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In the 40s and 50s neoliberalism was a fringe movement within economics. But by the 80s it had become a dominant school of thought in public policy, and achieved major policy changes across the English speaking world. How did this happen?

In part because its leaders invested heavily in training academics to study and develop their ideas. Whether you think neoliberalism was good or bad, its history demonstrates the impact building a strong intellectual base within universities can have.

Dr Michelle Hutchinson is working to get a different set of ideas a hearing in academia by setting up the Global Priorities Institute (GPI) at Oxford University. The Institute, which is currently hiring for three roles, aims to bring together outstanding philosophers and economists to research how to most improve the world. The hope is that it will spark widespread academic engagement with effective altruist thinking, which will hone the ideas and help them gradually percolate into society more broadly.

Its research agenda includes questions like:

  • How do we compare the good done by focussing on really different types of causes?
  • How does saving lives actually affect the world relative to other things we could do?
  • What are the biggest wins governments should be focussed on getting?

Before moving to GPI, Michelle was the Executive Director of Giving What We Can and a founding figure of the effective altruism movement. She has a PhD in Applied Ethics from Oxford on prioritization and global health.

We discuss:

  • What is global priorities research and why does it matter?
  • How is effective altruism seen in academia? Is it important to convince academics of the value of your work, or is it OK to ignore them?
  • Operating inside a university is quite expensive, so is it even worth doing? Who can pay for this kind of thing?
  • How hard is it to do something innovative inside a university? How serious are the administrative and other barriers?
  • Is it harder to fundraise for a new institute, or hire the right people?
  • Have other social movements benefitted from having a prominent academic arm?
  • How can people prepare themselves to get research roles at a place like GPI?
  • Many people want to have roles doing this kind of research. How many are actually cut out for it? What should those who aren’t do instead?
  • What are the odds of the Institute’s work having an effect on the real world?

If you’re interesting in donating to or working at GPI, you can email Michelle at [email protected].


You might think that effective altruism and academia were already relatively well integrated, given that a lot of the founders of effective altruism were academics, but in fact, they’ve remained relatively separate, with even the academics who were also working on effective altruism working on it at different points and doing it with their non-academic time. In some ways, you might think that that actually isn’t such a problem, because a lot of excellent research in effective altruism typically needs to be done actually really quickly, because we need to be working out where we can give right now, rather than taking the long timelines that you typically do in academia.

But on the other hand, many of the world’s brightest people go into academia, and we’re really missing out on excellent research that’s being done and also on potentially talented people who might want to work outside of academia on other kinds of research, by ignoring academia.

[There’s] this very plausible view that there are certain things that can only be done by collectives, and so as an individual you can make no difference. An example might be a large protest that as an individual going to a particular protest you’re making really no difference, but the whole group is making a big difference. And so the thinking might be that rather than treating the individual as the agent you’re thinking about, you should really be treating the collective as the relevant agent.

The example [Hilary Greaves] actually looks at is one of vegetarianism, to see whether this holds. If you’re thinking of killing an animal and eating it yourself, it’s very clear what the harm you’re doing there is, but if you’re buying meat in a supermarket, it’s much less clear. It’s certainly not going to be the case that for every chicken you buy, another chicken is slaughtered. A much more plausible model of what’s going on there is that for every 50 chickens that are sold, they order in another 50 chickens. In that kind of a case, it might seem that as an individual it’s very likely that your not buying a chicken is going to make no difference, because you’re probably not the 50th person to buy a chicken. So you might think of this as one of these collectivist cases where we should not be thinking about what the individual should be doing, but only about what the group should be doing.

She then talks about the fact that actually the way we ought to be working out our actions in these cases is by using expected value. If I’m considering whether to buy a chicken, I actually don’t know whether I’m going to be buying the 50th or the 49th. So the way I actually ought to make my decision is using expected value. If there’s 49 chances that I’m not making a difference, but there’s a one in 50 chance that actually I am making the difference here, and so in that way, even simply looking at the individual, I can see how I’m making a difference. The idea is that actually that’s how we should see our participation in a protest or something as well. It’s very likely that we’re making no difference, but there is some chance that we’re making a really big difference.

I think the one thing that people don’t consider enough is research-adjacent types of roles, so roles as research assistants or as project managers, that kind of thing, because actually that also requires really talented people, and it’s the kind of thing that because within academia is not thought well of, often doesn’t attract very good candidates at all. And I think that’s really where people can find niches where they can have a huge amount of impact.

I think having good judgment also is something that isn’t discussed very often, probably because it’s very difficult to pin down, but the difference between having a research assistant and operations person who has really good judgment and understands the work that’s being done and what needs to happen, and having someone who’s really just trying to work out precisely what you said and just do that, can be really massive.

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About the show

The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths — from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected].

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