[ Question ]

Best EA use of $500,000AUD/$340,000 USD for basic science?

by AspiringPhilanthropist 3mo27th Aug 20191 min read13 comments

56


An elderly relative of mine is selling a property and wants to donate a substantial amount of money ($500,000 AUD = $340,000 USD) to “basic science”, by which they mean something industry or academia probably would be reticent to fund otherwise. They are aware of my interests in Effective Altruism and my training as a scientist and thus want me to take care of it entirely. However, I am very junior and have very little experience applying for grants let alone allocating money. Any recommendations for how I should go about most efficiently getting this money into the hands of some scientists doing potentially high-impact basic science? Bonus points for doing it in a manner that would be tax-deductible in Australia.

Particularly good recommendations are likely to have a substantial impact on how this money gets allocated, so if you think you have a good idea I’d very much appreciate it. I can’t just give the money to AMF or the EA Funds, it has to be at least indirectly allocated to basic science research. I’m not sure who to ask – I’d speak to my PI, but it seems extremely awkward to go “hey, so I have this big potential source of funding that I can influence but it’s not necessarily for us, any advice on how to give it away to others?” I’d be happy to direct the money to be thrown into a bigger pile if there’s another group I haven’t heard of that either solely funds basic science or will let me allocate the money to that end.

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9 Answers

I'm the co-founder of Lets-Fund.org.

We do independent, in-depth research to help foundations and individuals to donate to the most effective policies to solve today’s most important global challenges (e.g. the replication crisis, climate change).

One of our two campaigns is on improving all of hypothesis-driven science by implementing a new publication format called Registered Reports.

You can find our in-depth write-up on this here:

Lets-Fund.org/Better-Science

We've already crowdfunded $75,000 for this campaign (this includes a grant recommendation that the EA Long-term Future fund is currently very strongly considering), but I believe the grantee can productively absorb more money. This would fund a teaching buyout for the grantee, Professor Chris Chambers (who happens to be a fellow Aussie!).

Chris Chambers has already hired assistants to push his Registered Reports advocacy forward and I’m exceedingly excited about his work. There was an editorial in Nature about it a few weeks ago, but in brief, he has implemented the new Registered Reports publication format at more than 200 journals now (including PLoS Biology, a top biology journal). More promisingly, he is also lobbying PNAS, generally considered to be the best journal after Nature and Science, to implement the format through an open letter signed by 250 other scientists.

If he is successful and scientists realize that they can get a publication in PNAS just by submitting a paper with exceptional methodology, but independent on whether the results are positive, then it might cascade into changing science in a fundamental way in the near future. I think Chris is very driven and can productively use additional funds.

There has also been some recent interest in global development about Registered Reports (see: https://blogs.worldbank.org/impactevaluations/pre-results-review-journal-development-economics-lessons-learned-so-far ) so I feel like this could prevent another Worm Wars situation (see https://blog.givewell.org/2017/12/07/questioning-evidence-hookworm-eradication-american-south/ ) , and so this grant opportunity would also work for someone interested in improving global development.

Let me know if you have any questions at (happy to jump on a call):

Hauke@Lets-Fund.org

OPP funds transformative basic science and might be able to make some suggestions about how to allocate the money.

https://www.openphilanthropy.org/focus-area/scientific-research/transformative-basic-science

Hey! This is really important and very very cool! It's great that your grandparents trust you to handle this.

There are obviously dozens of ways to approach this, and I am neither a grantmaker nor a scientist, but for the sake of starting a conversation, here's how I might approach this question:

Step 0: Make some time to think about it. Maybe take a week off work. I'd also went to schedule in some check-ins with people who will give me good advice as I go through this process.

Step 1: Make a list of LOTS of different research areas. I'd especially focus on areas that we really need breakthroughs in over the next couple decades (eg clean energy) or areas that have been historically neglected (eg schistosomiasis; women's health).

Step 2: Make a short list of areas to look into further, mostly based on my intuition. For example, menopause symptoms seem to affect a lot of people, but I rarely hear much about menopause research - could that be an area worth funding?

Step 3: Use Google Scholar to look for what's been published recently. Try to find some literature reviews that will give an idea of open questions in the field.

Step 4: Identify a few prominent authors who have published recently. Email them asking for their advice. For example, I recently emailed four menopause researchers asking their view on whether it would be better to fund research into menopause treatments, some other area of research, or education of women and doctors. Two replied, one with a very useful email, saying that treatment research is already very well funded but

"There is a need for more research into understanding how menopause affects women's bodies. For example we know women gain central fat at menopause and that this increases their risk for diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer and dementia in later life but we really do not fully understand why this occurs."

