Announcing Rethink Priorities


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This essay was jointly written by Peter Hurford and Marcus A. Davis.

Rethink Charity is excited to announce our new project, Rethink Priorities, which is dedicated to doing foundational research on neglected causes in a highly empirical and transparent manner. This work will begin this year, beginning with a focus on lessons that can be taken from analyzing vaccinations as an intervention in the developing world and animal welfare corporate campaigns.

This work will be led by Marcus A. Davis and Peter Hurford, with Marcus working full-time and Peter working part-time. 

Marcus is a co-founder of Charity Entrepreneurship and Charity Science Health, where he systematically analyzed global poverty interventions, led cost-effectiveness analyses, and oversaw all technical aspects of the project. Before joining the Charity Science team, he ran Effective Altruism Chicago and worked with LEAN coordinating outreach to local EA groups around the globe.

Peter is a data scientist working from Chicago. He co-founded Rethink Charity, and is on the board of Charity Science and Animal Charity Evaluators. He has reviewed and produced research on cause prioritization and effective altruism since 2013.

In doing this research, we focus on the following principles:

  • Generating new insight and knowledge in addition to synthesizing existing research. We’re focused more on producing cutting-edge content rather than summarizing existing content.
  • Publishing shorter and more digestible information more frequently, rather than publishing sprawling research less frequently. By taking the same amount of information and breaking it down into “minimal publishing units,” we make it easier for ourselves and others to understand and build upon, and get quicker feedback loops.
  • Emphasizing quick feedback loops trying to go from initial research to an initial publication in about a month.
  • Seeking tractability in research by looking for questions that we may be able to make meaningful progress on. We’ll hack away on the edges, so to speak.
  • Keeping all research in touch with the bigger picture, building upon individual publications to try to answer key questions.
  • Finding new opportunities over creating more ranked lists of existing opportunities. We predict improving on existing uncertain ranking methods is less effective than finding directions that have been previously neglected in EA. We’re unlikely to convince people of the number one cause, but we might find something others have not thought about.
  • Tracking the impact of our research to help us make key decisions. We have plans to do follow-up reviews on all our research, including surveys to determine the influence of the research.
  • Shutting the project down if it doesn’t generate impact to avoid wasting our time and effort. We are pre-committing to an initial six month test phase and pivoting as necessary. We will completely shut down if there’s no discernable impact within the first year. If our work isn’t helping others make better decisions, we should try something else.

Right now, our research agenda is focused on:

  • trying to learn how to apply cost-effectiveness frameworks to uncertain domains. (As an example, see our first post on vaccine research and development.)
  • prioritization and research work within interventions aimed at nonhuman animals (as research progress here looks uniquely tractable compared to other cause areas)
  • assisting LEAN and SHIC in gathering evidence about EA movement building (as research here looks tractable and neglected)

What we’ve done so far:

Our research agenda and approach are still in the very early stages and may change significantly as we grow and learn.