My Cause Selection: Thomas Mather

bytjmather3y29th Aug 201522 comments


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


  • “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.


  • 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


  • 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.


  • 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:


  • 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.


  • 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:


Programs I support:


  • 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.