Summary

  • Rethink Priorities is an EA research organization focused on influencing funders and key decision-makers to improve decisions within EA and EA-aligned organizations.

  • This year we expanded our operations team and hired multiple researchers across multiple causes, allowing us to expand and improve our animal welfare and EA movement building work, and build a dedicated longtermism team.

  • Rethink Priorities currently has a staff of 16 people, corresponding to 13 full-time equivalents (including 3 FTE operations staff). This year we spent 72% of our time working on research relevant to farmed and wild animal welfare, 9% on movement building, 8% on longtermism, and 11% on other research projects. By the end of the year, we’ll have spent about $833K in 2020.

  • We track our impact in multiple ways. This year we found qualitative interviews with key decision makers and leaders at EA organizations particularly helpful in understanding how to improve. Given the feedback we’ve received, we think two areas for improvement are more focus on communication with key funders and groups and also improving the visual communication of our work.

  • Over the next few years we plan to expand our work in animal welfare, relaunch our work in longtermism, and continue our work in movement building.

  • We continue to be constrained by a lack of funding to hire talented researchers and execute promising projects, having to turn down or delay very high-value projects. In particular, our non-animal growth is constrained by depending too heavily on EA Funds. We would strongly benefit from new individual donors to support our work and diversify our funder base.

  • If funded we would hire 1-2 additional researchers to tackle our ambitious research agenda and the opportunities we have to work with more groups. We would also create an intern program. In addition to resulting in additional directly valuable research, this program would also benefit both our future growth and the growth of other EA-aligned research efforts, by helping us identify new talented researchers, helping them build their skills, and helping our existing staff develop their management skills.

  • Currently, our goal is to raise $1.57M by the end of 2021. This consists of gaps of $757K for animal research, $503K for longtermism research, $261K for meta and movement building, and $46K for other research. We do accept and track restricted funds by cause area if that is of interest.

  • If you’d like to support our work, you can donate to us as part of Facebook’s donation matching on Giving Tuesday or donate directly to us here. If you’re interested in supporting our work with a major gift, contact Director of Development Janique Behman.

Our Mission

Our mission is to help funders make better grants and help organizations do higher impact work. We accomplish this by doing and communicating research that analyzes existing interventions, broadens and refines the scope of possible consideration, and deepens our understanding of what interventions are possible and effective.

Rethink Priorities Theory of Change

Organizational Structure

Staff

Over the course of 2020, we made a number of hires to improve our team. Thanks to support in 2019, Peter Hurford, Co-Executive Director, became full-time in March 2020, and in May we hired a Director of Operations, Abraham Rowe. Janique Behman joined as our Director of Development in November 2020.

We also expanded our research team, hiring five researchers (~3.75 FTE) to continue and expand our work across animal welfare, movement building, and longtermism.[1]

  • Michael Aird - Associate Researcher - Previously did longtermist and macrostrategy research for Convergence Analysis and the Center on Long-Term Risk. He has a background in political and cognitive psychology and in teaching.
  • David Rhys Bernard - Senior Staff Researcher - PhD candidate at the Paris School of Economics, with a Masters in Public Policy and Development. He has a background in causal inference and econometrics and has previously worked at Giving What We Can and the United Nations Development Programme.
  • Holly Elmore - Staff Researcher - PhD graduate from Harvard University in the department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. She served as the president of Harvard University Effective Altruism for two years.
  • David Reinstein - Distinguished Researcher - Senior lecturer in economics at the University of Exeter. His research has covered a number of topics including charitable giving and social influences on giving. He originally received his PhD at the University of California, Berkeley under Emmanuel Saez.
  • Linchuan Zhang - Staff Researcher - Previously worked at the COVID-19 Epidemic Forecasting group with superforecasters and researchers from the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford.

We expect these additions will make us a much more impactful research team, with much stronger operations support to back them up and ensure a sustainable organizational culture.

