I recently gave a presentation about BERI to the Global Priorities Institute at Oxford University. My preparations for the talk helped crystallize a few thoughts about BERI that I’ve had in rough form for a while. So I thought I’d take the more novel parts of the presentation and turn them into a blog post.
This post will discuss (1) what BERI does in general, and (2) why I think it’s important.
What does BERI do?
Like it says on our home page, BERI collaborates with university research groups working to reduce existential risk by providing them with free services and support. Sometimes a university’s existing administrative structures are unable to carry out a particular request, for some idiosyncratic or unanticipated reason. In these situations BERI can step in to fill this gap.
In principle, we can do anything that a charity or university can do. In practice, most of our activities can be categorized as either hiring or purchasing.
Hiring can be broken down further into short-term hiring and long-term hiring. Short-term hiring often means hiring research assistants for specific, bounded projects, but can also span a wide variety of skill-sets, including copy editors, web designers, translators, and productivity coaches. This is useful because university hiring processes are often slow and cumbersome, optimized more for hiring tenured professors than for 10-hour freelancers. Even paying a service provider as a vendor (instead of as an employee) presents challenges to an organization as large and complex as a university. For many excellent reasons, built up over decades of experience, many universities have elaborate approval processes which simply aren’t worth navigating for a short project. BERI avoids these complexities by being much smaller and focused on a very narrow body of work—existential risk reduction.
BERI also does long-term hiring. For example, we recently hired a machine learning engineer to support Professor Phil Thomas of the Autonomous Learning Lab at UMass Amherst. Many universities have trouble hiring skilled software engineers, because typical industry salaries are much higher than universities expect to pay to someone in a non-tenure track position. BERI does not have this restriction, which allows us to pay significantly higher salaries to non-academics than most universities are able to pay.
Purchasing is more varied, and I don’t have a one-size-fits-all explanation of why purchasing is a useful category of BERI services. Perhaps your department will only supply laptops from a preset list, but your work would benefit from a different laptop. Or maybe your research group would benefit from some piece of software which requires a monthly subscription (e.g. Slack or Asana), which would require monthly reimbursements for small amounts of money through a burdensome submission system. BERI can easily purchase the laptop, or apply our credit card to monthly software payments.
Another way to understand BERI is to imagine a spectrum of administrative tasks. On one end are the things your university or department is already able to do for you, without too much trouble. On the other end are things your university or department doesn’t want you to do, at all. BERI support exists somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. We try to help with things that are permitted and encouraged by your university and department, but which are either difficult or impossible to do within existing university structures.
Why do I think BERI’s work is important?
The “best of both worlds” argument
I think that universities can be good homes for high-impact work. Perhaps there’s something about the university setting that enables high-impact work. After all, universities have lots of resources—financial, administrative, and reputational—which can be directed towards important altruistic endeavors like reducing x-risk. But even if you’re skeptical of that, there are still going to be people who have found themselves in academia for reasons independent of impact, and are only now trying to optimize their careers to improve human civilization’s long-term prospects for survival and flourishing. Either way, I’m confident that there are university researchers doing important work on existential risk.
I also think universities present obstacles to impact. The causes for this are as varied as the institutions themselves, but obstacles do exist. If researchers trying to leverage university resources to reduce x-risk are being frustrated by the obstacles they find, I don’t want them to leave academia for industry just to get better operations support for their work. Instead, I want BERI to give them the best of both worlds, by clearing obstacles so that the benefits of universities can be accessed with less difficulty. In this way, BERI can have an amplifying effect on important work reducing x-risk.
The “comparative advantage” argument
Researchers often spend time on operational and administrative tasks which (1) they don’t want to do, and (2) aren’t their specialty. This slows progress on research. Meanwhile, there are ops people (like those at BERI) who (1) enjoy operational and administrative tasks, and (2) don’t have a background in research. Each of these groups should spend more time on what they’re good at and want to be doing, and less time on what they’re not good at and don’t want to be doing. By shifting work time towards each contributor’s comparative advantage, BERI opens up more researcher time, and speeds up research agendas that try to reduce x-risk.
BERI collaborates with university research groups working to reduce existential risk by providing them with free services and support. In principle, we can do anything that a charity or university can do. In practice, most of our activities can be categorized as either hiring or purchasing. There are multiple ways to think about BERI’s importance and impact. I highlighted two of them in this post, which I called the “best of both worlds” argument and the “comparative advantage” argument.