[ Question ]

Which EA organisations' research has been useful to you?

by weeatquince1 min read11th Nov 202018 comments

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I am trying to decide where to donate this year. I am mostly interested in funding cause prioritisation research. I am not sure how best to evaluate the EA research organisations that are out there. As someone who is at the frontline of trying to turn EA ideas into policy change I have my own thoughts on what research I have found most useful (will share in the answers section below). And so I thought it might be useful to ask others for their views on which research is most used. 

So curious to know:

Which EA organisations' research has been useful to you?

 

Note: For the sake of simplicity:

  • I am not that interested in if folk have used 80000 Hours's research for career decisions or GiveWell's or Animal Charity Evaluator's research for donation decisions, etc. [Edit: but if you have used other research for career or donation decisions do share] 
  • I have asked about "EA organisations" specifically (although if other orgs do good research too feel free to flag it)
  • I am looking for positive stories (Negative comments, Eg: I read all their research and it was no use, are acceptable but not the main aim)

 

I sometimes worry that the feedback loop from do useful research all the way down to see a significant change in the world is very long and opaque. If people have general thoughts on this feedback loop or on evaluating research organisations do share.

Also this may be a nice way to signpost particularly useful pieces of research.

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4 Answers

For donation decisions last year, especially for corporate campaigns for animal welfare, ACE, Founders Pledge, Rethink Priorities, Charity Entrepreneurship and Open Phil. I wrote up my donation plan last year here (which I ended up following pretty closely).

For career decisions, all of the above and also Humane League Labs. I'm currently an animal welfare research intern at Charity Entrepreneurship, I'm working on an econ project for them, I applied for positions/internships at some of the other orgs, and am studying econometrics. I think I'm most interested in doing research similar to HLL (and this and this), i.e. rigorous intervention research. I discussed my plans a bit here, too.

I also think Rethink Priorities' research on sentience and moral weight is important, I hope to see more research in this direction, and their sentience research was a factor in my donating to them last year. I take invertebrate welfare more seriously now and I'm slightly more careful with them when I encounter them in my daily life, but this hasn't really affected any other important decisions yet. Seeing this research, CRS's and GPI's has also gotten me thinking more about doing a PhD in philosophy (or economics), although I'd rather start working at an EA org instead, and I'm still pretty set on more applied econ/stats animal welfare research for now.

If you're interested in funding research like Charity Entrepreneurship has done, besides them, also consider their incubated charities. I think Animal Ask Institute will do research similar to Rethink Priorities' and Charity Entrepreneurship's animal welfare research.

When I asked, I was told you can also earmark donations to THL for Humane League Labs, but only donations over USD $15K. Maybe you can pool with others.

What I use research for: I advocate for Future Generations policy within the UK Parliament. This involves using cause priotisation research to decide where to focus my time and attention and using research on policy and governance to decide what to advocate for.

 

Most useful:

Next most useful:

  • FHI: Work relevant to biosecurity policy like this. Some stuff on risk prevention eg The Precipice book and this survey.

Honourable mentions:

  • Global Priorities Project: this summary paper on x-risks
  • AllFed: this paper on food risks
  • OpenPhil: this and this table on policy priorities
  • EA Forum: general useful tool for feedback and new ideas.
  • Useful background newsletters from CSET, on EuropeanAI and the x-risk.net newsletter (which led me to this interesting paper on Existential security)

Not as known in EA but a shout outs are deserved to:

I have found Charity Entrepreneurship's research useful for identifying high-impact charity ideas that people in the Philippines could potentially start. Their top charity ideas and cause area research also help me identify and research potentially pressing problems in the Philippines that people could contribute to.

Founders Pledge's research is also useful, and I especially like their climate change and mental health reports. I believe both charities still have room for more funding.

I don't think this is quite what you're looking for as I don't technically 'use this research' but I personally think it's plausible that giving to the Global Priorities Institute is one of the best giving opportunities available, provided you think long-termism is plausible and that we don't already know everything about it already. Having said that if you look at their research agenda it does cover general issues in global prioritisation as well as longtermist questions.

Ben Todd's blog post on this is pretty good.

Thank you Jack. Maybe see my update comment below. I don’t know how to evaluate the impact of academic research where I cannot see any real world use of that research. That is not to say that I don’t think it has value but the feedback loops to creating value are really long and opaque, especially for the kind of philosophical work GPI appear to be focusing on. If you have a good way of evaluating that kind of research do say, I would love to hear. But at present I would be more excited to donate to organisations where there is use of their research in som... (read more)

