priorities changing the decision of some other actor that you can talk about?

Marcus Davis: So given that caveat that a lot of our most influential actions aren’t public, I would say a few things come to mind. Over the last year, Neil Dullaghan did some work on assessing a strategy with regard to farmed animal welfare in the EU. So he was basically trying to assess “How should we think about this problem? Are there any particular things we’re under-considering?” And as a result of that, I can’t be specific about which donors for the obvious reasons, but I think this is probably worth about a million or two dollars in expectation in additional giving opportunities.

On global health and development, some of our early work this year also helped identify some promising opportunities for Open Phil to fund things. Again, I want to be a little generic. But I can say, because Jacob Trefethen confirmed it on Twitter, that they have a new global health R&D role, and he explicitly said, “We cited some of Rethink Priorities’ work in consideration for that.” So that’s one particular place where this comes up.

And I think this type of very specific “this grant changed” and “we made this hiring decision” — those things are really important. But also I would step back and say that I think probably our biggest impact on the animal welfare space in particular is the broader shift to considering the newer issues of moral weight or invertebrate welfare — saying these types of things are worth taking seriously. And over the last few years, I think grantmakers in this space have taken these things more seriously. It feels a little funny to say, because I also have a night job on the EA Animal Welfare Fund. But I know those people take it seriously, and I think some other grantmakers do as well.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So many listers will have heard of Charity Entrepreneurship, which is this kind of incubation programme for new charities. I’ve done interviews with at least two people who’ve been through that programme recently, Varsha Venugopal and Andrés Jiménez Zorrilla, working on Suvita and the Shrimp Welfare Project respectively. I think the people in that incubation programme have definitely made use of Rethink Priorities’ research over the years, right? To try to figure out what interventions might be promising, and what organisations they want to start.

Marcus Davis: Yes, definitely. I guess it’s not that surprising, if you’re thinking about starting a bunch of organisations, and a lot of Rethink Priorities’ work has looked at what’s very neglected, and tried to identify some space there. Naturally when someone looks around the EA space and goes, “What needs to be started?” “Hey, we actually know this area that no one’s really working in, might be exciting.” And some people take that up. I think that’s true.

Obviously we’re also happy to talk to people interested in starting things up based on some of our work. We’ve done that before. Of course, I also did that when… it feels like a lifetime ago when I actually was at Charity Entrepreneurship. And we’re talking to people who are interested in starting some of our work. I think that’s generally good practice. And then in addition, I guess I would add to this, that not only has Charity Entrepreneurship done this, I think on the other side of our organisation, we have a special projects division, which is literally just trying to get promising longtermist projects up and rolling and out the door.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So you mentioned a bunch of examples of your research having impact from the kind of commission era of Rethink Priorities, where people are coming to you asking questions, and naturally then it has influence. Are there any interesting examples of you just putting up reports, and then it influencing someone who didn’t necessarily ask you to do the work?

Marcus Davis: Oh yeah. So I guess the global health and development R&D thing I just mentioned falls in that category. That was literally the first report Peter and I did. So this would’ve been not even the think tank model; this would’ve been the pure research. We were just doing the thing that we thought was promising. And this ended up leading to some changes.

Obviously, I also think the invertebrate sentience kind of falls into this. Though this is a good example of how it wasn’t like immediately someone changed their grantmaking, but down the line it’s pretty clear that changed. This also gets to internal assessment problems, when I start to think about impact at the organisation. So something like that led to our abilities to do the followup work on moral weight, which led to the large one-year grant followup we got to do the moral weight project we’re doing now, which is much more in depth in assessing the philosophical and scientific literature for more than 90 capacities for a range of species. And I think that path down there was started from our ability to do some work that people thought was high quality on a topic that no one necessarily requested.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So since it started in 2018, Rethink Priorities has published something like 90 research reports. Are there any that you are particularly proud of, or think are particularly cool that might be worth mentioning?

Marcus Davis: This is tough. I’d say the biggest problem here is I haven’t been cool in a long time, if I ever was. So my judgement here might not be great.

Rob Wiblin: It’s cool to me.

