This post was prompted by three other posts on the EA forum. A recent post raises the alarm about abuse of power and relationships in the EA community. An earlier post suggested that the EA community welcomes shallow critiques but is less receptive to deep critiques. Dustin Moskovitz has recently mentioned that the EA forum functions as a conflict of interest appeals board for Open Philanthropy. Yet on the EA forum, there doesn’t seem to be many specific criticisms of Open Philanthropy.
For the sake of epistemics, I wanted to create this post and invite individuals to voice any issues they may have with Open Philanthropy or propose potential solutions.
I’ll start by discussing the funding dynamics within the field of technical alignment (alignment theory, applied alignment), with a particular focus on Open Philanthropy.
In the past two years, the technical alignment organisations which have received substantial funding include:
- Anthropic (The president of Anthropic is the wife of Open Philanthropy’s CEO. The CEO of Anthropic is the brother-in-law of Open Philanthropy’s CEO.)
- ARC (The CEO is married to an Open Philanthropy grantmaker, according to facebook.)
- SERI MATS (A director/main leader has had a relationship with an Open Philanthropy grantmaker.)
- Redwood Research (A director/main leader is engaged to an Open Philanthropy grantmaker, according to facebook. Open Philanthropy’s main technical alignment funders are also working out of their office.)
All of these organisations are situated in the San Francisco Bay Area. Although many people are thinking about the alignment problem, there is much less funding for technical alignment researchers for other locations (e.g., the east coast of the US, the UK, or other parts of Europe).
This collectively indicates that, all else being equal, having strong or intimate connections with employees of Open Philanthropy greatly enhances the chances of having funding, and it seems almost necessary. As a concerned EA, this seems incredibly alarming and in need of significant reform. Residency in the San Francisco Bay Area is also a must. A skeptical perspective would be that Open Philanthropy allocates its resources to those with the most political access. Since it's hard to solve the alignment problem, the only people grantmakers end up trusting to do so are those who are very close to them.
This is a problem with Open Philanthropy’s design and processes, and points to the biases of the technical alignment grantmakers and decision makers. This seems almost inevitable given (1) community norms around conflicts of interest and (2) Open Philanthropy’s strong centralization of power. This is not to say that any specific individual is to blame. Instead processes, structure, and norms are more useful to direct reforms towards.
Right now, even if a highly respected alignment researcher thinks what you do is extremely valuable, the decision ultimately can be blocked by an Open Philanthropy grantmaker, which could cause people to leave alignment altogether.
One common suggestion involves making the grantmaking process more democratic or less centralised. For example, the “regranting” approach has been successful for other grantmakers. This involves selecting a large pool of grantmakers or regrantors who have the autonomy to make their own decisions. With more grantmakers, there is less potential for Goodharting by individuals and reduces the likelihood of funding only those who are known best by a few Open Philanthropy staff. Additionally, Open Philanthropy can still choose regrantors who are more aligned with EA values or have previously demonstrated good judgement. A smaller thing that could help is indicating what proportion of funding in each specific area goes to organisations where there are, or have been, intimate relationships between organisation leadership and Open Philanthropy grantmakers.
It seems vital for community health to be able to speak about these sorts of issues openly. What criticisms of Open Philanthropy are important to share, or what are other ways they should improve?