Creating Welfare Biology: A Research Proposal

[This idea came out of an ACE research workshop. I would like to thank Zach Groff and Mark Budolfson for brainstorming this idea with me, as well as ACE for offering me the opportunity to think of it.]

[Crossposted with no modifications from my blog.]

Many people in the wild-animal suffering space think it would be a good idea to make a discipline of “welfare biology”—that is, the scientific study of wild animal welfare, the way that animal welfare studies scientifically studies domestic animal welfare. From my perspective, there are two big benefits to creating welfare biology. First, it would probably increase the number of research dollars that go to wild-animal welfare research, while reducing the opportunity cost: welfare biology would be competing with other fields of biology for funding, not with starving Africans and tortured pigs. Second, it would give us academic credibility. In most of the developed world, terrestrial wildlife often live on government land (for example, much of the United States’s wildlife lives on the quarter of US land owned by the government), which means changing government policies towards wildlife is a promising method of improving their welfare. Even in human-inhabited areas, changing government policies may be an effective way of improving wild-animal welfare. Governments are generally more likely to listen to tenured academics than they are to bloggers.

However, it is unclear to me how one creates an academic field. It is possible that people already know how academic fields form; I have not studied the subject in depth, and would welcome links from commenters. But if there is not already an academic body of work on the subject then it seems useful to do a small research project to explore how academic fields form. I think the best method is a series of qualitative case studies exploring how various relevant scientific fields formed.

I’m aware of two similar research projects in the effective altruist community. Luke Muehlhauser has written a report on early field growth. However, his report concentrates on the role of philanthropists and only touches on what non-philanthropists can do. It also mostly examines fields relevant to artificial intelligence risk research, which has some overlap with fields relevant to welfare biology but not entirely. Animal Charity Evaluators has done several case studies of other social movements; however, its case studies focus on social movements more broadly rather than academic fields specifically.

Histories of academic fields don’t usually have the information I’d want from them. For example, this paper—a fairly typical history of conservation biology—highlights several important milestones, but doesn’t talk about the details. There’s a lot of emphasis on particular research projects and controversies, such as whether large reserves are better than small reserves, but not a lot of nitty-gritty detail about how so many ecologists became interested in conservation and how they created common knowledge that they were all interested in them. Nevertheless, the histories do identify key events and key historical figures.

Many academic fields have formed relatively recently; it makes sense to study recently-formed fields, because academia changes over time. So most of the key historical figures involved in forming a particular academic field may still be alive. The researcher can contact these figures and set up qualitative interviews, focusing on the information that gets left out of histories. How did people get interested in the topic? How did they meet other people who were interested? What steps (journals, book publications, conferences, something else I haven’t thought of) were particularly important in getting the field to be self-sustaining? The researcher should also ask for recommendations of sources written at the time and thus supplement their interviews with archival research (to help compensate for the interviewees’ poor or self-serving memories).

Once several case studies have been conducted, the researcher can look for common themes. For example, perhaps popular attention or an activist movement galvanized academics into forming the field. Perhaps founding a journal gave people a place to submit papers that otherwise would have languished, unsuited for any currently existing journal. Perhaps an exciting book publication got everyone talking about the subject. This can inform wild animal advocates’ strategies in forming welfare biology.

No field is going to be exactly analogous to welfare biology; no one has ever attempted to scientifically study how humans can improve the well-being of wild animals before (although the study of animal emotions explores wild animals’ well-being more generally). However, there are several characteristics that might make a field more analogous. Welfare biology is value-laden: that is, instead of just collecting facts about the world, welfare biology is intended to change the world. People who think wild-animal suffering is just peachy are unlikely to be interested in welfare biology, just as people who don’t care about environmental preservation probably don’t care about conservation biology. The researcher might want to emphasize interdisciplinary fields, particularly fields that grew out of biology or that focus on animals. The researcher will probably want to avoid purely social-science or humanities fields, which may not be generalizable to natural science.

Fields it may be interesting to study include:

  • Conservation biology (possibly the field most analogous to welfare biology, as a value-laden science that focuses on wild animals and plants)

  • Animal welfare science (grew out of attempts to maximize productivity, thus may not be applicable)

  • Environmental engineering

  • Artificial intelligence risk (interesting because it is a field in the process of forming; advocates for future people, who like animals cannot self-advocate)

  • Environmental ethics

  • Environmental economics

  • Developmental economics (focuses on people in the developing world, who have a limited ability to advocate for themselves in the developed world)

  • Positive psychology

It is important to do case studies of failed attempts to start a field, as well as successful ones. Some of the apparent common ground between successful attempts might actually be common ground between all attempts, whether successful or unsuccessful. However, it is much more difficult to find a list of failed attempts than it is to find a list of successful attempts. I suggest that the researcher should ask their early interviewees for ideas, since the interviewees might have personally witnessed unsuccessful attempts to start an academic field. Luke Muehlhauser’s report on early field growth briefly discusses cryonics and molecular nanotechnology, which may be interesting fields to review.

I will not personally be able to perform this research project, but I think it’s an interesting and important project for someone to take up, and I’d be happy to consult with any effective altruists who want to do it. Ideally, the researcher would have expertise in qualitative research, particularly interviewing. The final report could create knowledge useful not only for wild-animal advocates but for any effective altruists who want to create an academic field.