Step 5: Based on this fairly haphazard system, hopefully you've identified lots of donation opportunities! The next step is to narrow down to the best of the opportunities you've identified.

My impression is that if you've identified particular area(s) you're interested in funding, you can often find a charity who will grantmaker for you in that area. For example, if I wanted to fund basic research in menopause, I'd work with the International Menopause Society - they already offer one researcher grant, so I'd offer another, perhaps focused on a particular area.

Hopefully others can improve on this system, or suggest alternatives. Good luck!

I believe the most cost-effective use of basic science funds right now is in welfare biology.

I’m the deputy director of Wild Animal Initiative, an EA nonprofit dedicated to understanding and improving the lives of wild animals.

The number of animals in the wild is mind-boggling. Estimates put it at around ten trillion vertebrates (most or all of whom are probably sentient) and 10^18 arthropods (at least some of whom are probably sentient).

And there’s reason to believe many of those animals lead incredibly difficult lives. Survival can be a constant struggle. This is especially true for the most numerous species, which tend to give birth to dozens or hundreds of young that die early - and presumably very painful - deaths.

Despite the tremendous scale of wild animal suffering, it remains exceptionally neglected. We don’t even know the answers to the most foundational questions: Which animals can experience suffering or happiness? What are their lives like in the wild? What, if anything, can we do to help them?

The good news for science supporters is there’s no shortage of low-hanging fruit. In the nascent field of welfare biology, every project breaks entirely new ground. And because we need so many types of expertise - neuroscience, physiology, genetics, behavioral ecology, population ecology, etc. - there’s lots of flexibility to find projects that fit each funder’s goals.

We are in the process of establishing a research fund to jumpstart the growth of this field, and your relative could play a critical role in making that happen. We could also connect you directly with promising researchers in Australia.

If there's any chance this would be of interest, let's schedule a quick chat to see if it's a good fit: cameronms@wildanimalinitiative.org.

There might be some work on catastrophic risks that falls into this category - for example, anti-microbial resistance.

If I were in your position, I would probably give them a portfolio that included direct basic science funding as well as some things that may not be as direct or basic. I would suggest a distribution but make it clear that they might prefer a different one.

To me this seems like a responsible reaction to the fact that I would think their parameters are somewhat at odds with my own values, and it doesn't require trying to subvert their request. Their value function may even be more similar to mine than I realize-- I'd want to give that prospect a chance to bear out.

--

All money given to GiveDirectly funds an RCT about direct cash transfers, so it is a science project. This might not be basic enough or align with your relative's politics, though.

If your relative would be interested in scholarships, a number of people come to the EA Hotel to self-study (usually in math/CS, which seems fairly basic to me). You could cheaply buy study hours by donating to the hotel and earmarking the money for funding self-study.



I would check out Effective Thesis. At the bottom of the page are a number of scientific disciplines with many possible projects. With funding, the organizations who suggested the thesis may be able to do the project or find someone who could.

Would Innovations for Poverty Action or D-Rev be possibilities?

IPA conducts lots of RCTs and helps governments design evidence backed policies. D-Rev designs medical devices to meet the needs of on-the-ground health providers serving people in extreme poverty. Neither is “basic science” in the traditional sense, but they definitely do work that struggles to get enough funding from academia and industry (or other sources).

The Life You Can Save (which I work for) recommends both organizations, and could facilitate a tax-deductible gift through TLYCS Australia (a registered nonprofit in Australia). We’d be happy to have someone from our team talk with you and/or your relative if that be helpful.

My answer would be to split up the donation money into 2 parts---maybe 1/2, 1/2, or 1/3rd, 2/3rds---and give 1/2 or 2/3rds to established people or projects in universities/institutions which have a high probability of having an 'impact'., and allocate the remaining funds to several smaller 'startup' or 'incubator' type projects or people who are not in universities/institutions which are riskier but are neglected and may pay off. (the smaller donations should not be too small --e.g. not 1$ for each grantee--but rather should have some 'threshold level' sufficient to get the project up and running in '1.0' form. I could also see requiring or asking the 'startup' to find 'donation matching funds' as a form of peer review for some risky proposal---ie if you will give them say 5G$ or 10G $ , ask them to find the same amount from other sources (who think they have a good idea, and then you will match it.)

I'm biased to the view I see an overcontration of funding towards big and established institutions --'preferential attachement' as they say in network theory---rich get richer, poor get poorer, although the 'rich' sometimes say their research is devoted to helping the poor. To use an analogy (which may be offensive to vegans, but it can be phrased in vegan terms as well) , too often some well funded research is too weighted to figuring out how to give fish to starving people, rather than giving them a fishing line and hook so they can get their own fish. )