Moral philosopher Dr Simon Beard, discusses existential risk mitigation and why he is standing in next month’s general election.
Tell us about yourself
I recently completed my PhD in philosophy from the London School of Economics, and am currently working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk in Cambridge.
Unlike many early career researchers, I decided that I didn’t want to wait before having a family. My philosophical research is on the ethics of future generations, and I guess that may have something to do with this. So, while my colleagues were wondering when they will be able to put down some roots, I decided to base my work around my life – not the other way around.
My commute into Cambridge for work is a three-hour trip (each way), but that gives me lots of time to read and think. This means that while at work I make the most of the hours – dealing with meetings, admin and collaborative work. Two days a week I stay at home, and that is when I get my writing done.
What is the area of your research?
My background is in moral philosophy, but current research is in the field of existential risk. This involves understanding, and more importantly preventing, threats to the survival of humanity. We cover a lot of different threats. Some of these are obvious to everyone, such as climate change and nuclear war. Others may seem less important to those outside the field, like artificial intelligence, but we perceive that to be a real threat which could emerge in the next century or so.
I work extensively with people from across the humanities, social sciences, hard sciences and practical disciplines like computer science and biotech. My boss is a world-famous economist and my closest collaborator is a lawyer. Existential risk mitigation is still a small and close-knit community, so one is kind of forced to work with people from other disciplines. However, there is also a real sense that when working on issues as important as humanity’s survival, disciplinary silos can’t be allowed to get in the way. So, I spend my days talking to engineers about geoengineering, ecologists about biodiversity loss, civil servants about Cost Benefit Analysis and even, sometimes, other philosophers.
What is the importance of this research?
My research project is all about the identification and promotion of policies to secure our long-term future. This is a very important issue to me, and I don’t feel I could do it justice simply by writing academic papers. So, I am a philosopher who tries to do things the Athenian way, by getting my arguments out into the public forum.
For instance, I was recently selected to take part in the AHRC/BBC Radio 3 New Generation Scheme. This allows early career humanities researchers like me to make programs for BBC Radio and TV and test our ideas on an audience of thousands, rather than just a few colleagues.
I don’t feel I can stop there though. That’s why I am also standing in next month’s general election. Political debate in the UK tends to focus on short-term issues, and governments seldom have much reason to think beyond the next electoral cycle. My academic work has led me to believe that this political short-sightedness could be leading us to make serious policy mistakes that will do great harm in the long term.
As a moral philosopher, I think a lot about what is right and wrong, not only in theory but in practice too. I am convinced that we often act wrongly because we fail to take account of the interests of future people, or even our own future interests, when deciding what to do. By getting involved in politics and the media, I hope that I can actually do something to change this.
Dr Simon Beard is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk where he works on the project, ‘Managing extreme technological risks’. His research examines the ethical challenges in evaluating existential risks, with a special focus on the risks associated with developing new technologies. He also contributes to current policy debates.