Announcing Rethink Priorities

This essay was jointly written by Peter Hurford and Marcus A. Davis.

Rethink Charity is excited to announce our new project, Rethink Priorities, which is dedicated to doing foundational research on neglected causes in a highly empirical and transparent manner. This work will begin this year, beginning with a focus on lessons that can be taken from analyzing vaccinations as an intervention in the developing world and animal welfare corporate campaigns.

This work will be led by Marcus A. Davis and Peter Hurford, with Marcus working full-time and Peter working part-time. 

Marcus is a co-founder of Charity Entrepreneurship and Charity Science Health, where he systematically analyzed global poverty interventions, led cost-effectiveness analyses, and oversaw all technical aspects of the project. Before joining the Charity Science team, he ran Effective Altruism Chicago and worked with LEAN coordinating outreach to local EA groups around the globe.

Peter is a data scientist working from Chicago. He co-founded Rethink Charity, and is on the board of Charity Science and Animal Charity Evaluators. He has reviewed and produced research on cause prioritization and effective altruism since 2013.

In doing this research, we focus on the following principles:

  • Generating new insight and knowledge in addition to synthesizing existing research. We’re focused more on producing cutting-edge content rather than summarizing existing content.
  • Publishing shorter and more digestible information more frequently, rather than publishing sprawling research less frequently. By taking the same amount of information and breaking it down into “minimal publishing units,” we make it easier for ourselves and others to understand and build upon, and get quicker feedback loops.
  • Emphasizing quick feedback loops trying to go from initial research to an initial publication in about a month.
  • Seeking tractability in research by looking for questions that we may be able to make meaningful progress on. We’ll hack away on the edges, so to speak.
  • Keeping all research in touch with the bigger picture, building upon individual publications to try to answer key questions.
  • Finding new opportunities over creating more ranked lists of existing opportunities. We predict improving on existing uncertain ranking methods is less effective than finding directions that have been previously neglected in EA. We’re unlikely to convince people of the number one cause, but we might find something others have not thought about.
  • Tracking the impact of our research to help us make key decisions. We have plans to do follow-up reviews on all our research, including surveys to determine the influence of the research.
  • Shutting the project down if it doesn’t generate impact to avoid wasting our time and effort. We are pre-committing to an initial six month test phase and pivoting as necessary. We will completely shut down if there’s no discernable impact within the first year. If our work isn’t helping others make better decisions, we should try something else.

Right now, our research agenda is focused on:

  • trying to learn how to apply cost-effectiveness frameworks to uncertain domains. (As an example, see our first post on vaccine research and development.)
  • prioritization and research work within interventions aimed at nonhuman animals (as research progress here looks uniquely tractable compared to other cause areas)
  • assisting LEAN and SHIC in gathering evidence about EA movement building (as research here looks tractable and neglected)

What we’ve done so far:

Our research agenda and approach are still in the very early stages and may change significantly as we grow and learn.

Comments (14)

Comment author: Ervin 06 March 2018 08:42:50PM 6 points [-]

Do you/Rethink Charity need funding? I presume the EA Community fund is throwing a healthy amount of money your work?

Comment author: Tee 07 March 2018 05:38:24PM 4 points [-]

Thanks for asking Ervin. Were we to scale this project according to our estimates, we would need additional funding. There are also some small gaps in Rethink Charity operations that we'd like to fill. Talks are ongoing with CEA about additional funding either through their Grants or Funds programs

Comment author: Ervin 09 March 2018 01:42:50AM 7 points [-]

Huh, given the odd funding splurges (things like a $60k EA Grant for developing a new version of Less Wrong for people to have fun intellectual discussions on, and I believe a similarly luxuriant amount to EA Geneva) I'm surprised an organization which does as much as Rethink Charity isn't already fully funded by the movement building fund. Does anyone know how much money got donated to that and where it's gone?

Comment author: Tee 12 March 2018 07:54:59PM *  4 points [-]

Ben West asked this question in the EA Facebook group late last year, and I believe EA Funds has updated since then: https://www.facebook.com/groups/effective.altruists/permalink/1606722932717391/

It's not clear what the optimal amount of funding for resurrecting LW should be, but according to the EA survey (run by Rethink), LW had been a top source for introducing people to EA until recently: http://effective-altruism.com/ea/1h5/ea_survey_2017_series_how_do_people_get_into_ea/

Qualifying this by clarifying that I'm the ED of Development for Rethink Charity – I would say the lineup of projects offered by Rethink (SHIC, LEAN, RC Forward and Rethink Priorities, EA Survey) should be among the most competitive funding options for community building, especially considering our reach and impact on a comparatively low budget: https://rtcharity.org/monthly-donor-briefing-03-2018/

Comment author: Dunja 02 March 2018 10:14:05PM 6 points [-]

This all sounds really great, glad to hear you actually have a whole project on this! :)

Do you plan to use the empirical info you've gathered as guidelines for funding, or what is your idea of how your results could be employed for charity issues?

