8

My Cause Selection: Thomas Mather

My overall goal is to reduce the suffering of sentient beings. In this article, I describe four of my favorite causes, family planning, global health and cognitive development, farm animals, and software patent reform. For each cause, I list the rationale, programs that I support, and challenges.


I’m interested in programs that have a high potential impact over the next few decades. By supporting smaller families, family planning can enable greater investment in health, nutrition and education per child. Investing in child health can lead to increased cognitive development and income gains in the next generation. Scientific and empirical research may have meta level impacts in the future.

Family Planning

Rationale:

  • “Family planning is widely recognized as one of the most cost-effective health interventions. Decades of research have demonstrated that modest investments in family planning can save lives and dramatically improve maternal and child health … Research results from Bangladesh are demonstrating that, in addition to contributing to better health, family planning is an essential component of sustainable development and poverty alleviation.” Source: Population Reference Bureau (2010) Family Planning Improves the Economic Well-Being of Families and Communities1

Cultural and demand-side factors:

  • Demographic and Health Surveys indicate many of the barriers to family planning in developing countries are cultural. For example, many women want to avoid getting pregnant but don't use contraception due to their husband's opposition.

  • There are misperceptions about the side effects of contraceptives.

  • Mass media and interpersonal communication can be used to promote family planning and address cultural barriers and misconceptions around their use. Mass media can reach millions of people at a low cost per person reached.

Programs that I support:

  • The Gates Foundation’s Urban Reproductive Health Initiative (URHI) is an example of a family planning program that incorporates promotion as well as service improvements. URHI has been implemented in 15 cities across India, Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal. On average, modern contraceptive use rates in URHI cities increased 2.5% a year.

  • Development Media International is running a randomized control trial (RCT) of using radio to promote family planning and gender equality in Burkina Faso.

  • DKT Mexico is running a facebook campaign to promote contraceptive use and reduce teen pregnancy. I am in discussions with DKT Mexico about a large scale experiment with Facebook ads in ten countries. The evaluation would be to compare the teenage pregnancy rate trend in countries with the ads vs. those without the ads. Facebook ads in Latin America cost as little as two cents per click.

  • Young 1ove provides information to students on HIV risk aggregated by age and gender, with emphasis on the increased risk of infection from cross-generational sex. A RCT for a similar program in Kenya showed a 28 percent reduction in adolescent pregnancy rates, which is a proxy for unprotected sex and HIV transmission. Young 1ove is replicating this RCT in Botswana, in conjunction with J-PAL Africa, and in partnership with Evidence Action.

  • I have created a new Facebook group to discuss effective family planning charities.

Weaknesses:

  • Finding information such as cost effectiveness for programs can be difficult. If funders and implementers would publish details of programs they fund, including costs, this could help funders learn about which programs are most effective. Source: Jason Gaverick Matheny (2004) Family Planning Programs: Getting the Most for the Money

  • There is a lack of data and independent monitoring. PMA2020 is helping to address that need by having annual surveys for family planning in eleven countries.

Global Health and Cognitive Development

Rationale:

  • Investing in child health improves lives and leads to improved cognitive development and income gains.

Programs I support:

  • GiveWell’s scientific advisor, Kevin Esvelt, is advising me on granting to help eradicate Schistosomiasis, Malaria, and Dengue fever using CRISPR gene drives.

  • While there is significant funding for Malaria gene drives, there is less funding available for Schistosomiasis and Dengue fever gene drives. It might cost around $0.5-$5 million to develop and $10-$25 million to thoroughly test gene drives to eradicate Schistosomiasis.

  • Work for gene sequencing of soil transmitted helminths (STH) is currently under way or planned. Once that is complete, we may look at funding transgenesis, and then gene drives, with the ultimate goal of eradicating STH.

  • A new nonprofit organization, Responsive Science, will provide an open and inclusive community platform to share, discuss, and guide science and technology with an initial focus on gene drive research. Objectives are to:

    • Increase the likelihood that gene drive applications will be technically safe and publicly supported, both prerequisites for ethical release.

    • Improve the efficiency of exploratory science by pioneering an open model in which proposals are shared and evaluated by the community, thereby reducing wasteful duplication and providing potential funders with relevant information.

    • Build a community with experience evaluating and discussing powerful new technologies with shared implications.