Overall, Rethink Priorities currently has a staff of 16 people, corresponding to 13 full-time equivalents (including 3 FTE operations staff). This year we spent 72% of our time working on research relevant to farmed and wild animal welfare, 9% on movement building, 8% on longtermism, and 11% on other research projects.

As of July 2020, Rethink Priorities is its own legal US 501(c) 3 with a board. We were previously a fiscally sponsored project of Rethink Charity. We’re also taking preliminary steps to become a legal entity in the United Kingdom and hope to accomplish this in 2021.

Board

We established our own Board of Directors to provide oversight, governance, and accountability for our organization. The current members of our board are:

  • Vicky Bond - Managing Director of The Humane League UK
  • Marcus A. Davis - Co-Executive Director of RP
  • Ozzie Gooen - Quantified Uncertainty Research Institute Co-founder and former Future of Humanity Institute Research Scholar
  • Luisa Rodriguez - Research Fellow at Forethought Foundation for Global Priorities Research
  • Cameron Meyer Shorb - Deputy Director of Wild Animal Initiative

We plan to expand our board in the coming years.

Our Work and Impact in 2020

Summary of Work Done in 2020

In 2020, within animal welfare, we covered a number of topics. These included interspecies comparisons of moral status and moral weight, with posts examining how to measure capacity for welfare and moral status, the welfare implications of the subjective experience of time, the use of critical flicker-fusion frequency on the experience of time, and differences in the intensity of valenced experiences across species. We explored the impact that the coronavirus pandemic was having on animals used for human consumption. We also examined the policy landscape for farm animals in Europe, the historical compliance of countries with EU laws, and Europeans’ opinion on fish welfare. Lastly, we studied attitudes of the public to different slaughter methods for chickens raised for meat consumption.

Continuing our work scoping the human impact on animals, we estimated the number of global captive vertebrates, we did shallow reviews of farmed snails and the insect farming industry, and we estimated the scale of direct human impact on invertebrates.

In the field of EA movement building, our evaluation of the 2019 EA Survey included posts on cause selection, careers and skills, geographic differences, donation data, how people get involved in EA, community information, engagement, the number of EAs, EA cities and the cost of living, and EAs in major EA hubs. We’ve also launched the 2020 EA Survey. In partnership with CEA, we’ve also run the 2020 Local Groups Survey, and will begin publishing results in the coming months.

To inform a variety of interventions, we analyzed the potential of effective altruists to use ballot initiatives in order to enact policy change.

Additionally, we should note we spent significant resources privately advising a number of groups in the EA and EA-aligned space across multiple causes. This primarily involved running and analyzing private polling and surveys to inform these groups' messaging.

You can view a complete list of all of our publications on our website. This work roughly aligns with the plans for 2020 we outlined last year, which you can see here.

Our Impact

We are internally driven by a motto that “good research is not enough” and created a strategy to ensure our research gets put into action:

  • We worked with Mercy for Animals, The Humane League, and The Humane Society of the United States on multiple polls and surveys and led strategy sessions to help them think through their impact and help them hone their messaging.

  • We worked with a lobbyist organization (who prefers to remain anonymous) to use polling and message testing to improve the likelihood of passing longtermist policy.

  • We continue to advise movement building strategy at 80,000 Hours and CEA and farmed animal welfare strategy at Open Philanthropy.

  • We have been advising Eurogroup for Animals and consulting with Open Wing Alliance on farmed animal welfare strategy in Europe.

  • We will be working to advise animal welfare political strategy going forward, using our established expertise in polling to find winning policies and improve messaging.

As a research organization, we’re usually a step or two removed from direct work, and thus it can be challenging to determine what impact on the world we’re having. We’re very interested in ascertaining how those in a position to implement are acting on our work, if at all, and we’re committed to tracking our impact in multiple ways.

Among those methods, we’ve conducted a formal quantitative impact survey, we did structured interviews with some key players, and, mostly informally, we track our impact via regular contacts with relevant players. We’ll now describe each of these methods, followed by the key takeaways from them.