Marcus Davis: But yeah, I’d say I’m typically quite proud of the things I think really led to a lot of change, a lot of impact in the world. So there’s some particularly, I think, novel research maybe. I think some of the work thinking about cultured meat, where we’re just trying to use some interesting forecasting techniques. But it’s not necessarily the techniques or things like that, it’s really just like, “Did this really impact the world? Is it moving people closer to the right direction?” In that respect, I actually feel really good about the invertebrate sentience work.

I really feel great about some of our early work, just trying to scope out what are the facts about the different numbers of animals, because no one really knows, even though there are a huge number of groups working in the space. I also feel pretty good about, though we haven’t really started publishing, the very big project I keep alluding to that we’re working on on moral weight. We should start publishing that in the fall. But I feel like this is really going to push people towards a better understanding of how to make these types of decisions.

Rethink Priorities mistakes [00:43:02]

Rob Wiblin: Are there any interesting mistakes that RP has made since it was founded, which you’ve learned from, or other people could learn from?

Marcus Davis: This is always a hard question. I would say one of the things I think we were way too slow to do was to get a professional operations team. So when we were at seven or eight people, we were like, “Oh, maybe we can keep doing this ourselves.” I was still doing the budgets, running the finance stuff. We were getting some help through Rethink Charity, which incubated us. But I was still doing a lot of the basic operational things. And I feel that probably was not wise. We should have had professionals doing that. Not that necessarily, I didn’t make any dramatic legal mistakes here, but I think one of the biggest constraints on growth was just my focus — my ability to think about the research problems, or to focus on only the things that are my comparative advantage.

And we were really lucky, I think, to find our COO Abraham Rowe, who I think is not only excellent at operations, but he’s also mission aligned, and wants to do the most good he can. I think he’s been just tremendously valuable at building our operations team.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. With so many people joining, has it been challenging to provide enough onboarding, and mentorship, and really effective management for everyone who’s starting in this job, and doesn’t completely know what they’re doing yet?

Marcus Davis: Again I’d say I think our operations team is one of the strengths of our organisation, in that we take a very deliberate approach to bringing people on board. Usually the first couple weeks, before getting into any like, “You need to do this direct research project,” they’re set up to make sure they have the basic setup, they get through all the HR stuff, finance, stuff like that. And then this smoothly transitions into the particulars of their role, which we have all the managers of new staff go through the process of figuring out how this is going to be before people come on board.

Again, not at all unique to us, but we try to have a cap on the number of people that any given person is managing, so that it’s not the case that someone just feels overwhelmed, can’t really address the needs of their new staff. And we also try to make time when new staff start, just to have extra meetings with them, to make sure to check in, make sure they’re doing OK. I think those types of things have been really useful. Again, nothing really there novel, but I think in some sense, you don’t reinvent the wheel.

Rob Wiblin: Absolutely, yeah. It sounds like maybe rather than making things more challenging, it’s in some ways gotten easier as the organisation has gotten larger. Because you’ve been able to specialise in the skills that are your greatest strengths, and maybe double down on improving those. And you can potentially pass off other tasks to other people.

Marcus Davis: Yeah, I think that’s definitely true over the last few months. We’ve hired Kieran Greig to lead our strategy work, which up until that point, had largely been driven by Peter, myself, and David Moss (who’s our principal research manager) trying to do this while also taking on our normal managing responsibilities. Having someone full time in that role has helped a tonne.

Similarly, Peter and I have recently hired executive research assistants, and I feel fantastic about this decision. I can’t imagine going back at this point to the world where I didn’t have an assistant. And this has allowed me to focus more of my attention on the things that I think I actually have a comparative advantage on, and less time trying to manage my calendar, or do certain types of responses to emails, like getting through Google Doc comments, or that type of thing.

But generally being able to specialise as we’ve grown has been really helpful. Though there’s of course the counterpoint of trying to make sure we don’t silo too much. Particularly given we have a pretty broad mission. We want to take the techniques or things that are working from different parts of the organisation to make sure everyone learns from each other what works and what hasn’t worked.

Rob Wiblin: With an organisation that has four reasonably different programmes, how often do you bring everyone together? Or is it maybe more like four somewhat different organisations that don’t necessarily need to super coordinate between them?