I'm also curious which factors you plan to investigate when it comes to the EA movement building?

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 03 March 2018 05:34:50PM 2 points [-]

We do plan to potentially use the research to inform grantmaking and the formation of charities. We hope that charity grantmakers (e.g., OpenPhil) and rankers (e.g., GiveWell, ACE) may find our research useful for their own decision making.

Comment author: ThomasSittler 06 March 2018 01:42:19PM *  1 point [-]

I'm curious if you've considered applying to work at these organisations and doing the research with them instead?

We might ask: what is the shape of the returns to scale curve on this type of research? If there are economies of scale, people like Peter and Marcus would be more productive working inside bigger organisations. If there are diseconomies of scale, we would want lots of very small research teams.

My guess is that there are massive economies of scale in translating research into action (e.g. research done inside GiveWell has a clear path to influencing millions of $ per year, research of similar quality done by me is unlikely to influence many donations beyond my own). Less clear about quality of research itself, though I'd still guess teams of 10+ inside a single office, with a management structure, is better than very small teams of 1-3.

Of course this is a very simple model. There are, for instance, transition costs.

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 06 March 2018 07:49:05PM *  5 points [-]

We did consider applying to join these organizations. I (Peter) am personally constrained more in what I can do as long as I want to keep my full-time data science job, as I doubt existing orgs would want to hire me for just 10hrs/week. Marcus is working full-time and has more flexibility to join an organization, but has decided not to.

Broadly, we think working at an organization (we've considered OpenPhil and ACE) has a lot of benefits and resources, but it also has a lot of costs. If we do research on our own, we are free to explore whatever we wish without restriction. Avoiding constraints early makes a lot of sense while we still figure things out and while we're not yet sure which organizations' research agenda we agree with and want to constrain ourselves to.

We're also worried about the slow publication cycle of existing organizations and the lack of public discussion that occurs around EA cause prioritization content. Broadly, we're in an early period where we want to experiment and fail fast, and if we fail, joining an existing organization may be an attractive way to keep going. We're not sure yet if this project is the best path forward, and we're committed to following up and shutting down if it doesn't work out.

Lastly, we think doing this project could be a good way of building up our track record and CV for if and when we do apply to other organizations.

Comment author: zdgroff 06 March 2018 12:20:26AM 2 points [-]

I'm excited to see what happens here! Will you be comparing different areas and the lessons learned to apply to the others? I think lessons from poverty may in some cases translate to animal advocacy and vice versa (and there may be some potential for cross-pollination with growing EA or other causes).

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 06 March 2018 07:51:32PM 2 points [-]

Thanks! We agree and definitely hope we can bring more empiricism to animal advocacy work.

Comment author: inconvenient 03 March 2018 12:24:46PM *  3 points [-]

Have you asked GPI and FHI's macrostrategy team whether they have suggestions for kinds of prioritization research (if any) that you could usefully do? This is a difficult kind of research to do, and LEAN/SHIC/Peter don't have a track record of generating important prioritization considerations in the same way as these other organizations.

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 03 March 2018 05:33:43PM 6 points [-]

Give us a moment to establish a track record first. We're just starting. ;)

We have not talked with GPI and FHI but are moderately familiar with their work. I think we're suggesting a modestly different approach and research agenda. We'll see over the next few months if it pans out to anything useful.

Comment author: Denkenberger 17 March 2018 03:45:09PM 0 points [-]

I'm glad to see you are investigating present generation causes with significant uncertainty, which seem to be less looked at. Any interest in investigating preparation for agricultural catastrophes?

Comment author: sdspikes 13 March 2018 11:33:42PM 0 points [-]

Publishing shorter and more digestible information more frequently, rather than publishing sprawling research less frequently. By taking the same amount of information and breaking it down into “minimal publishing units,” we make it easier for ourselves and others to understand and build upon, and get quicker feedback loops.