Impact Survey

In October 2020, we launched a survey aimed at gathering feedback from key donors, grantmakers, researchers, and organizational leaders. 70 individuals returned completed surveys (of 131 solicited). Respondents answered quantitative questions about the perceived value of our work, and the effect that our work had had on changing their beliefs and actions.

In addition, respondents answered free-form qualitative questions about the quality, structure, presentation, and communication of our work. To encourage frankness and candor, respondents were promised that answers to these questions would not be made public.

Overall, largely due to methodological shortcomings and limitations discussed in the 2019 survey (particularly the disproportionate importance of certain respondents), we do not believe this survey alone fully captures the strengths and weaknesses of our work or us as an organization particularly well, but it is still a useful (albeit small) part of our overall impact assessment. The quantitative and qualitative responses will be analyzed internally to help us improve strategic decision-making in 2021, and results from this analysis will be available upon request for vetting by funders.

Qualitative Interviews

Over the past two months we’ve conducted structured interviews with key decision-makers and leaders at EA organizations. We sought interviewees’ feedback on the general importance of our work for them and for the community, what they have and have not found helpful in what we’ve done, what we can do in the future that would be useful for them, and ways we can improve. To encourage frankness, interviewees were promised that the details of these conversations would not be made public.

We’ve found these interviews to be very valuable for gathering information on which of our projects did the most to change behavior and beliefs, what future projects would be useful to them, and how to adapt our approach going forward.

Informal Impact Tracking

Informally, throughout the year we’ve discussed our work and role with many of these same parties. These discussions led us to develop some rough guides on how to improve present and future projects while they are ongoing.

Areas for Improvement

One of the biggest takeaways from these attempts to assess our impact was that there was a desire for more communication with these parties, and others, along with a way to better communicate our ideas to people further removed from research. Specifically, these conversations led us to believe we can more effectively get our research findings across via more proactive communication, and improved visualizations and summaries of our work.[2]

Overall View of our Impact

Collectively, the above attempts to assess our impact lead us to believe that this year we’ve been fairly successful in improving and understanding outreach in the EA space, influencing farmed animal donors and at least one farmed animal organization, and provided significant assistance to at least two others. We further think relationships we’ve built this year, and talented staff we’ve hired, are poised to help us do much better going forward.

Based on all of the above, we’ve also begun to make rough “back of the envelope” calculations for how much impact has been achieved or may be achieved for each project (though this is not meant to fully or exclusively capture all of our impact). We do retrospectives on each project upon completion to see how they measure up to our expectations. Overall, it remains clear that evaluating the impact of Rethink Priorities is very difficult and we’re hoping to devote more resources to answering the question in 2021.

Our Current Plans

Project Plans

Last year we believed we were already well positioned to produce a large amount of impactful, high-quality research over 2020, and we strongly suspect our organizational strength and connections have improved over the past year.

We’ve restarted our longtermist work, with three hires, and plan to continue work in this space without reducing the amount or quality of research we're doing on animal welfare.

Our research going forward is expected to focus on:

  • Further refining messaging for the EA movement, exploring different ways of talking about EA to improve EA recruitment and increase diversity.
  • Further work to explore better ways to talk about longtermism to the general public, to help EAs communicate longtermism more persuasively and to increase support for desired longtermist policies in the US and the UK.
  • Running the next iteration of the EA Survey and Local Groups Survey, both of which are widely used throughout EA to set movement building priorities.
  • Use novel econometric methods to better understand our ability to reliably impact the long-term future. We hired David Bernard, who will follow up on his work for the Global Priorities Institute (GPI) on this topic.
  • Improve our ability to forecast the short-term and long-term future. To help work on this topic, we hired Linch Zhang, a top 100 forecaster on Metaculus (top 20 on COVID-19 questions) who previously worked at the COVID-19 Epidemic Forecasting group with researchers from the Future of Humanity Institute and the University of Oxford.
  • Finishing our project on understanding and quantifying risks from nuclear war and how much those risks could be mitigated by international treaties.
  • Developing a research agenda for our longtermist work, and beginning to tackle other questions from it.
  • Further policy analysis in the United States and European Union to find promising strategies and ballot initiatives across a variety of EA cause areas, plus exploring opportunities to improve policy in China.
  • Timely and accurate polling on policy issues to identify winning policies and hone our messages to talk about them more persuasively. We’ve worked for two years to build our ability to run accurate polls in the U.S. and U.K.
  • Research into opportunities and barriers for the broad adoption of meat alternatives by combining better understanding of consumer perceptions via polling with market forecasting.
  • Identifying and assessing potentially neglected and high-impact opportunities improve fish welfare, including opportunities associated with stocking, baitfish, runoff, pesticides, microplastics, bycatch reduction, and net submersion time.