Marcus Davis: In the day-to-day sense there doesn’t need to be that much coordination. As I mentioned, I want to learn, operationally, what management works, like, “This was really useful in the hiring round, we should use this process.” But on the day to day, I think the animal welfare department and the longtermism department don’t necessarily need to talk to each other that much.

That said, we do have monthly team meetings, we have regular socials, we have manager meetings where people talk to each other, exchange stories. And similarly, I think actually in about a month we’re having a full team retreat. The first in-person full team retreat in a couple years.

Rob Wiblin: Wow. That’s gonna be big.

Marcus Davis: Yeah, it’s going to be a little bigger than the last time we had a full team retreat. But throughout the year we also had individual team retreats. I’ve actually been at a few. I went to the global health and development retreat in Frankfurt about a month ago, and then the animal welfare retreat earlier this year. So I think this type of coordination where everyone gets together, we probably want to do it at least once a year, and then more regularly having just conversations remotely.

Careers [00:48:16]

Rob Wiblin: Let’s talk a bit about careers in global priorities research at Rethink. Because I imagine there could be plenty of people in the audience who are thinking maybe they’d be interested in working at Rethink one day, or another organisation doing similar work. Are there any particular things that you look for in a candidate, in their CV or in interviews, that are an indicator that they would be a good fit for the organisation or the kind of work?

Marcus Davis: So I can answer the CV question pretty easily because I give so little weight to CVs or traditional credentials. This isn’t to say of course there won’t be exceptions — maybe you need to hire a lawyer; you need someone who’s actually admitted to the bar. But to a first approximation I’m not really that concerned with the CV. I think this is both sometimes like, is this the right thing to be selecting on? But then also experience of if we gave more weight to the CV early on, is this actually useful for seeing who actually gets through to later rounds? And I think we’ve found that’s not necessarily true.

As for the broader question on what types of skills or traits we find that’s useful, this is really hard to answer at a general level. I guess not very surprisingly, people who can think very critically about a given topic, that can be really helpful to getting through our hiring process. People who are pretty sceptical of things, just willing to consider the arguments for and against any given position. These types of traits come through of course. And for a lot of our roles, quantitative skills end up being really helpful. It never really hurts to be able to do this type of thing. And also just some broad scientific and statistical literacy ends up being really helpful as well. But these are really high level, so I’m not going to have anything particularly novel. There’s not like a “one cool trick” to get hired by Rethink Priorities.

Rob Wiblin: How do you screen people then, if you’re not using their CVs? Are you doing something like work tests, or maybe reading people’s prior published works online, papers or so on?

Marcus Davis: Yeah, we’d say we’re pretty work test focused. Usually in the application there’s initial prompts you have to respond to. We can look at these prompts and assess how well we think people did on them. And we often have either an interview next, or a skills assessment — they might flip order depending on the particular round — but looking at how people do on those types of things relative to how they do on prior work.

Of course there are exceptions here. Maybe someone’s particularly exceptional. Maybe in the initial prompts, we actually sometimes do have a link to some particular aspect of your work. For example, in our hiring round earlier this year, we were looking for an animal welfare researcher who’s done some particular quantitative things, and we were looking for, “Show some evidence of your statistical ability. You have to link to a paper you’ve actually produced, and we’re going to walk through it later possibly in the interview.” That type of thing ends up being really helpful. But even then, I think it’s not so much the rigour of the particular paper you put out, certainly not the prestige of the particular paper you have put out, but more your ability to actually solve problems.

Rob Wiblin: Do you do interviews with people where you give them puzzles, or see how they think through a difficult problem on their feet, in order to see whether they analyse problems in a way that you like?

Marcus Davis: In some sense, I feel like half of the questions are asking people hard questions, and seeing how they think on their feet. But I’m not sure exactly what you mean. Maybe you mean something closer to some of those creativity puzzles, or maybe more the programming challenge?

Rob Wiblin: No, actually. Not so much. Yeah, the fermi estimate thing is now super overplayed. But I’m more thinking, give people a challenging research question, then say, “How would you begin to approach this question? How would you break it down?” That sort of thing.