Weakness:

  • A challenge with global health is the lack of independent evaluation and monitoring data. To that end, I am in discussions with PMA2020 to create a annual household and school survey around water, sanitation, and schistosomiasis in Uganda.

Farm Animals:

Rationale:

  • I believe that animals are sentient and experience pain. Though reduced animal product consumption and improved farming practices, humans can greatly reduce the amount of animal suffering.

Programs I support:

  • I support Animal Charities Evaluators’ top charities who advocate for reducing farm animal suffering.

  • I also follow New Harvest recommendations for funding scientific research for cultured meat, enabling a future when meat can be grown without farm animal suffering.

Weakness:

  • A challenge is the lack of high quality evidence showing how much campaigns reduce animal product consumption. I am collaborating with Che Green at Faunalytics and Nick Cooney at Mercy for Animals to support research on farm animal advocacy.

Software Patent Reform:

Rationale:

Programs I support:

Weaknesses:

  • It is difficult for a new funder to understand the patent reform organizations.

  • Given the lack of knowledge, room for more “effective” funding is limited, maybe on the order of $200k/year.

  • Opposition to patent reform is well funded by lawyers and companies who exploit the existing system.



1 The Matlab study referenced in this article included child and maternal health components for some of the treatment period. So not all of the positive outcomes can be attributed to family planning alone.

Comments (13)

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 29 August 2015 03:02:56PM 3 points [-]

I like that this list has an interesting mix of standard and non-standard EA causes.

I'm curious about software patent reform. I haven't looked into it at all but my naive guess is that it's not nearly as cost-effective as something like farm animal advocacy or global health. What makes you think it's sufficiently effective to make it one of your favorite causes?

Comment author: tjmather  (EA Profile) 29 August 2015 03:55:27PM *  1 point [-]

I think you are right in the sense that farm animal advocacy and global health have much more room for additional funding.

One reason I'm interested in software patent abolition strategies is that they are neglected by funders. While there a decent amount of funding for incremental software patent reform, there is almost no funding available to significantly reduce the patentability of software.

I'd guess that around $250k/year can support "low hanging fruit" strategies towards advocating for reducing software patentability. I'd expect these efforts to have 1% probability of significantly reducing software patent litigation by, say, 50%. If we think litigation costs around $20 billion a year, then the expected value would about $100 million a year. I'm unsure I'd advocate for funding over $250k/year at this time - I think additional funding would be better spent on animals or global health.

Givewell has a good overview of software patent reform.

Comment author: kokotajlod 31 August 2015 02:10:47AM 2 points [-]

This is a great list, thanks! The software patent reform idea was surprising to me, but in a good way.

You say a lot about these four causes; what about the rest? You've said a bit (though not in so many words) about why you don't go in for x-risk reduction (you want to make a difference in the next few decades) but what about e.g. immigration system reform, justice system reform, and pandemic prevention?

Comment author: tjmather  (EA Profile) 31 August 2015 02:07:57PM *  1 point [-]

Given my own limited time and resources, I decided to focus on just four causes. The other causes you mentioned seem worthwhile and it's good the Open Philanthropy Project is researching those causes.

Comment author: Lila 14 September 2015 12:17:17AM 1 point [-]

Family planning has a pretty strong anti-natalist assumption behind it. One cost to family planning is preventing potentially net positive lives. There are reasons to think we should value population (http://users.ox.ac.uk/~sfop0060/pdf/Should%20we%20value%20population.pdf).

I'm not confident enough in pro-natalism to go around poking holes in condoms (especially because of costs to autonomy). But I'm not confident enough in anti-natalism to support family planning charities.

Comment author: tjmather  (EA Profile) 04 October 2015 04:15:03PM *  1 point [-]

I think you are correct in the sense that overpopulation arguments have a strong anti-natalist assumption behind them. However, most of the funding for family planning comes from governments and large foundations like Gates whose focus is on saving and improving people's lives.

Comment author: ChrisSmith 02 September 2015 08:37:25AM 0 points [-]

I really enjoyed reading this post, and I'm pleased to see an effective altruist making a case for family planning as an effective cause. You sound particularly well informed about development issues - have you laid out your personal or professional background somewhere? I've asked to join your Effective FP facebook group

Comment author: tjmather  (EA Profile) 02 September 2015 01:57:35PM *  0 points [-]

Thanks. My professional background is as a tech entreprenuer, my LinkedIn profile has more details. I've learned about development issues mostly by searching Google Scholar, reading GiveWell's website, and talking to knowledgeable people.

