The Existential Risks Initiative is a collaboration between Stanford faculty and students dedicated to mitigating global catastrophic risks (GCRs). Our goal is to foster engagement from students and professors to produce meaningful work aiming to preserve the future of humanity by providing skill, knowledge development, networking, and professional pathways for Stanford community members interested in pursuing GCR reduction. Concrete programming we run includes a summer research program, speaker events, discussions, and a Thinking Matters class taught by the two faculty advisors for the initiative called Preventing Human Extinction (THINK 65).
What is a Global Catastrophic Risk?
We think of global catastrophic risks (GCRs) as risks that could cause the collapse of human civilization or even the extinction of the human species. Prominent examples of human-driven global catastrophic risks include 1) nuclear war, 2) an infectious disease pandemic engineered by malevolent actors using synthetic biology, 3) hostile or uncontrolled deployments of artificial intelligence, and 4) climate change and other environmental degradation creating biological and physical conditions that thriving human civilizations would not survive. Other significant GCRs exist as well, and we welcome proposals that address them.
SERI Summer Research Program
The Stanford Existential Risks Initiative is running its inaugural Undergraduate Summer Research Program this summer. This program will fund 10-week research projects dedicated to mitigating global catastrophic risks (GCRs), with an emphasis on building a community of GCR researchers via speaker events, discussion groups, social events, etc. Students will work with a mentor (a faculty member, industry professional, or established thought leader), who will provide weekly advising along with guidance to help find a suitable project to work on.
Students might contribute to a research, writing, technology-development, or public policy project that constructively responds to a global catastrophic risk. Examples are nuclear weapons policy, pandemic prevention and response, and artificial intelligence safety. Such projects could be in nearly any area of study, from natural science and engineering to social science or the humanities. Alternatively, students might offer their support to organizations that aim to reduce global catastrophic risks, such as groups working to ban or discourage the use of lethal autonomous weapons, groups building seed banks that could survive a global catastrophic assault, or groups seeking solutions to forestall catastrophic levels of global heating or ocean acidification. Such support might take the form of unpaid internships or research assistance to the organization. In these cases, a mentor within the organization should be sought. GCR projects could range from purely technical research to philosophical research, as long as there are immediate GCR applications.
Project proposals should clearly explain how they will engage directly with a risk that is global in scope and catastrophic in effect. At the same time, we recognize that no summer project can do more than contribute to some aspect of understanding, analyzing, or mitigating such a risk; please be realistic about the outcomes you hope to achieve.
Our Summer Research Program funds GCR related student projects mentored by professors (and in some cases, knowledgeable researchers outside of Stanford). Students doing a full-time project will receive a $7500 stipend for their research, which will last from June 22 to August 28.
All current Stanford undergraduates are welcome to apply.
Information for Mentors
Weekly meeting: Students are expected to join a weekly meeting of all grantees to discuss progress, build collaborations, hear speakers of interest, and create a cohort effect during a time when social distancing measures may remain strict. Mentors are welcome to attend as well.
Mentors may sponsor up to 3 projects in summer 2020, and will receive a $2000 honorarium for each project. (Some projects may involve more than one student.) Mentors in outside organizations may also be eligible for honoraria.
To maintain close involvement with the student’s project work, mentors must commit to meeting with students at least once a week. Mentors will be asked to file a brief final report on the project.
A list of potential project ideas.
Frequently Asked Questions
Answers to Frequently Asked Questions.
Apply to the SERI Summer Research Program.
- What happens if I don’t have a committed mentor by May 15?
- Can I have multiple mentors?
- How involved should the mentors be?
- Who can be a mentor?
- Can I work with a student partner?
- Is there a preference for full-time over part-time work?
- Is the 2020 summer program fully virtual?
- Can I talk to someone about further questions, project brainstorming, emailing mentors, etc.?
- Will housing and/or travel be reimbursed?
- How should I scope out my proposed project?
- Do I need to submit a fully polished project proposal in the application?
What happens if I don’t have a committed mentor by May 15?
We definitely encourage you to reach out to potential mentors on your own well ahead of May 15. If you don’t have a committed mentor by then, we can help you reach out to potential mentors. The earlier we can start this process, the better.
Can I have multiple mentors?
If there are multiple mentors interested in working with you, you are welcome to have multiple mentors, who will be expected to split the honorarium between them.
How involved should the mentors be?
Our expectation from mentors is that they’ll meet with their mentee roughly once per week.
Who can be a mentor?
Mentors can be Stanford faculty or postdocs, as well as established domain expert researchers at outside organizations. If you have any questions on whether someone is eligible to be your mentor, please email us.
Can I work with a student partner?
Yes, you can apply with a partner. Please note that you would like to work together in the application.
Is there a preference for full-time over part-time work?
Because we have not yet received all applications, we do not know what portion of full-time and part-time projects we will accept. Please mark whichever time commitment works with your summer plans.
Is the 2020 summer program fully virtual?
Can I talk to someone about further questions, project brainstorming, emailing mentors, etc.?
Will housing and/or travel be reimbursed?
We will not be reimbursing any housing or travel.
How should I scope out my proposed project?
The higher the stakes and the more specific the project, the better. We are most interested in funding projects that seek to better predict, understand, or prevent under-researched events and scenarios that could have extreme negative impacts on all of humanity. If you need any help or someone to bounce ideas off of, please reach out to us!
Do I need to submit a fully polished project proposal in the application?
We aren’t expecting a fully polished, highly academic proposal at all. Instead, the project proposal section of the application is intended for you to informally detail the specifics of a problem you’ve researched and find interesting. It’s rare to be able to scope out the perfect ten-week project on your own -- that’s what mentors are for!