3jackmalde6moThat's fair enough. I agree the route to impact is longer and more opaque. As such I think that it is hard to "evidence" the impact of GPI and I certainly won't be able to adequately do that here. I suppose one way that this could be done would be to survey EA organisations that actually "get things done" to see if they make use of GPI's research. Having said that I think it is possible to make a more abstract case that GPI may have tremendous impact by looking at the impact that academia has already had in the EA community. For example, as far as I'm aware, the heavy focus on longtermism in the EA community stems originally from academic papers such as this one [https://rucore.libraries.rutgers.edu/rutgers-lib/40469/PDF/1/play/,] or this one [https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/utilitas/article/astronomical-waste-the-opportunity-cost-of-delayed-technological-development/2969D64410332BD099F36BAFC5B2ADE5] . Given that global priorities research is still so new it seems plausible that further research could still radically change the direction of the EA community for the better. That's why I personally would probably give to GPI over CE at this stage.
2weeatquince6moYet it would be an even stronger case if organisations produce research that is both being peer reviewed so as to build an academic field AND had immediate real world outcomes. This seems possible and the two papers you cited would pass that bar. Hence my curiosity to try to see what EA research is being used. (The lack of responses so far either implies that not much research from these organisations is currently having any real world medium-term measurable output or that I am asking the wrong question, asking in the wrong place or asking in the wrong way.)
5jackmalde6moBy the way sorry about not being that helpful and essentially sidestepping your actual question in my first response. I think if you want to get an accurate view on what research people use that’s probably not going to be possible by asking a question on the EA Forum. I’m just not that sure how many people answer questions here and so you’ll inevitably get a skewed picture from those that do answer. Having a question like this in a wider survey would be helpful. I can’t quite remember if this was asked in the 2020 EA survey - I think something fairly similar was. It’s a good one to have going forward.
10 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 1:52 PM

How do you define "useful" if you're excluding impacts on both donation and career decisions? It seems like all that's left is what particular problems you work on directly, to the exclusion of career decisions. Like someone is already doing research or direct work, and their priotities are informed by research? E.g. animal charities deemphasized leafleting, 80,000 Hours shifted focus to longtermism, Rethink Priorities' research on sentience and moral weight builds on existing research, etc.. Maybe someone set on founding a new EA charity decides which to start based on research (like Charity Entrepreneurship's), or is that a career decisions?

Hi Michael.

No I am super interested in what research has guided peoples' career decisions and donation decisions.

I just thought for simplicity that not worth having lots of people say "80K affected my career decisions" as I think there is already very good evidence of this, or having lots of people say that "GiveWell affected my donation decisions" as there is similarly good evidence for this. But if GiveWell research (or any non career org) affected your career decisions or if say Open Philanthropy research (or any non charity evaluator) affected your donation decisions then I am keen to hear it.

Added an edit for clarity. Thank you for the question.

I sometimes worry that the feedback loop from do useful research all the way down to see a significant change in the world is very long and opaque. If people have general thoughts on this feedback loop or on evaluating research organisations do share.

Here are some posts I've found useful in relation to that or similar matters:

Also relevant, but a bit more tangentially:

Thank you all super interesting reading.

FWIW as a donor I would be very wary of giving to a research organisation without a theory of change and/or strategic plan and an idea of how to measure impact (surveys or otherwise). Someone saying such work was not needed would be a massive red flag to me. Like if a global health charity says we don’t need to measure impact we know we are doing good – maybe that global health charity is the most effective global health charity in the world but it is not going to be able to convince me of that fact. 

I'd also be wary of that, and I tentatively think that many research orgs should probably move towards doing more explicit thinking about their theory of change / strategic plan and impact/progress assessment, and providing somewhat more public info about this. (The fact and way that Rethink Priorities does this stuff was one of the things that made me excited about getting a job with them [though this comment is just my personal opinion, as with most/all of my comments].)

That said, I get the impression that your version of these stances might be a bit stronger than mine, or a bit different.

One thing that feels worth stating explicitly is that me not having seen an org's theory of change / strategic plan / approach to impact assessment doesn't necessarily mean they don't have these things. They might have fair reasons for not making these things public.

And I'm also potentially ok with an org not having explicitly written these things down, if they've had thorough discussions, have a shared understanding, regularly check in about these things, etc. (This might apply especially to smaller and newer orgs.)

(I'm not sure whether you'd disagree with these things - they just felt worth stating explicitly. I'm also uncertain about my views on these matters, and want to think more about them over the coming year.)

UPDATE COMMENT:

I am currently leaning towards donating to somewhere like Charity Entrepreneurship where there is a clear path from research to real world output. I am sure the academic research has real world implications but I find it hard to judge this mechanism, and there is a limit to how much capacity I have  to investigate that topic.

Alternatively, given that I have such limits to my capacity for donation decisions I may just donate to the EA Infrastructure Fund.

I would be persuaded to donate elsewhere if this post, or other steps I take to investigate this topic, shows that the work of EA aligned research organisations was leading to real world outcomes.

I'm optimistic that we at Rethink Priorities will be able to convince you that we have a "clear path from research to real world output" if you give us a chance over the next few weeks

Hi Peter, super keen to hear your thoughts and plans and evaluations and always happy to talk through. (FWIW I currently plan to donate £4-6k early Dec.)

I have found Charity Entrepreneurship's research useful for identifying high-impact charity ideas that people in the Philippines could potentially start. Their top charity ideas and cause area research also help me identify and research potentially pressing problems in the Philippines that people could contribute to.

Founders Pledge's research is also useful, and I especially like their climate change and mental health reports. I believe both charities still have room for more funding.

Dear Brian, thank you for the really helpful reply. That's good info and really useful. (Also FWIW I suggest posting it as an answer to the main question above rather than in the comments as it would be more visible there).