Updates from Leverage Research: History and Recent Progress

by LarissaRowe12 min read27th Sep 20214 comments

37

Leverage ResearchOrganization Updates
Personal Blog

As many LessWrong readers may have seen there was recently this post ostensibly aimed at creating common knowledge about Leverage Research. 

While Leverage Research is no longer actively involved in the Rationality community, from the comments and upvotes it seems that there is both continued interest in Leverage Research within the Rationality community and a substantial lack of information—even about our more recent work—and context about our history. This post, along with my reply to the recent post, aims to correct some of that.

As relevant background, my name is Larissa Hesketh-Rowe. I work as the Public Engagement Specialist at Leverage Research and am posting on the organization’s behalf.

I’ve worked at Leverage Research since 2019. Before that, I worked at the Centre for Effective Altruism, from 2016 - 2019, the final year of which I was the CEO. 

This means I wasn't involved with Leverage Research during the initial tumultuous phase of research which is sometimes called "Leverage 1.0," (I’m not sure I’d even heard of them until 2017) but I do know many of the people involved and I feel heartfelt gratitude to them for the work they did that makes our present work possible. I have also only been tangentially involved in the Rationality community, primarily through my involvement in Effective Altruism (EA).
 

About Leverage Research

Leverage is a non-profit research institute that studies and supports scientific advance. We run long-term research programs in areas related to epistemology, sociology, and psychology and apply findings from our research to support efforts by others to make progress in science and technology. 

We are a four-person team based in the US. We are currently working remotely due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, although we hope to get a new office and return to having at least some staff working in person at some point towards the end of this year, or early 2022.

You can find out more about Leverage Research via: 

(*we’re not that active on social media but I try to post occasional updates, particularly to Twitter).
 

The majority of our work is in three main programs:
 

(1)  Early Stage Science Research: Studying the History of Scientific Advance

Our main research program is our Early Stage Science program where we conduct history of science research to produce in-depth case studies on the history of various discoveries. So far we have focused on the history of electricity but our aim is to cover the early history of a wide variety of fields. The aim of this long-term research program is to learn about the process of discovery that successful scientific fields went through as they developed from nascent, uncertain pursuits to highly developed scientific fields.  Our hope is that by looking at what the development process actually looked like we will be able to provide insights to aid the development of early-stage or struggling fields, particularly within the social sciences, today.

You can find links to all of our case studies on our research page and read about our future plans for this research, including a map of the case studies we expect to write on the history of electricity, in our annual report.

 

(2) Bottlenecks in Science and Technology

More recently, we began work aimed at understanding and breaking technical, social, and institutional bottlenecks in science and technology.  In June we co-organized the 2021 Bottlenecks in Science and Technology workshop in Denver. Tyler Cowen, Patrick Collison, and Peter Thiel gave keynote talks at the event.

Based on this workshop and our plans for future efforts in the scientific bottlenecks space, we recently received a $50K grant from Emergent Ventures.  

You can read about the workshop on our website in our quarterly newsletter, in this overview document, and a few of the talks from the event are publicly available on the Bottlenecks YouTube Channel. This workshop is part of a larger collaboration with future events planned, which we hope will have a website with further information in the near future at www.bottlenecks.tech

A couple of exciting outcomes from this workshop include: 

  1. the launch of Impetus Grants, which has received at least $26M in donations for “Fast Grant”-style funding for longevity and which arose from a conversation at the workshop.
  2. Activate’s Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) Imperative, which was catalyzed by people who met at the workshop. 
     

We’ve been focused on scientific and technological progress since our inception, and we're thrilled that there are so many talented and motivated people excited about the new Progress Studies movement. Leverage at present, however, is focused on helping researchers make advances, rather than building public support for progress. As such, we presently have no plans to be substantially involved in the progress movement, despite our support for their work.

 

(3) Exploratory Psychology Program

Most of the curiosity about Leverage Research stems from our nearly decade-long psychology research program. As part of that program, we developed a large number of hypotheses about the nature of human belief and behavior, as well as tools for psychological researchers.

Our Exploratory Psychology program is the next stage in that research program, where the goal is now to get our tools into the hands of many more researchers, so as to enable external testing and confirmation (or disconfirmation) of our original hypotheses. In accordance with the plan stated in our last annual report, we have spent the year thinking about the best way to distribute those research tools, which include both Belief Reporting (an introspective method) and basic charting (a process for recording beliefs, their connections to other beliefs, and tracking changes in beliefs brought about through different interventions).