Funding Status

We have set a goal of raising $1,567,000 in funding for 2021 to:

  • Continue to fund our existing team and maintain twelve months’ reserves throughout all of 2021.
  • Hire 1-2 additional researchers to tackle our growing research agenda of high-impact opportunities and collaborate with more organizations.
  • Start an intern program, so as to better identify new talented researchers on a trial basis. In addition to resulting in additional directly valuable research, this program would also benefit both our future growth and the growth of other EA-aligned research efforts, by helping us identify new talented researchers, helping them build their skills, and helping our existing staff develop their management skills.
  • Expand our fund to pay participants to participate in our polls and survey experiments.

Budget Low

Rethink Priorities Budget Low 21-22

Budget High

Rethink Priorities Budget High 21-22

Room for More Funding

Rethink Priorities RFMF 21-22

Even on our “High” growth plan, we are still being careful to ensure that we continue to maintain the organization management and culture necessary to support new staff. That being said, we likely would be able absorb even more funding to maintain our growth trajectory and keep sufficient financial reserves, especially later in 2022.

Reasons to Fund Rethink Priorities

We think Rethink Priorities is a good place for individuals to donate if they are interested in improving decision-making, collective wisdom, and prioritization within EA. We think the value of information from exploring new areas is high, and that our ability to work independently to uncover new insights while also working with existing groups and funders brings a significant value add to the spaces we work in.

We also think that over the past few years we have become effective at identifying and cultivating new EA research talent, and would be able to do more of that with more funding. Multiple successful hires we’ve made were, to our knowledge, not on the research hiring radar of other organizations. Additionally, one of our board members, Luisa Rodriguez, got her start as an EA researcher at Rethink Priorities in 2018-2019 after applying unsuccessfully to other EA organizations. Since working with Rethink Priorities, she has now built and shown her skills and has moved on to work directly with Will MacAskill and will soon join 80,000 Hours. This year we got over 350 applications for our research role and had to turn away many talented hires due to lack of funding. We’re especially excited to use our new intern program to capitalize on this.

Rethink Priorities has been able to provide a lot of mentoring and support to our own researchers, which makes it a better bet than funding researchers independently. We can all collaborate and have a shared research agenda, and review each other's work. We can apply skills across disciplines and cause areas. Also, we can also just save researchers a lot of time by handling simple things like payroll and taxes.

We also need more individual donors, not just institutional backing. While we have received support from some EA institutional funds, there are limits to how much of our funding they are willing to be (and how much of our budget we are willing to have funded by them). Further diversifying our donor base with small to medium donations from individuals could go a long way to providing us a more robust budget, particularly in the non-animal space.

Overall, we believe we are entering 2021 in a really strong position, and we are excited about where we could go with your support.

How to Give

If you’d like to support our work, you can donate to us as part of Facebook’s donation matching on Giving Tuesday or donate directly to us here. If you have questions about tax-deductibility in your country or are interested in making a major gift, please contact our Director of Development Janique Behman.

Credits

This post is a project of Rethink Priorities.

It was written by Marcus A. Davis and Peter Hurford. Thanks to Michael Aird, Janique Behman, David Moss, Abraham Rowe, Jason Schukraft, and Linch Zhang for helpful comments. If you like our work, please consider subscribing to our newsletter. You can see more of our work here.

