Since we founded Sentience Institute (SI) earlier in 2017, we’ve had our noses to the grindstone working to produce high-quality strategic research that informs advocates. In this post, we’ll summarize what we’ve learned so far and discuss what we’ll do next year if we raise sufficient funding.
In June we published our first research product, summarizing the key evidence for important and controversial questions in animal advocacy. We consider this comprehensive page our most important contribution to the movement, and we plan to continue updating it as further evidence accumulates and to use it as our go-to reference when these questions come up in advocacy discussions.
We followed-up the publication of our Foundational Questions Summaries with a survey of researchers in the effective animal advocacy (EAA) space to gauge peer opinion on how best to aggregate the evidence. Aggregation is a particularly subjective and intuitive research challenge, and the survey was necessarily limited because the community is small, somewhat informal, and lacks agreed-upon standards for deciding whom to survey. There is also the challenge of interdependence of peer opinion in a small research community (i.e. people often base or update their views on each other’s, rather than each fully and independently evaluating the evidence). We might conduct a more detailed survey that attempts to overcome some of these challenges in the future (e.g. ask people for their independent views, or to evaluate each piece of evidence individually), but we’re not sure whether this would be worth these researcher’s time.
In October we asked a census-balanced sample of US adults whether they agree with statements like “I support a ban on animal farming” and “Most farmed animals are treated well…” We primarily conducted this survey to provide baseline data for tracking movement progress by repeating the survey in the future, since there’s no other regular survey of this nature.
We were pleasantly surprised to see that respondents were even more opposed to the animal farming industry than we expected, with for instance 47% supporting a slaughterhouse ban. We already had more optimistic predictions for responses than the average animal advocate (based on informal discussions we had prior to publicizing the results) because these questions were about institutional change and for some time we’ve thought the movement will get much more support if advocates frame animal farming as an institutional, rather than individual, problem. We think the average animal advocate hasn’t been fully aware of how much more support institutional change can receive. Even so, the strong opposition we saw in this survey made our views even stronger in this direction, and we think it’s evidence that advocates should favor more institutional messages (e.g. calling for legislative change instead of consumer change) and somewhat stronger messages (e.g. calling for the end of animal farming or at least the end of factory farming instead of a reduction in factory farming) than they are currently using, though of course individual and weaker messages have their roles in the movement.
The survey was covered by Plant Based News, VegNews, One Green Planet, and Organic Authority, and in numerous social media discussions as well as on the MFA and GFI blogs. We were hoping for more mainstream media coverage, but because the results seemed to make a bigger difference to animal advocates’ views than we expected, we think this research project was approximately as impactful as we expected it would be.
In late November we published our first technology adoption case study, which looked at the rise of nuclear power in France as model for clean meat adoption. Existing studies on clean meat adoption have mostly focused on consumer choices, but the choices by governments, industries, and news media are similarly, or perhaps even more, important.
The evidence in this report mainly suggests that some already-promising advocacy strategies are even more effective than previously thought. Namely, supply constraints (e.g. an unreliable supplier, cumbersome regulations) on a product opposed by advocates (e.g. fossil fuel electricity, animal-based meat) can be highly effective for encouraging the rise of a competitive, advocate-favored product (e.g. nuclear energy, animal-free meat); technical explanations arguing that safety risks of a new product are minimal (e.g. that the risk of a nuclear reactor explosion is small) can easily backfire, perhaps because they legitimize the safety concerns; centralization of technological development can be very useful for public-interest-driven emerging technologies; and public opinion of an emerging technology often locks in as highly negative or highly positive based on media portrayals and salient talking points.
We worry somewhat that these sorts of confirmatory results are less valuable than surprising results that change our minds. However, it’s unlikely that we’ll find surprising results in all of our case studies, and confirmatory results still improve our estimates of the relative effectiveness of these strategies.
This was the first project completed by our new research hire, J. Mohorčich, who joined us in early October. J. brings a valuable perspective from his work in political science, and we’re confident his experience with this case study will help him produce other valuable, impact-driven research in the future.
In early December we published our first social movement case study, which asked what factors led the British government to abolish the transatlantic Slave trade in 1807 and human chattel slavery in 1833, and what those findings suggest for the strategy of modern social movements, especially the movement against animal farming.
The evidence in this report, for example, suggests the following: advocates should focus on institutional change more than consumer change; advocates should run a major legislative campaign that is more agreeable to the public than eliminating the whole industry, but which will still substantially reduce its scale; welfare reforms should be framed as a step towards an end goal of eliminating the entire institution; it’s important that the industry eventually fails to implement agreeable reforms, so the public will see it as incorrigible; reducing the scale of the industry before a major campaign, either directly or indirectly, can be highly effective; and certain types of messaging can be highly effective, such as focusing heavily on just a few salient stories of individuals suffering in the industry.
This report also mostly found confirmatory evidence, rather than surprising results. We expected this, especially because the antislavery movement has already been an area of more superficial study in EAA, but it’s an important consideration for the value of this and similar research in the future.
This report is notable in that it is the most detailed strategic analysis written to date of a social movement from the EAA perspective. It was started late in 2016, before we launched SI, and has been an ongoing part-time project for me (Kelly, Executive Director), since then. We left the deadline on this project fairly open-ended so I could assess when further research was mostly not changing the report’s implications, and we think this was the right approach. We think the optimal amount of time spent on social movement case studies varies a lot based on the movement, say, between 2 and 9 full-time-equivalent months in most situations.
