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What could a fellowship scheme aimed at tackling the biggest threats to humanity look like?

·7 mins
A sketch of what a new form of fellowship provider might look like, and what we can learn from others.

Photo credit: Unsplash

Although my freelance and academic work for the past few years has focused on the role of universities in tackling local challenges, I’ve begun to think more about how universities can help address the biggest risks to the future existence of humanity.1 This is a big shift: from community engagement on public health to preventing catastrophic pandemics, from improving urban housing to safely managing artificial intelligence. But there’s also much in common, especially around how universities work with government and with each other, how academics and students engage with industry and civil society, and the broader societal role of higher education. Universities can be excellent problem-solvers: locally, nationally and globally.

My thoughts on this have also brought me back to my first job after finishing my undergraduate degree in 2008. I helped administer scholarships and fellowships at the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission in the UK, a scheme that brings individuals to the UK to study at universities (and occasionally hospitals and charities). It’s part of the government’s international development assistance, and is now mainly funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). I later wrote an evaluation of scholarships in the health sector, and – in my first bit of consultancy – helped analyse the impact of distance learning scholarships. And in recent years I have been a reading committee member, assessing applications for the FCDO’s Chevening scholarship programme – a sister scheme with soft power objectives.

I began to think about what a fellowship scheme aimed at tackling the biggest threats to humanity might look like. Instead of development or soft power, the aim would be reducing existential risk by building the capacity and skills of influential individuals by sending them to another organisation (perhaps abroad), or by supporting academic research in under-explored areas (by ‘buying out’ the time of an academic at their own institution). For example: a junior civil servant with promising career prospects in Nigeria spends three months at a biosecurity institute in Europe. Or a historian at a US university spends six months researching the role of diplomatic backchannels in ‘near miss’ nuclear accidents, looking at newly released archives.

Characteristics #

Here are some early thoughts on the characteristics of such a fellowship scheme. It would be:

Strategic. Fellows would be selected based on their potential to help solve the biggest threats to humanity. Independent panels of experts would need to help inform what these threats are and assess the potential contribution an individual could make. But a major part of the selection criteria would be career capital – especially skills, connections and credentials (more on career capital here and here). In contrast to other programmes, this means academic merit, career plans or short-term development impact are less important. Instead, fellowships are strategic bets on promising individuals in promising career positions.

Proactive and targeted. The major UK government scholarship programmes are big beasts, bringing thousands of scholars and fellows to the UK a year, and boasting around 80,000 alumni. To begin with (and until an evaluation programme is well underway – see below) numbers would be far smaller. Open calls for applications would be complemented by a headhunting role, ‘recruiting’ exceptional individuals in response to specific needs identified by independent experts.

Decentralised. The Commonwealth and Chevening programmes bring scholars and fellows to the UK. From a taxpayer perspective this is understandable, as much of the money is recycled into UK universities and local economies. But this programme would be open to fellows anywhere to visit anywhere else – or to stay in-place. It would be administered by a small organisation with a team working remotely. It would be funded by foundations and philanthropists working in the effective altruism community instead of national governments. Decentralisation brings its own complexities (see below), but may help to overcome the perennial – and legitimate – criticism of scholarship programmes that they privilege knowledge produced in the Global North.

Experimental. A return visit in six months? Reciprocal fellowships for the host to visit the fellow? A roadshow to visit five universities in five months? A secondment to an agency down the road? Nothing would be off the table. Fellowships would be crafted to individual needs, be open to applications all year, and provide generous financial support to both fellow and host. New approaches would be piloted, evaluated, and adapted. Everything would be rigorously evaluated.

Transparent. Information on what works and what does not work will be shared in the open, alongside all data on applications and spending. Pilots and experiments will be documented and evaluations published. There’s a wealth of learning from existing programmes, and opportunities to build on areas such as counterfactual analysis.

Long-term. At the same time, there will be a tolerance for long-term and low-probability returns on investment – and an acceptance that some fellows will have no impact on this agenda, and that it will be sometimes impossible to demonstrate impact. Fellows are not mandated to return to their home institution, maintain new connections, or follow any career plan (although they will be supported to do so). The expectation is for a few fellows to have an outsized impact; a few bets will win big.

Connected. I’ve seen first-hand how decades worth of scholarships provided by Sida, Sweden’s government agency for development, have built the capacity of the University of Rwanda. But this success is as much to do with wider support to infrastructure such as libraries and laboratories as the steady, long-term presence of the agency. If funding is provided in isolation, fellows return home unable to implement what they’ve learned. Awards need to be made with a broad understanding of local context and other activity ongoing in the same space.

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Difficulties #

Such a scheme, at least at first, would entail far greater upfront work per fellow than existing programmes. Chevening and Commonwealth enjoy economies of scale, especially as they are both administered by the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU). Open calls need publicising. Headhunting demands time and expertise. Liaising with hosts is time-consuming, especially across borders. A team is needed to manage visas, healthcare insurance, travel arrangements, and support any accompanying family.

But the returns could be immense. There is a reason Chevening has been funded since 1983, and Commonwealth since 1960, and that both have survived many changes to government departments and an ever more fiscally challenged Treasury. Nebulous measures such as ‘soft power’ are reflected in (admittedly rudimentary) measures like the number of world leaders educated in the UK (55).

The effective altruism community, which spearheads much of this thinking on existential risk, seems to be centred in Oxford and Berkeley. There’s a ridiculous amount of talent that can be brought to bear on global challenges that sits elsewhere, including the Global South. We need diverse experience from different places, the involvement of more institutions – small and specialist institutions alongside large research universities, for example – and a broader blend of academic disciplines.

Neither is it practical or preferable to bring everyone to the Golden Triangle or the Bay Area. We need experts and advocates in more places, shaping policy in Delhi and Lagos, coordinating, learning, sharing practice, building support and research centres. (And, perhaps in a frame of mind that reflects my recent reading of The Precipice, it seems a little unwise to put all of our longtermist eggs in one basket in the unfortunate case Oxford is destroyed by an unforeseen asteroid.)

Finally, to return to the obstacles that face a fellowship scheme of the sort I describe, none of these difficulties are insurmountable. In-country fellowships (rather than visiting, or overseas, fellowships) could be prioritised first. Or an organisation such as the ACU can help with logistics. My understanding is that money to fund such programmes is not in short supply, but that the right people and ideas are.

What next? #

In summary, I envisage an organisation with two main roles: first facilitating fellowships aimed at reducing the biggest threats to humanity, and second having a transparent and methodological approach to evaluating impact, and sharing this, and trying new approaches. The impact would therefore be twofold: directly growing expertise in more places, and increasing our knowledge of what works when building capacity to tackle existential risks.

Thoughts from others are very welcome. Perhaps something like this already exists. Perhaps there are better alternatives, or better uses of money. But, if not, it seems worthwhile to map out in more detail how a fellowship scheme might work and how.

  1. Inspired largely by the website 80,000 Hours, and Toby Ord’s book The Precipice↩︎