Marcus Davis: I mean, without getting too spoiler-y for future interviews, this is something I think is valuable. There are times where one of the best things you could do in an interview is to state a hard problem and say, literally, “What do you think about this?” And just stop talking, and see what they say. That type of thing can be really helpful. Just not giving direction on why you think. But if you have particular beliefs about this, why do you think that? And then trying to see who could come up with the best considerations and then most numerous considerations about one way or another, how to assess this type of problem.

Rob Wiblin: Do you find that most of the people you hire have a pretty large familiarity with the existing body of ideas and published work in effective altruism? Or are many of them just coming from outside that intellectual circle?

Marcus Davis: I guess I would back up and say I don’t have a good reference class to compare it to, but I do think it’s a significant amount of people who have some familiarity with the space. Of course, this depends a lot on the particular role you’re going to do. For some positions it’s much more relevant. Strategy stuff, it often matters to have a good handle on what types of things are already happening, or what types of things have already been written.

But this isn’t to say that someone who’s more new to the space isn’t capable of analysing these things. Certainly not to say that someone more new to the space isn’t capable of learning those same types of things. We don’t want to weight too heavily on existing knowledge, when that type of thing might be out-competed pretty quickly by someone who just spent three weeks reading what the existing literature is.

So this is always a tricky challenge, trying to figure out how to grade people who you know have been around the space for years, versus someone who might have only heard of things a few weeks ago, or saw our job ad on Twitter, for example, which is a real thing that happens. And trying to assess where are they now? Where would you expect them to be in six months? Where do you expect them to be in three years?

Rob Wiblin: or listeners, what sorts of roles might you plausibly be hiring for through the end of 2022?

Marcus Davis: So as I said, we just did a gigantic hiring round.

Rob Wiblin: Maybe it will slow down a little bit over the next few months?

Marcus Davis: Yeah, not a lot. I think the nearest soon hires, particularly on my side of the organisation, first and foremost would be the worldview investigations work. I mentioned the moral weight work, so this is a type of question with more foundational thinking about how you should assess interspecies comparisons. Well, these same types of questions come up like, how should you deal with cross-cause comparisons, how should you make decisions under uncertainty, how should you think about indirect effects? These types of questions are really big-picture things.

And I think we probably will be looking to hire people to work on those types of questions sometime early next year. And for other topics, honestly, I don’t have that many things to say to you right now because we just finished the giant hiring round. There are a couple things where I think if we had more funding, particularly maybe on the survey team, we might be interested in hiring more people, but not at the moment.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. What about on the operations side?

Marcus Davis: I don’t think we have anything imminent on the operations side. We just, again, hired a number of people on the operations side. Operations associate, we hired a CPA, we hired some people who work on special projects to actually implement things. And we don’t have any imminent things coming. Though I do think there’s a number of roles we may hire for next year. Definitely no promises, but things we’re looking into. Possibly more comms staff, possibly more fundraising help. These are things on our radar, but no firm plans right now.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It might be a bit too early to be able to answer this question, but where have people tended to go to work after being at Rethink Priorities?

Marcus Davis: Yeah, I think it’s a little early.

Rob Wiblin: Premature, yeah.

Marcus Davis: A few people have left the organisation, and a few have gone to finish their graduate studies. Actually by quantity, that’s probably the number one answer. And then after that, a few people have gone on to work at other organisations, particularly I think Jason Schukraft is at Open Philanthropy now.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Also Luisa Rodriguez worked with you. I was asking this question because it was in part because of the work that Luisa published while she was at Rethink that we decided to make her an offer. She published this really interesting work on risk from nuclear war that we’ve talked about with her about on The 80,000 Hours Podcast. And I imagine for many people working at Rethink Priorities, especially if they’re able to publish the research that they’re doing in some form, it really helps to build up this portfolio to demonstrate what they’re capable of doing, that they can then show to any other potential people who might hire them in future.

Marcus Davis: Yeah, I think that’s right. Also, I feel very guilty for not mentioning Luisa.

