The Centre for Exploratory Altruism Research (CEARCH) emerged from the 2022 Charity Entrepreneurship Incubation Programme. In a nutshell, we do cause prioritization research, as well as subsequent outreach to update the EA and non-EA communities on our findings.
There are many potential cause areas (e.g. improving global health, or reducing pandemic risk, or addressing long-term population decline), but we may not have identified what the most impactful causes are. This is the result of a lack of systematic cause prioritization research.
- EA’s three big causes (i.e. global health, animal welfare and AI risk) were not chosen by systematic research, but by historical happenstance (e.g. Peter Singer being a strong supporter of animal rights, or the Future of Humanity Institute influencing the early EA movement in Oxford).
- Existing cause research is not always fully systematic; for lack of time, it does not always involve (a) searching for as many causes as possible (e.g. more than a thousand) and then (b) researching and evaluating all of them to narrow down to the top causes.
- The search space for causes is vast, and existing EA research organizations agree that there is room for a new organization.
The upshot of insufficient cause prioritization research, and of not knowing the most impactful causes, is that we cannot direct our scarce resources accordingly. Consequently, global welfare is lower and the world worse off than it could be.
To solve this problem, CEARCH carries out:
- A comprehensive search for causes.
- Rigorous cause prioritization research, with (a) shallow research reviews done for all causes, (b) intermediate research reviews for more promising causes, and finally (c) deep research reviews for potential top causes.
- Reasoning transparency and outreach to allow both the EA and non-EA movement to update on our findings and to support the most impactful causes available.
We hope to discover a Cause X every three years and significantly increase support for it.
If you're interested in the expected impact of exploratory altruism, do take a look at our website (link), where we discuss our theory of change and the evidence base. Charity Entrepreneurship also has a detailed report out on exploratory altruism (link).
Team & Partners
The current team currently comprises Joel Tan, the founder (link).
However, we're looking to hire additional researchers in the near future- do reach out (link) if you're interested in working with us. Do also feel free to get in touch if you wish to discuss cause prioritization research/outreach, provide advice in general, or if you believe CEARCH can help you in any way.
Our research process is iterative:
- Each cause is subject to an initial shallow research round of one week of desktop research.
- If the cause's estimated cost-effectiveness is at least one magnitude greater than a GiveWell top charity, it passes to the intermediate research round of two weeks of desktop research and expert interviews.
- Then, if the cause's estimated cost-effectiveness is still at least one magnitude greater than a GiveWell top charity, it passes to the deep research round of four weeks of desktop research, expert interviews and potential commissioning of surveys and quantitative modelling.
The idea behind the threshold is straightforward - research at the shallower level tends to overestimate a cause's cost-effectiveness, so if a cause doesn't appear effective early on, it's probably not going to be a better-than-GiveWell bet, let alone a Cause X magnitudes more important than our current top causes. Consequently, it's likely a better use of time to move on to the next candidate cause, than to spend more time on this particular cause.
CEARCH attempts to identify a cause's marginal expected value (MEV):
- MEV = t * Σ(n = p * m * s * c)
- t = tractability, or proportion of problem solved per additional unit of resources spent
- p = probability of benefit/cost
- m = moral weight of benefit/cost accrued per individual
- s = scale in terms of number of individuals benefited/harmed at any one point in time
- c = persistence of the benefits/costs
This can be viewed as an extension of the ITN framework, for this approach also takes into account the three ITN factors:
- Importance: Factored in with p * m * s * c.
- Tractability: Factored in with t.
- Neglectedness: Factored in with (i) c, since the persistence of the benefits will depends on how long the problem would have lasted and harmed people sans intervention, and that in turn is a function of the extent to which the cause is neglected; and (ii) t, since tractability is a function of neglectedness to the extent that diminishing marginal returns apply.
However, the MEV framework has the additional following advantage:
- Through c, it takes into account of not just the decline (i.e. non-persistence) of a problem from active intervention (i.e. the neglectedness issue), but also decline from secular trends (e.g. economic growth reducing disease burden through better sanitation, nutrition, and greater access to healthcare).
In implementing the MEV framework, especial effort is made to brainstorm for what benefits and costs there are - though, in our experience, the health effects tend to swamp the non-health effects.
For more details, refer to this comprehensive write-up on CEARCH's evaluative framework (link).
We recently finished conducting shallow research on nuclear war, fungal disease, and asteroid impact. To summarize our findings:
Taking into account the expected benefits of denuclearization (i.e. fewer deaths and injuries from nuclear war), the expected costs (i.e. more deaths and injuries from conventional war due to weakened deterrence), and the tractability of lobbying for denuclearization, CEARCH finds that the marginal expected value of lobbying for denuclearization to be 248 DALYs per USD 100,000, which is around 39% as cost-effective as giving to a GiveWell top charity.
Considering the expected benefits of eliminating fungal infections (i.e. fewer deaths, less morbidity and greater economic output) as well as the tractability of vaccine development, CEARCH finds that the marginal expected value of vaccine development for fungal infections to be 1,104 DALYs per USD 100,000, which is around 1.7x as cost-effective as giving to a GiveWell top charity.
Factoring in the expected benefits of preventing asteroid impact events (i.e. fewer deaths and injuries) as well as the tractability of lobbying for asteroid defence, CEARCH finds that the marginal expected value of such asteroid defence lobbying to be 1,352 DALYs per USD 100,000, which is around 2.1x as cost-effective as giving to a GiveWell top charity.
The causes were selected purely out of interest, not because these causes were expected to be especially cost-effective. However, expectations at the outset were that, in terms of their cost-effectiveness, the causes would rank in the following way (in descending order):
- Fungal diseases: Importance probably low compared to longtermist causes, though the problem is certain and there seem to be decently tractable solutions (e.g. advance market commitments).
- Nuclear war: Change here is likely to be extremely intractable, while the per annum probabilities are fairly low if still meaningful.
- Asteroid impact: High impact on occurrence but not neglected given DART, while the probability of occurrence is extremely low and one imagines that tractability isn't that great (effective but expensive).
The results (asteroid impact being the most cost-effective cause, followed by fungal disease, and then nuclear war) were hence moderately surprising. While we wouldn't over-update on such a small sample, we do think it's a data point against the value of intuition in selecting cause areas for initial cause prioritization research, and for making the effort to research as many causes as possible, even ones that do not seem especially important on the surface.
CEARCH will be publishing more detailed forum posts on nuclear war/fungal disease/asteroid impact, and will also continue doing research into additional causes, following the process and methodology outlined above. Comments and criticisms on our research methodology and on our specific research results are, of course, welcome.