Aspiring researchers from the US, France, Netherlands, Dubai, Israel, South Africa, the UK, Australia and New Zealand have completed a two-month Fellowship programme on existential risk, set up by Trinity student Nandini Shiralkar.
The Existential Risk Alliance (ERA) Cambridge Fellowship seeks to equip young researchers and entrepreneurs with the skills, knowledge and networks to develop careers in order to tackle potentially catastrophic risks to humanity and life on earth.
This summer, 31 ERA Fellows came to Cambridge to work on their individual research projects, participate in a bespoke events series, discuss ideas with their peers and engage with experts who are developing ways to mitigate extreme threats to humanity.
Nandini devised and secured funding for the paid programme from the American foundation Open Philanthropy, out of concern for ‘x-risks’ and based on the CERI Summer Research Fellowship, which she founded during the pandemic. Existential or x-risks include those posed by extreme climate change, transformative AI, future pandemics, or nuclear weapons.
‘When people think about global risks, they don’t think about the tail end of such risks, where the entirety of humanity stands on the brink,’ says Nandini. ‘Even if there’s a small chance of that happening, it’s so significant that there should be people working on it.’
The ERA Fellows – who range from undergraduates and aspiring PhD students to early career researchers – were selected from more than 600 applicants this year and have diverse experience in policy making, business and the non-profit sectors, as well as academia.
As part of their submission, applicants outline their research project and if accepted, work with a Research Manager before the Fellowship begins to refine their idea and identify a suitable mentor, typically a more senior researcher in the field.
Among the many x-risk topics that ERA Fellows have researched this year are climate tipping points, novel AI architectures and the global landscape of catastrophic biological risk.
While some will go on to publish their research, that isn’t the main aim of the programme. It is more ‘a hub for building a community among peers who share a common mission,’ says Nandini.
What I hope they get out of their eight weeks in Cambridge is that they become more impactful researchers. I want to help them cultivate skills such as reasoning transparency, effective goal setting, articulating well-reasoned arguments, and prioritising based on impact.
Impact is central to everything we do at ERA. Research shouldn’t just exist in an academic journal somewhere; it should lead to something changing in the world for the better.
To that end, each Fellow is assigned a Research Manager and Mentor to offer advice, help resolve any issues and ensure their research progresses.
Moritz von Knebel, one of seven ERA Research Managers, found the experience empowering. ‘ERA has provided a blueprint of what a successful talent pipeline and mutually beneficial researcher-mentor relationships can look like,’ he said.
ERA Fellow Jack O’Doherty, who is researching US nuclear weapons strategy for his PhD at the University of Leicester, said the Fellowship had been ‘a tremendous opportunity.’
‘By cultivating an inclusive and diverse research space, and through choreographing an insightful series of seminars and events, the fellowship offers a unique avenue for memorable networking and consequential research output,’ Jack said.
Aris Richardson, a Psychology graduate of University of California, Berkeley, said the Fellowship had ‘significantly fast tracked my path into AI governance.’
It has given me the time and legitimacy to speak to experts and produce formal research outputs. These interviews and outputs have clarified my thinking about semiconductor supply chains and international regulation on software.
ERA Fellow Ram Eirik Glomseth, an undergraduate studying International Relations and French at the University of Sussex, said:
I have been surprised by how senior researchers in my field have been more than willing to advise me and discuss my project and put me in touch with other experts to fill relevant gaps in my research.
This has been extremely helpful to help me maximise the potential impact of my research project and has further integrated me into the community of researchers in my field.
As for the person who conceived, organised and involved day-to-day with the programme, Moritz paid tribute to Nandini.
I have been impressed by Nandini’s hard work and dedication to the Fellowship, and by her strategic leadership. At the same time, she has been very warm and approachable. She has brought an open and appreciative culture to ERA and embodied a type of leadership I find myself (involuntarily) modelling at times.