abergal

1532Joined Oct 2019

Bio

Program Associate at Open Philanthropy and chair of the Long-Term Future Fund. I spend half my time on AI and half my time on EA community-building. Any views I express on the forum are my own, not the views of my employer.

Comments
83

We’re currently planning on keeping it open at least for the next month, and we’ll provide at least a month of warning if we close it down.

Sorry about the delay on this answer. I do think it’s important that organizers genuinely care about the objectives of their group (which I think can be different from being altruistic, especially for non-effective altruism groups). I think you’re right that that’s worth listing in the must-have criteria, and I’ve added it now.

I assume the main reason this criteria wouldn’t be true is if someone wanted to do organizing work just for the money, which I think we should be trying hard to select against.

“even if the upside of them working out could really be quite valuable” is the part I disagree with most in your comment. (Again, speaking just for myself), I don’t think any of the projects I remember us rejecting seemed like they had a huge amount of upside; my overall calculus was something like “this doesn’t seem like it has big upside (because the policy asks don’t seem all that good), and also has some downside (because of person/project-specific factors)”. It would be nice if we did quantified risk analysis for all of our grant applications, but ultimately we have limited time, and I think it makes sense to focus attention on cases where it does seem like the upside is unusually high.

On potential risk factors:

  • I agree that (1) and (2) above are very unlikely for most grants (and are correlated with being unusually successful at getting things implemented).
  • I feel less in agreement about (3)-- my sense is that people who want to interact with policymakers will often succeed at taking up the attention of someone in the space, and the people interacting with them form impressions of them based on those interactions, whether or not they make progress on pushing that policy through.
  • I think (4) indeed isn’t specific to the policy space, but is a real downside that I’ve observed affecting other EA projects– I don’t expect the main factor to be that there’s only one channel for interacting with policymakers, but rather that other long-term-focused actors will perceive the space to be taken, or will feel some sense of obligation to work with existing projects / awkwardness around not doing so.

Caveating a lot of the above: as I said before, my views on specific grants have been informed heavily by others I’ve consulted, rather than coming purely from some inside view.

FWIW, I think this kind of questioning is fairly Habryka-specific and not really standard for our policy applicants; I think in many cases I wouldn’t expect that it would lead to productive discussions (and in fact could be counterproductive, in that it might put off potential allies who we might want to work with later).

I make the calls on who is the primary evaluator for which grants; as Habryka said, I think he is probably most skeptical of policy work among people on the LTFF, and hasn’t been the primary evaluator for almost any (maybe none?) of the policy-related grants we’ve had. In your case, I thought it was unusually likely that a discussion between you and Habryka would be productive and helpful for my evaluation of the grant (though I was interested primarily in different but related questions, not “whether policy work as a whole is competitive with other grants”), because I generally expect people more embedded in the community (and in the case above, you (Sam) in particular, which I really appreciate), to be more open to pretty frank discussions about the effectiveness of particular plans, lines of work, etc.

Rebecca Kagan is currently working as a fund manager for us (sorry for the not-up-to-date webpage).

Hey, Sam – first, thanks for taking the time to write this post, and running it by us. I’m a big fan of public criticism, and I think people are often extra-wary of criticizing funders publicly, relative to other actors of the space.

Some clarifications on what we have and haven’t funded:

  • I want to make a distinction between “grants that work on policy research” and “grants that interact with policymakers”.
    • I think our bar for projects that involve the latter is much higher than for projects that are just doing the former.
  • I think we regularly fund “grants that work on policy research” – e.g., we’ve funded the Centre for Governance of AI, and regularly fund individuals who are doing PhDs or otherwise working on AI governance research.
  • I think we’ve funded a very small number of grants that involve interactions with policymakers – I can think of three such grants in the last year, two of which were for new projects. (In one case, the grantee has requested that we not report the grant publicly).

Responding to the rest of the post:

  • I think it’s roughly correct that I have a pretty high bar for funding projects that interact with policymakers, and I endorse this policy. (I don’t want to speak for the Long-Term Future Fund as a whole, because it acts more like a collection of fund managers than a single entity, but I suspect many others on the fund also have a high bar, and that my opinion in particular has had a big influence on our past decisions.)
  • Some other things in your post that I think are roughly true:
    • Previous experience in policy has been an important factor in my evaluations of these grants, and all else equal I think I am much more likely to fund applicants who are more senior (though I think the “20 years experience” bar is too high).
    • There have been cases where we haven’t funded projects (more broadly than in policy) because an individual has given us information about or impressions of them that led us to think the project would be riskier or less impactful than we initially believed, and we haven’t shared the identity or information with the applicant to preserve the privacy of the individual.
    • We have a higher bar for funding organizations than other projects, because they are more likely to stick around even if we decide they’re not worth funding in the future.
  • When evaluating the more borderline grants in this space, I often ask and rely heavily on the advice of others working in the policy space, weighted by how much I trust their judgment. I think this is basically a reasonable algorithm to follow, given that (a) they have a lot of context that I don’t, and (b) I think the downside risks of poorly-executed policy projects have spillover effects to other policy projects, which means that others in policy are genuine stakeholders in these decisions.
    • That being said, I think there’s a surprising amount of disagreement in what projects others in policy think are good, so I think the particular choice of advisors here makes a big difference.
  • I do think projects interacting with policymakers have substantial room for downside, including:
    • Pushing policies that are harmful
    • Making key issues partisan
    • Creating an impression (among policymakers or the broader world) that people who care about the long-term future are offputting, unrealistic, incompetent, or otherwise undesirable to work with
    • “Taking up the space” such that future actors who want to make long-term future-focused asks are encouraged or expected to work through or coordinate with the existing project
  • I suspect we also differ in our views of the upsides of some of this work– a lot of the projects we’ve rejected have wanted to do AI-focused policy work, and I tend to think that we don’t have very good concrete asks for policymakers in this space.

Here are answers to some other common questions about the University Organizer Fellowship that I received in office hours:
 
If I apply and get rejected, is there a “freezing period” where I can’t apply again?

We don’t have an official freezing period, but I think we generally won’t spend time reevaluating someone within 3 months of when they last applied, unless they give some indication on the application that something significant has changed in that time.

If you’re considering applying, I really encourage you to not to wait– I think for the vast majority of people considering applying, it won’t make a difference whether you apply now or a month from now.
 

Should I have prior experience doing group organizing or running EA projects before applying?

No – I care primarily about the criteria outlined here. Prior experience can be a plus, but it’s definitely not necessary, and it’s generally not the main factor in deciding whether or not to fund someone.

I’m not sure that I agree with the premise of the question – I don’t think EA is trying all that hard to build a mainstream following (and I’m not sure that it should).

Interpreting this as “who is responsible for evaluating whether the Century Fellowship is a good use of time and money”, the answer is: someone on our team will probably try and do a review of how the program is going after it’s been running for a while longer; we will probably share that evaluation with Holden, co-CEO of Open Phil, as well as possibly other advisors and relevant stakeholders. Holden approves longtermist Open Phil grants and broadly thinks about which grants are/aren’t the best uses of money.

Each application has a primary evaluator who is on our team (current evaluators: me, Bastian Stern, Eli Rose, Kasey Shibayama, and Claire Zabel). We also generally consult / rely heavily on assessments from references or advisors, e.g. other staff at Open Phil or organizations who we work closely with, especially for applicants hoping to do work in domains we have less expertise in.

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