At present, our plan is to distribute these tools in a public venue, so that the interested public can learn about them, and so that academic and non-academic researchers can experiment with them. We are currently designing an experimental “starter pack,” or kit, modeled in many ways on how both the field of electricity (by Gilbert in 1600) and the field of magnetism (by Peregrinus in 1269) began. (See the relevant case study here.) We expect to start testing a beta version of the starter pack in Q4 2021 and are aiming for a public release in Q1 2022.

In our opinion, the dangers and risks from psychological experimentation are often underappreciated, and so in planning for this release of our psychology tools we intend to be very cautious and mindful of potential harms to individuals. We have been working for some time to catalogue the dangers and harms we are currently aware of so that this can be shared alongside the psychology tools we release.

If you are interested in being involved in the beta testing of the starter pack, or if you have experienced negative effects from psychological experimentation, including with rationality training, meditation, circling, Focusing, IFS, Leverage’s charting or belief reporting tools (or word-of-mouth copies of these tools), or similar techniques please do reach out to us at contact@leverageresearch.org. We are keen to gain as much information as possible on the harms and dangers as we prepare to release our psychology research.
 

Past Research Reports

Alongside these programs, we are also writing up some of our past research in other areas that won’t be covered by our Exploratory Psychology program. Here are the two past research reports we’ve written up so far:

 

The Distinction Between Leverage 1.0 and Leverage 2.0

For those that may not be aware,  “Leverage 1.0” and “Leverage 2.0” is a distinction I introduced when I wrote the post Updates from Leverage Research: history, mistakes and new focus on the EA Forum back in 2019. 
 

Here’s what I said about the distinction at the time:
 

In the past, the name “Leverage” has been used broadly, not just referring to Leverage the organisation but also nearby groups with which they coordinated. To make this easier to follow, I’ll make the distinction between “Leverage 1.0” and “Leverage 2.0”. I’m using Leverage 1.0 to refer to Leverage from 2011 to 2019, including other organisations that developed out of Leverage such as Paradigm Academy. I’ll use Leverage 2.0 to refer to just the organisation Leverage Research and its staff from the summer of this year [2019] onwards. Leverage 2.0 is what we will mean by Leverage moving forward.

The activities I described above are what you might consider “Leverage 2.0.”

Towards the end of "Leverage 1.0" in 2019, and throughout "Leverage 2.0," Leverage Research has been much less engaged with the EA and Rationality communities. This lack of engagement contributes to poor information flow, and so we thought it might be worthwhile to create some common knowledge here about the history of Leverage Research as it relates to both EA and Rationality.

Nevertheless, Leverage Research continues to judge that its efforts are best spent elsewhere. Sometimes substantial engagement with specialized adjacent communities can be more disruptive than helpful, especially as it is challenging to manage online discussion well. As a result, apart from stating some basic facts here, we plan to create an FAQ for our next website update (which we’re currently aiming to have ready for Giving Tuesday) that serves as a source of truth for all things people might reasonably want to know about Leverage Research. (If you have questions that you would like to see answered, please email me at larissa@leverageresearch.org.)
 

Our History with the EA and Rationality Communities

Leverage 1.0 was much more involved in the Rationality and EA communities in the early days. 

Leverage ran the first two EA Summits in 2013 and 2014 before handing that over to the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA) to run the event as EA Global from 2015 onwards. There are some keynote talks from people like Jaan Tallinn, Peter Thiel, and Peter Singer from the 2013 EA Summit which you can watch on YouTube along with this brief introduction video which I think gives a great sense of the excitement within EA at the time. Leverage was also important in encouraging Effective Altruism to become a movement and ran one of the earliest EA movement-building projects known as The High Impact Network (THINK).

On the Rationality community side, Leverage Research hosted a LessWrong Megameetup in Brooklyn in February 2012, invited the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR) to give a version of their workshop at the EA Summit 2013, and provided volunteer instructors for CFAR’s workshops for more than a year.

Leverage in its early days (i.e., Leverage 1.0) is perhaps better understood as a  research collaboration: an ecosystem of people and organizations working on different projects--including projects related to nearby communities--with wide latitude for individuals to select their own projects. For those who are interested, I talk a bit more about the history of Leverage Research, our previous work, and our mistakes in the Updates from Leverage Research: history, mistakes and new focus post I mentioned, which is on the EA Forum.