What Rethink Priorities would do with more funding [00:56:46]

Rob Wiblin: [laughs] Well maybe you just assume that of course everyone would know. You just mentioned the issue of potentially being funding constrained on hiring. If you did manage to get more donations, what would you potentially do with additional funding on the margin?

Marcus Davis: First and foremost, if we have the money for the purpose to fund our survey team, I think they could use about $3 million from now through the end of 2023, just with the current team. And they could use new hires. We presently have to turn down a lot of opportunities working with groups because we don’t have the staff capacity, and we don’t have the funds to expand our team. A lot of this work is on meta work, or longtermism, primarily in those spaces. And we just don’t have the capacity to take on projects.

I think it’s particularly unfortunate; there’s some tension here between trying to get commissioned work, and a lot of people need our work. When they request something of us, it might be really time sensitive, so we don’t have time to hire, and we don’t have the staff in place to make it happen. So I think that’s a bit of a tension. So funding to support that team would be really useful, really desirable.

And then I mentioned worldview investigations. We’d like to build out staff to take on those questions I mentioned. They probably could take something like $1 million a year over the next two years. And then on animal welfare we could probably spend another $2 million or $3 million over that period on policy, on additional wild animal welfare work, on additional farmed animal welfare researchers, invertebrates. I’d say invertebrates and animal welfare are particularly challenging to fundraise for.

And generally speaking, we could use some more generalist researchers, if we have unrestricted funding. This is particularly an area where we do have a lot of questions that are cross-cutting, that could fit into, say, worldview investigations-type work. But there’s sometimes other times where you just need an extra person on hand, who’s not necessarily committed to working on some particular cause area, but we have the funding to take care of them no matter what. So that’s another area where we would spend additional funds.

Then finally, global health and development, I’d say for that, we’re probably thinking more about doing some not-exactly-consultancy work. And we could probably use at least $200,000 or $300,000 a year for that type of work, where we’re taking on projects that might be more think tank-y than consultancy.

Rob Wiblin: I see.

Most surprising thing Marcus has learned at Rethink [00:59:04]

Rob Wiblin: Well, we’ve come up on time, but a final question: What’s a particularly surprising thing you’ve learned while working at Rethink?

Marcus Davis: Undoubtedly, the most surprising thing I’ve learned at Rethink was the number of wild-caught shrimp. It was just so mind blowing that when Daniele originally computed them, she said, “The numbers are really large, and I didn’t believe them. So I computed them again.” And then I saw the number, and I was like, “I also don’t believe this.” So yeah, so I ran it again. This is one of those things where your expectations were just like, it has to be smaller than this. It wasn’t. And this gets to the big-picture question about, it’s just a huge number of animals relative to the number of humans alive right now.

Rob Wiblin: It’s a big world, for better or worse. My guest today has been Marcus Davis. Thanks so much for coming on 80k After Hours, Marcus.

Marcus Davis: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I had a great time and I’d definitely do it again.

Keiran’s outro [01:00:01]

Keiran Harris:If you’re interested in learning more about the work Marcus is doing, you should go to RethinkPriorities.org — we’ll add a link to the show notes.

You could also check out Rethink Priorities’ Leadership Statement on the FTX situation, and read about how it might impact their long-term financial outlook and ability to keep growing — we’ll link to that in the show notes.

And as I mentioned in the intro — you can listen to Rob’s thoughts on the FTX situation on our original 80,000 Hours Podcast feed.

Alright, audio mastering and technical editing for this episode by Milo McGuire and Ben Cordell.

Full transcripts and an extensive collection of links to learn more are available on our site and put together by Katy Moore.

And I produce the show.

Thanks for listening.

Related episodes

About the show

80k After Hours is a podcast by the team that brings you The 80,000 Hours Podcast. Like that show, it mostly still explores the best ways to do good — and some episodes are even more laser-focused on careers than most original episodes. But we also widen our scope, including things like how to solve pressing problems while also living a happy and fulfilling life, as well as releases that are just fun, entertaining, or experimental. Get in touch with feedback or suggestions by emailing [email protected]80000hours.org.

Subscribe by searching for “80k After Hours” wherever you get podcasts, or click one of the buttons below: