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How many people should get self-study grants and how can we find them?

by toonalfrink1 min read10th Nov 202118 comments

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Most individuals are heavily constrained by income. They're spending the majority of their time and energy on generating an income, which is usually low-impact. Meanwhile, as EA grows, the inferential distance one needs to cover to become able to contribute is growing. 

By "bridging the inferential gap", I don't just mean learning the basics of EA, but also putting in the time to find highly impactful ideas for projects and learning the skills required to execute them. I would wager that it is many times easier to bridge this gap if someone is working on it full-time. For the sake of simplicity, I'd like to focus on individuals who are self-starting, i.e. all they need is an income and they can take care of the rest.

So let's divide self-starting EA's into three buckets.
A) the ones who are already working on effective projects full-time through employment or a grant
B) the ones who are not working on effective projects, but would put themselves in that position through self-study if they had a year's runway 
C) the ones who would not be able to work on effective projects even after a year of self-study

I have three related questions:
- How large is bucket B? How large is it relative to bucket A?
- How can we identify individuals that belong in bucket B?
- If we do identify such an individual, under what conditions is it cost-effective to throw a year's salary at them to let them figure things out?
 

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3 Answers

I am pretty pessimistic about the number of people who aren't in a position to contribute to the world's most pressing problems today, but could readily contribute with a year of self-study.

I think the biggest constraint for having more people working on EA projects is management and leadership capacity. But those aren't things you can (solely) self-study; you need to practice management and leadership in order to get good at them.

I am most optimistic about a year of self-study being useful if someone already has a proven track record of really established skills (whether inside the EA community or outside) and wants to pivot to apply those skills to a different situation. But in those cases I would often expect the person to get hired and learn on the job, or to get a grant for whatever their new project will be with some learning time built in.

tl;dr I think group B is small.

I think the biggest constraint for having more people working on EA projects is management and leadership capacity. But those aren't things you can (solely) self-study; you need to practice management and leadership in order to get good at them.

What about those people that already have management and leadership skills, but lack things like:

  • Connections with important actors
  • Awareness of the incentives and the models of the important actors
  • Awareness of important bottlenecks in the movement
  • Background knowledge as a source of legitimacy
  • Skin in the game / a trac
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2Khorton1moHey Toon, that's the kind of person I was talking about in my third paragraph (someone with a proven track record of a variable skill). Like I said, in most cases I'd expect this person to learn faster in a job context or with a grant for a particular project than simply "self-study" but I do think there are some cases where people with a good track record should apply for a self-study grant!
1toonalfrink1moLet's interpret "study" as broad as we can: is there not anything that someone can do on their own initiative, and do it better if they have time, that increases their leadership capacity?
3Khorton1moThe best thing they can do is probably to lead a project, either through paid work or as a volunteer. Another good thing would be to speak to a mentor about their leadership work. When those two things are already happening, books or courses can be really useful. But without practicing leadership and getting regular feedback, I don't expect very good returns from independent study. (The exception would be someone who's already working at an executive level and wants to take a secondment for personal study and then return to a similar role - the fact that they've already gotten a lot of leadership experience and feedback makes me more positive about the value of them taking time off to study and reflect.)

One thing I like about the EA Hotel is that there is a selection effect in that people who aren't committed to EA are unlikely to want to move there. Given the huge amount of funds in EA, I think that we ought to greatly expand this kind of thing, although perhaps we might want to be wary about locating such an institute in a major city.

This is an important point. You want some barrier to entry, while also minimizing deadweight loss from signaling / credentialing. So "you can join EA and get funding, but only if you complete a bunch of arbitrary tasks" is bad, but "you can join EA and get funding, but only if you move to this town" is pretty good!

Of course it would be nice to have an EA Hotel equivalent that is more amenable to people with visa/family/health restrictions (Especially now that the UK is not part of the EU and has Covid-related entry requirements), but I think it's a fairly good model for unblocking potential talent without throwing money around.

3toonalfrink1moThere is also significant loss caused by moving to a different town, i.e. loss of important connections with friends and family at home, but we're tempted not to count those.
5Greg_Colbourn1moMy original idea [https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/JdqHvyy2Tjcj3nKoD/ea-hotel-with-free-accommodation-and-board-for-two-years-1] (quote below) included funding people at equivalent costs remotely. Basically no one asked about that. I guess because not many EAs have that low a living cost (~£6k/yr). And not that many could without moving to a different town (or country), and there isn't much appetite for that / coordination [https://www.facebook.com/groups/664817953593844] is difficult. Maybe we need a grant specifically for people to work on research remotely that has a higher living cost cap? Or a hierarchy of such grants with a range of living costs that are proportionally harder to get the higher the costs are.
2casebash1moYeah, a hierarchy of grants would make sense.
1AppliedDivinityStudies1moThat's true, but feels less deadweight to me. You have fewer friends, but that results in more time. You move out of one town, but into another with new opportunities.

I imagine A < B in terms of numbers of people; and B ≈ C, given you are pre-selecting for "self-starting EAs". I think just being dedicated enough to EA to want to spend a year working on it full time is a reasonably strong signal that you would have something to contribute, given that dedication seems to require a strong understanding in the case of EA. And self-starting + dedication + a strong understanding + working full-time on trying to have impact at the margin should = impact at the margin.

Obviously there is then the important detail of how big the impact is, relative to the salary. CEEALAR tries to keep costs to a minimum as a way of raising this ratio, but it's plausible that much higher salaries (grants) could produce more impact/$. 

I think more dedicated self-starting EAs should be funded to work on EA full-time. Bs can be identified by offering grants and seeing who applies (this is already happening to some degree, but could be expanded). Once identified, we vet them to try and estimate whether it's cost effective to throw a year's salary at them.

I think just being dedicated enough to EA to want to spend a year working on it full time is a reasonably strong signal that you would have something to contribute

I think being dedicated enough to EA to want to spend a year working on it full time =/= being dedicated enough to EA to actually work on it full-time with minimal management. I agree the latter is a pretty strong signal, especially if you're able to identify important things to work on. Holden's post on career choice for longtermists say that this is an important milestone for researchers:

You’re

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(Or, if it's better for EA to stay smaller, then more dedicated self-starting __s should be funded to work on __ full-time.)

4 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:31 PM

Ideally, people would get the opportunity to get up to speed, "bridge the inferential gap" and get to start thinking about how to have an impact full time during their undergraduate studies. The way most university programs are set up right now, people spend years on often irrelevant content and wasteful busywork. I was thus pleased to see Ben Todd and Will MacAskill mention the idea of creating some kind of EA University during their EAG appearances.

See also my own “case for education.”

P.S. Another (suboptimal) option is using savings to meet 1 year's living expenses, and finding ways to reduce living expenses to be able to do this.

P.P.S. An extreme way of reducing expenses would be shifting to a country with lower living expenses. Especially useful if you can also continue remote work and earn salary from your original country.

I have no experience with this but ...

I guess sometimes funding covers the time required to do this idea searching, such as with PhD scholarship.

Is your question specifically on funding from EA funds? Or do academia, govt, private also count? Cause if there is excess funding and less applicants, I'd assume such applicants would also get funding. When it is competitive, obviously those with well-formed ideas are prioritised.

For cost-effectiveness of research, some top criteria would naturally be the impactfulness of the research topic or field itself, and aptitude of the researcher, and any signalling they can provide for this. Also I'm not sure if cost-effectiveness is the best metric to instrumentally optimise when it comes to research even if it is what is terminally meaningful.

Cause if there is excess funding and less applicants, I'd assume such applicants would also get funding.

I have seen examples of this at EA Funds, but it's not clear to me whether this is being broadly deployed.