Comment author: MattBall 05 January 2017 04:30:53PM -1 points [-]

Thomas, super interesting list, although I don't quite get the Patent stuff in terms of EA. I'd love to talk to you more about Having Kids. But first, I'd be interested in your thoughts on this: http://www.onestepforanimals.org/why-one-step.html Thanks, Matt

Comment author: tjmather  (EA Profile) 06 January 2017 02:31:49PM *  0 points [-]

I agree that the patent stuff might not be a top EA cause - the inclusion here was based on my personal experience of being sued by a patent troll.

I have looked at http://havingkids.org/ I don't really see their model taking off as it seems difficult to understand and a bit unusual.

I'm currently focused on male contraceptive research in order to help reduce unwanted pregnancy and abortion. Approximately 40% of pregnancies are unwanted worldwide, many of which end in abortion. I'm donating to https://www.malecontraceptive.org/

I believe that behavior change is very difficult, and it might be more pragmatic to develop technologies that people want and that help animals as a side effect. Examples are better male contraception and tastier meat alternatives.

I think http://www.onestepforanimals.org/why-one-step.html does raise some very good points on why we should focus on reducing chicken consumption, thanks for sharing that!

Comment author: MattBall 06 January 2017 09:06:52PM -1 points [-]

Thanks for the reply, Thomas. Two things:

  1. Regarding Having Kids: The main idea is to change the conversation from parents or women thinking in isolation, but instead having the rights of the future child and the interests of society be a part of any decision to have a kid. This should lead to smaller families.

I am curious as to why you think male contraceptions are a better means of preventing unwanted pregnancy, compared to empowering women and providing them with better contraception. My admitedly limited experience is such that men in general care much less about preventing pregnancy, and are even inclined to want a woman to get pregnant. As the economists would say, women are the ones who have incentive here.

  1. I am all for the work of The Good Food Institute and Hampton Creek! But I think that there will have to be demand for those products. As that One Step page points out, even with all our efforts and the advances in food technology, per-capita consumption of animals is at an all-time high. That's why I think there is a need for a re-thought demand-side campaign

Thanks again. Down with patent trolls!

Comment author: tjmather  (EA Profile) 07 January 2017 02:57:17PM *  0 points [-]

I believe that both contraceptive delivery and research are important, and wouldn't advocate for funding one over the other. I was thinking more in terms of high priority funding gaps for both areas, and because male contraceptive research is so neglected, there appear to be some low hanging fruit. There are scientists who want to work on a clean sheets pill as well as other methods but who haven't been able to for years due to lack of funding. If successful, the clean sheets pill might be able prevent both pregnancy and STDs such as AIDS.

Many men do care about their partners and avoiding unintended pregnancy, and many women struggle to find a contraceptive method that works for them with manageable side effects. Even looking at it just from a purely selfish perspective, many men do want to avoid the responsibility of having kids and having to pay child support.

I completely agree that there is a need for re-thought on the demand side campaign. I'm hoping that with the ACE research fund ( http://researchfund.animalcharityevaluators.org/ ) we'll learn more about what works on the demand side, the challenge being able to measure small effect sizes. It does seem plausible that advocacy could be more effective if the ask is smaller, e.g. switching from chicken to beef or better yet a tastier meat alternative.

Comment author: MattBall 08 January 2017 10:56:10PM 1 point [-]

In addition to the difficulty in measuring small effect sizes, one of the significant problems with trying to evaluate advocacy is the necessary longitudinal nature of any meaningful study. Plenty of studies have shown that ~80% of people who go veg goes back to eating animals. What this doesn't capture is that all those millions of former vegetarians are actively working against others making compassionate choices, telling everyone they found it impossible to be vegetarian, how fanatical vegans are, etc. (Also, we would need to capture the full impact of our argument / advocacy, since most everything we put out there argues strongly for replacing red meat with chickens; http://bit.ly/2jrYBEB) IMHO, it is better to simply ask, "Don't eat chickens." Don't say "eat beef" or "eat vegan alternatives" -- just leave the ask as simple and straightforward as possible. More: http://www.mattball.org/2016/06/can-our-choices-make-difference.html Thanks for the conversation!