You can see a lot more of the EA and Rationality community culture reflected in early Leverage 1.0; our early research included a focus on cause prioritization, as well as AI safety, there’s the “world saving” vibe, people living and working in shared houses, lots of debate and disagreement about what to work on, a lot of idealistic optimism, and no small amount of interpersonal drama.

 

The Leverage 1.0 spirit and the foundations Leverage 1.0 built for Leverage 2.0

And this gets to something that I do regret about my “Leverage 1.0” and “Leverage 2.0” distinction. 

While it is useful—it provides more specific handles for people to use to discuss their disagreements and experiences—I now think it distances Leverage Research today (“Leverage 2.0”), too much from all the great work done at and the amazing spirit of Leverage 1.0. 

Leverage 1.0 had this combination of bold optimism, thoughtfulness, genuine good intentions, and fearlessness in letting their thoughts go wherever it seemed like reason led them, even if that yielded some weird ideas. By the accounts I’ve heard, many people who experienced early Leverage, either directly or by occasionally attending “Beverage Research” or Paradigm workshops, Leverage was a fun, engaging, interesting community where you could more or less guarantee you were going to hear interesting ideas you hadn’t heard anywhere else. That spirit made for an amazing intellectual community that many were, quite rightly, proud and excited to be a part of.

I recognize similar spirits from the early days of the EA and Rationality communities and they too have become the source of repeated public ridicule. As a result, the Rationality community, EA community, and Leverage Research have all had to professionalize and in some ways “grow up” from the days of our idealistic youths both as movements and the organizations involved in them. 

In some ways this is good. These close-knit kinds of communities can be really great and supportive for the people involved, but they can also be a bit exclusionary. As a Brit coming from a much more corporate work culture, I experienced a bit of culture shock when I first started working at an EA org, especially around the EA party scene. 

I think both the colorful early days of these intellectual communities and their later more professionalized versions are important and necessary developments. It’s hard to develop interesting ideas or try ambitious projects without first letting your ideas and culture develop on their own, even if that leads to unusual places. Yet, some of these cultural practices will, unfortunately, end up being harmful to those involved in both obvious and difficult-to-see ways and thus need to be changed. It’s also difficult to put those ideas into practice or let newcomers participate in your culture without making changes to accommodate them.

Just as today’s Rationality and EA communities are indebted to those involved in their early years, Leverage Research would not be the organization it is today without the efforts of the individuals at Leverage 1.0 and the research Leverage Research produced then. Even if I was not around at the time, I want the people who were to know that I greatly appreciate the foundations they built for Leverage Research.

So, while Leverage 1.0 and Leverage 2.0 might be useful handles for different periods of time, organizational structures, and cultures, Leverage Research today embraces and encompasses both. 

If my work at Leverage Research today can get us to the point where we can share the results of the hard work and commitment of the people at Leverage 1.0 in such a way that vindicates those people for all of the criticisms and sneering they have endured over the years then I will be incredibly proud of that work.

 

Leverage AMA: Come Visit Our Virtual Office!

For anyone who wants to learn more about this work, the history of Leverage Research, and our plans for the future, we will be holding an open house social event followed by an AMA at our virtual office on Saturday, October 2, 2021, at 12PM PT!  

Leverage Research does not currently have an in-person office but we do have a GatherTown office, inspired by, but sadly not as beautifully designed as, the LessWrong GatherTown. So follow us on Twitter to get the GatherTown invite link when we share it on the day.

This will be an opportunity for LessWrong users, supporters of Leverage Research,  and curious onlookers to ask questions and learn more about the organization.

So if this post doesn’t answer all of your questions, please come along! Additionally, you can, of course, email me at larissa@leverageresearch.org anytime.

 

37

4 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 4:20 AM
New Comment

Reminder: AMA and Open Virtual Office with Leverage Research on Saturday, October 2, 12 PM PT.
Just a quick reminder that anyone interested in learning more about Leverage Research's history, current work, and future plans can join us in our virtual office tomorrow (Saturday, October 2nd) at 12 PM PT for AMA with me and our Executive Director Geoff Anders.

For more info and to get the link to join the event, join the Facebook event, fill in this Google Form or follow us on Twitter.