Notes


  1. We also had one staff member, Luisa Rodriguez, leave RP in early 2020. She was leading up our longtermism work and is now a Research Fellow at the Forethought Foundation for Global Priorities Research, as well as a member of our Board. We also expect one of current staff, Derek Foster, to depart in 2021 to return to graduate school. ↩︎

  2. We’ve taken some tentative steps towards better visualization with some PDF versions of our reports. You can find more PDF versions of our work on our publications page ↩︎

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7 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:36 PM
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Thank you for the report! Excited about your coming plans and wish good luck to all the great new hires :)

I have noticed that the impact model and most of the summary of your impact and future plans seem to focus on research that directly maps into results usable by foundations and organizations working on these problems (even if one or two steps removed). A different model might be something like improving some collective understanding of prioritization within a given research field,  research that leads to improved understanding of prioritization generally or cause-specific among other researchers (potentially even only within RP) working on cause-prioritization without a clear immediate "client". 

Some of the items on your plans for next year seem more like the second type, although they seem like a minority. Is that true? I'm interested in how you think about the value of prioritization research that doesn't seem to have a direct interested client or concrete actions that result from the research results.

Thanks for the question!

I think the short answer is this what we think of doing projects in the improving the collective understanding space depends on a number of factors including the nature of the project, and the probability of that general change in perspective leading to actions changed in the future, and how important it would be if that change occurred.

One very simplistic model you can use to think about possible research projects in this area is:

  1. Big considerations (classically "crucial considerations", i.e. moral weight, invertebrate sentience)
  2. New charities/interventions (presenting new ideas or possibilities that can be taken up)
  3. Immediate influence (analysis to shift ongoing or pending projects, donations, or interventions)

It's far easier to tie work in categories (2) or (3) into behavior changed. By contrast, projects or possible research that falls into the (1) can be very difficult to map to specific plausible changes ahead of time and, sometimes, even after the completion of the work. These projects can also be more likely to be boom or bust, in that the results of investigating them could have huge effects if we or others shift our beliefs but it can be fairly unlikely to change beliefs at all. That said, I think these types of projects can be very valuable and we try to dedicate some of our time to doing them.

I think it's fair to say these types of "improving some collective understanding of prioritization" projects have been a minority of the types of projects we've done and that are listed for the coming year. However, there are many caveats here including but not limited to:

  • The nature of the project, our fit, and what others are working on has a big impact on which projects we take on. So even if, in theory, we thought a particular research idea was really worth pursuing there are many factors that go into whether we take on a particular project.
  • These types of projects have historically taken longer to complete, so they may be smaller in number but a larger share of our overall work hours than counting projects would suggest at first glance.

Thanks! This makes a lot of sense. 

[Just my personal views] I think this is a great question/topic. I also like Marcus' answer.

In thinking about this sort of question this year - in general, not just as applied to Rethink - here are some things I found useful:

Great list of posts! I've collected some general notes and sources on research methodology and related matters, I've written myself a TODO to add some of it as suggestions to your doc :)

Thanks for this report! I am wondering if one or more of you at Rethink Priorities would be interested to create blog posts or a full guide on how someone can develop themselves to be a good researcher (enough to get into Rethink Priorities or other EA research organizations)? The blog posts or guide could tackle the following questions:

  1. How does someone figure out if they are a good fit to be a researcher?
  2. How does someone get better at research?
  3. How could other EAs create a peer group of people trying to improve their research skills?
  4. Is it valuable for non-researchers (i.e. EAs who don't have "research" in their title) to still build research skills? If so, how can they build these skills in a time-efficient way?

I see that there is plenty of interest in that. I have some experience in training early-stage (mathematics) researchers and have thought quite a bit about training myself as a generalist researcher and about the EA research community more generally. 

If there are other EAs that can dedicate time to improving their research skills, I'd probably be interested to join such a group where we can learn together and develop (and test) some sort of a curriculum. One thing I had in mind was to run a series of workshops based on Charity Entrepreneurship's Handbook - there is a lot of content there about different research methodologies.