Completing the initial manuscript of this book has been the primary project of our Research Director Jacy Reese since we launched. It was also started in late 2016, when Jacy submitted his book proposal. The book will illuminate humanity’s transition to an animal-free food system, detailing evidence-based social and technological strategies for achieving that end. The manuscript has been submitted and is going through the publishing process at Beacon Press, a mission-driven publisher that regularly publishes serious nonfiction on important social issues.
The book is mostly comprised of secondary research. It presents the most important and interesting EAA conclusions that we want to share with a wider audience, including some that are fairly straightforward for people immersed in EAA. For example, it argues that the biggest changes in the food industry will come from companies producing low-cost animal-free meat, dairy, and eggs designed to most accurately mimic animal-based foods, rather than from companies producing health-centric and niche products targeted at vegetarian and vegan consumers. The book also includes anecdotes and historical information, such as the history of humanity’s expanding moral circle. The project as a whole is part research and part outreach.
The book will hopefully serve as a reference for important EAA research findings; advance the understanding of, interest in, and prestige of EAA in the broader animal advocacy and effective altruism communities; and shift public opinion, helping people view animal farming as an institutional rather than an individual problem, helping them view an animal-free food system as a realistic and tangible outcome, and generally beckoning a new wave of interest in movement against animal farming. We’re planning for all author earnings from sales, talks, etc. to be donated back to SI (though these will likely be small).
We also produced Global Farmed & Factory Farmed Animals Estimates, suggesting that around 71% of farmed land animals and probably 96% of all farmed animals globally are factory farmed, and that probably 85% of the farmed animals alive at any time are fish. Our US Factory Farming Estimates suggest that at least 50% of cows, 96% of pigs, and 99% of birds farmed in the US are factory farmed. The evidence available to generate these estimates is very limited, but gives us some understanding of the scale of the issue nonetheless.
Just after we publicly launched in June, I gave a talk about our mission and goals at the Effective Altruism Global conference in Boston. In August, Jacy gave a talk on the pros and cons of confrontational activism at the Animal Rights National Conference in DC, and had a poster at the New Harvest conference in October. We’ve also continued to do some informal career and research advising in the effective animal advocacy community.
Overall, we’re happy with the amount and quality of research we’ve produced in 2017, and we’re excited to continue seeing the impact of our research on discussions about animal advocacy movement strategy. We’ve already heard some feedback from advocates suggesting that our research has updated their views and is increasing their impact, and we hope to do a formal survey to assess our impact later in December or January. As we decided when we founded SI, if we’re ultimately unable to produce important research insights that significantly change the decisions of animal advocates, we may pivot to other movement-building work, for example the recruitment and development of talented young advocates. Two specific projects we’ve considered are producing (in collaboration with other EAA organizations) a short book that would be available online and in print to serve as an introduction and guide to EAA, and an EAA job board. We could also give more talks for effective altruism, vegetarian, and animal advocacy student organizations at universities.
In 2017, we’ve completed a significant amount of operational set-up, including setting up the nonprofit as a legal corporation; making our first hire; setting up research procedures for polls, technology case studies, and social movement case studies; and setting up our research agenda and foundational questions summaries. Given that, we’re hopeful that we can accomplish even more direct research and outreach work in 2018.
This month (December 2017) we’re doing some initial research to better plan our 2018 projects. What we do have fairly settled is first that Jacy will be publishing The End of Animal Farming, which will also enable him to give talks, write op-eds, appear on podcasts, and otherwise promote EAA and its research findings. Jacy also plans to continue to coordinate SI’s research efforts, including helping to set up a formal peer review process similar to that used by Animal Charity Evaluators.
J. plans to work on more technology adoption case studies. The most promising projects in this area seem to be (1) looking into GMOs, because they are a recent food technology that has dealt with substantial controversy and seen varying degrees of adoption, and (2) continuing to research the clean energy movement, in particular the biofuels industry, which thrived in Silicon Valley like the clean meat movement is, and yet major companies, like Amyris, have since largely failed to meet their ambitious goals.
Jacy and/or I may conduct literature reviews of fields where large numbers of experiments have been done on effective messaging strategies. Examples include the cost-effectiveness of different tactics for increasing voter turnout like door-to-door canvassing and robocalling, and the effectiveness of anti-smoking mass media campaigns in changing consumer behavior. Another possibility is further study of the modern environmental movement, expanding the scope of Animal Charity Evaluators’ 2016 case study, which seems promising given the similarities of environmental advocacy to farmed animal advocacy and the wealth of evidence available on various environmental advocacy campaigns.
Additional projects and research topics we are considering are listed on our Research Agenda. We’re very open to feedback on our 2018 priorities as we iron them out this month.
We hope to raise $185,000 by the end of 2017, which will support us through the end of 2018 with a new research hire brought on in February and additional surveys and studies. Our total costs for 2018 will be around $227,000 with four staff, but thanks to the Effective Altruism Foundation, the Centre for Effective Altruism, and the generous private donors who have supported us so far, we already have $42,000 of that covered. Our budget breakdown for 2018 is approximately as follows:
We have not included a funding reserve in our figures because we hope to continue raising donations through 2018 in order to maintain a stable amount of on-hand funding.
If we fail to reach our $185,000 goal, we probably won’t be able to hire a fourth team member to conduct more research, but we can still continue with three staff and minimal expenses if we raise at least $119,000.
With your support, we can continue producing new research insights for animal advocacy strategy and sharing them with advocates and the general public. We’d love to hear your feedback on the work we’ve produced in 2017 and our plans for 2018, so if you have any questions or comments, please reach out to us at info@, kelly@, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for being a part of the effective animal advocacy community and working to make the movement for farmed animals the most effective movement it can be.
Kelly Witwicki, Executive Director