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Should Grants Fund EA Projects Retrospectively?

by FCCC2 min read8th Sep 202110 comments

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Retrospective funding, i.e. funding a project after it is completed, is not a new idea. Some organisations already do it, such as the Future of Life Institute. I used to think that this way of funding was a mistake. Since we want to change future behaviour, I thought it made sense (from a consequentialist perspective) to only fund future projects: We can’t change the past, so rewarding past work has no effect on behaviour.

But this line of reasoning is incorrect: Providing grants for past projects encourages people to create work without having any funding secured. It also allows for grant funds to evaluate finished products, rather than speculate on the quality of a project before it has even started, thereby allowing funds to better estimate the benefits of a research project.

In terms of implementing retrospective funding, I have a few tentative thoughts.

  • New funding should account for the salary and level of funding a project has already received: If you would have paid $5000 for a project, but it has already received $4000, you’d only ever fund up to the 1000-dollar difference.
  • People who are not resource constrained should not receive any funding. Let’s say Mary is the best researcher in the world, she’s working full-time on EA projects, and she has a personal assistant to handle any distractions (emails, grocery shopping, and so on). Providing extra retrospective funding to her can’t really increase her research output, and it’s unlikely to incentivize other people to work on EA causes, since they know Mary is more likely to receive new funding than they are.
  • Funding should be done at the margin rather than be winner-takes-all. First, evaluate the value of a large number of projects, and retrospectively fund each project in proportion to project’s funding shortfall (i.e. the value of the project minus the amount it has already been funded). This reduces the variance of returns. And since rational people are risk-averse, you get a larger benefit (i.e. change in behaviour) for the same level of funding.

None of this is to say that upfront funding has no place. It does. Especially for projects that require such funding for upfront costs, such as equipment and so on. But aside from those cases, I think that retrospective funding is a better way to do things.

I’d like to hear everyone’s thoughts on the matter to see if I’m missing something. Should more grants be awarded to projects retrospectively, and why? Are there other circumstances for which upfront funding is superior?

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[very quick technical-ish thoughts on a necessary condition] I would guess funding retrospectively today is only useful if you think you're going to increase funding in the future. 

The purpose of funding is to enable people to complete projects -- more people are willing to do a project with more funding, and only really rare, super-duper value-aligned people will do a project with very little funding. 

Retrospectively funding people that are already doing the project ignores they've already signaled they're the type that is happy to do the project for low funding. But, like you said, such funding also signals to future researchers on the margin that their expected funding is higher than whatever it is right now. 

So, it's a way for orgs like OpenPhil to smooth researcher consumption over time if they expect they themselves will be getting richer in the future (and thus be able to increase funding for their projects). Retrospective funding should be set at the transfer required in expectation for the marginal researcher who brings in extra value equal to the cost of retrospective funding (MB = MC)? This argument is in expectation and is likely less effective for more risk-averse people -- if OpenPhil has the money now they should probably just increase upfront funding. 

This also relies on other things, like OpenPhil being seen as trustworthy enough to keep up the scheme of retrospective funding, of the signal of retrospective funding being sufficiently public, etc. 

(On the run now, but I see people linked some stuff in the comments i'll check out soon. If all of what I said is common knowledge already, sorry!!)

I would love to understand this comment (I'm very interested in retrospective funding ideas), but I don't currently. Could you perhaps go back a few inferential steps or link to relevant posts?

Lots of funding is implicitly retrospective in the sense that what you've done historically is a big input into whether individuals and groups get funding. Yet, because most funding mixes several factors including past work, anticipated future work, reputation, etc. I think there may be an open opportunity here.

I'd be particularly excited to see funding for projects that have already occurred where it is clear that the success or failure of the past project is all that is being considered. This might encourage more unconventional or initially hard-to-assess projects and would provide a more concrete signal about which projects actually succeeded historically.

I think retrospective funding is a really good norm to encourage, but the benefits only really start accruing once it's relatively widespread. Once it's common knowledge that one may get paid for self-initiated quality work, there's a very wide-but-weak incentive applied across the whole community. The norm-building itself, however, is a stag hunt with upfront costs.

Notice that this incentive affects the poorest of us most, and the people who don't already have jobs in EA. This means that it fulfills a funding niche that isn't already covered neatly by regular jobs and contract-based funding. (I'm especially thinking about those of us without jobs due to disability, but we'd still like to be paid for contributions during our uptime.)

I think the fact that so many EAs have independently arrived at this idea, is strong evidence in favour of there being a real potential for good here.

 • I have previously independently arrived at the idea.

 • Linda Linsefors wrote about it.

 • Ben Kuhn, Paul Christiano and Katja Grace wrote, about, it in the form of impact certificates

 • Remmelt Ellen wrote about it and has a patreon page.

 • Dony Christie has one too.

(If anyone know any other EAs with patreons (or similar), I'd like to know!)

I think we are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to who could potentially benefit from it being a universal expectation that if you do good work for the EA community, you can get paid for it.

Additionally, I think a norm for retrospective funding could open up occasional really high-impact giving opportunities for small-scale donors.

Good article, it was interesting to read) 

5 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:24 AM

I just quickly wanted to say that this seems related to impact certificates: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/tag/certificate-of-impact

 

There have been a few forum posts on this topic, you can just search the forum (or google) for "impact certificate" and will probably find some interesting arguments.

Note that Vitalik Buterin has also recently started promoting related ideas: Retroactive Public Goods Funding

Thanks for linking to that article, which I hadn't seen. I updated the 'certificates of impact' entry with a brief summary of the proposal.

I think the consensus around impact certificates was that they seemed like a good idea and yet the idea never really took off.

Well now I'm definitely glad I wrote "is not a new idea". I didn't know so many people had discussed similar proposals. Thank you all for the reading material. It'll be interesting to hear some downsides to funding retrospectively.

I mentioned the Future of Life Institute which, for those who haven't checked it out yet, does the "Future of Life" award. (Although, now that I think about it, all awards are retrospective.) They also do a podcast, which I haven't listened to in a while but, when I was listening, they had some really interesting discussions.