What would you ask a policymaker about existential risks?

post by James Nicholas Bryant (james-nicholas-bryant) · 2021-07-06T23:53:41.855Z · EA · GW · 2 comments

This is a question post.

Over the coming months, I'll be undertaking research that includes interviews with high-level policymakers in Ireland (think: senators, senior advisors, top civil servants). The goal is to explore the understanding policymakers have of X-risks, including perceived likelihood, classification, prevention, and knowledge of the existence of certain risks.

Elite groups like this are tough to access, particularly for this form of discussion, so the interview schedule will look to be as efficient and effective as possible as eliciting truthful, useful answers.

 To this end, I'm interested to hear from others in this community as to what they'd ideally like to ask policymakers on this topic. Specifically:

  1. What are the key questions you would like to see put to policymakers on this topic? 
  2. Are there any previous interviews or discussions around this topic which you think were conducted particularly effectively?

Feel free to think as wide or narrow on these questions as is useful!


answer by Jsevillamol · 2021-07-07T07:22:52.233Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

In the last few months my colleague Juan García and I have been interviewing civil servants working on risk management in Spain with a similar purpose. It has gone quite well, and we have both learnt a lot and have been tentatively invited to provide input into the capital's new risk management plan.

Some questions we have been asking (sometimes in a roundabout way, as we learned the vocabulary they are familiar with):

  • As you see it, what are the key functions of your organization?
  • What are the top risks you focus on? How did the current prioritization of risks came to be? Are there any active recurrent efforts to map and consider new risks?
  • What kind of prevention / planification efforts happen for each of the prioritized risks?
  • What tools does your organization have to anticipate emergencies?
  • How does the emergency response apparatus get activated? Who are the key decision makers involved?
  • How are new, unforeseen risks treated? As a concrete recent example, what was the role of your organization during COVID-19?
  • What do you see as the most important function of [the organization you work in]? What are some past operations in your organization you would highlight as examples of the importance of your organization?
  • What initiatives are being taken to improve the operation of your organization? What are your key bottlenecks? What do you think should be improved further?
  • How has public risk management changed in the last few years? What
  • What other organizations do you often collaborate with? Can you introduce us to some people there to interview them?
  • How can people interested in improving the system can get involved? Specifically, how can academics researching global risk management help you make better decisions?

Some mindset advice:

  • Be friendly, show them you are on their side by focusing on their triumphs rather than their failures. The main goal is to learn their framework, not to push a new framework onto them.
  • Learn their language and use them. If you talk about GCRs right off the bat they will be intimidated and talk in circles. Ask easy questions first, possibly things you could have learnt out of their websites, to warm them up and learn what concepts they use to think about such things.
  • When talking about more weird things, ask for personal opinions. Civil servants are very careful about saying that they are worried about extreme food shortages if it may reflect on their organization, but they are more willing to note personal worries.
  • Do not push people to talk about things they might not want to talk about. You are going to be keen on talking about existential risk and GCRs. They will want to talk about forest fires and floods. Focus on the commonalities of both things - how are risks in general prioritized?
  • But don't let them talk abstractly. Focus on concrete details and paraphrase.
  • While you are interviewing them to gather info, the best outcomes for these conversations are not the interview itself: it's a network of professionals you can contact and possibly getting involved in some capactity into higher level decision making.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask, either in a comment or through a PM. Also happy to schedule a meeting if it would be useful.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Neel Nanda · 2021-07-08T12:14:38.684Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Have you spoken at all with the Centre for Long-term Resilience? They work with UK policy makers on issues related to catastrophic and existential risk, and I imagine would be pretty interested in this project.