Hauke Hillebrandt, PhD | Let's Fund Co-founder

Pronouns: he, him, his


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HaukeHillebrandt's Shortform

"RCTs in the Field of Development - A Critical Perspective" is a book that was recently published. Description below.

We cite one the chapters extensively in our "Growth and the case against randomista development" piece. 

The individual chapters seem all available for free in preprint version (e.g. http://ftp.iza.org/dp12882.pdf ).


In October 2019, Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, and Michael Kremer jointly won the 51st Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel "for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty." But what is the exact scope of their experimental method, known as randomized control trials (RCTs)? Which sorts of questions are RCTs able to address and which do they fail to answer? The first of its kind, Randomized Control Trials in the Field of Development: A Critical Perspective provides answers to these questions, explaining how RCTs work, what they can achieve, why they sometimes fail, how they can be improved and why other methods are both useful and necessary. Bringing together leading specialists in the field from a range of backgrounds and disciplines (economics, econometrics, mathematics, statistics, political economy, socioeconomics, anthropology, philosophy, global health, epidemiology, and medicine), it presents a full and coherent picture of the main strengths and weaknesses of RCTs in the field of development. Looking beyond the epistemological, political, and ethical differences underlying many of the disagreements surrounding RCTs, it explores the implementation of RCTs on the ground, outside of their ideal theoretical conditions and reveals some unsuspected uses and effects, their disruptive potential, but also their political uses. The contributions uncover the implicit worldview that many RCTs draw on and disseminate, and probe the gap between the method's narrow scope and its success, while also proposing improvements and alternatives.

Without disputing the contribution of RCTs to scientific knowledge, Randomized Control Trials in the Field of Development warns against the potential dangers of their excessive use, arguing that the best use for RCTs is not necessarily that which immediately springs to mind. Written in plain language, this book offers experts and laypeople alike a unique opportunity to come to an informed and reasoned judgement on RCTs and what they can bring to development.

Table of Contents

General Introduction, Florent Bédécarrats, Isabelle Guérin, and François Roubaud
0:Randomization in the Tropics Revisited: A Theme and Eleven Variations, Sir Angus Deaton
1:Should the Randomistas (Continue to) Rule?, Martin Ravallion
2:Randomizing Development: Method or Madness?, Lant Pritchett
3:The Disruptive Power of RCTs, Jonathan Morduch
4:RCTs in Development Economics, Their Critics, and Their Evolution, Timothy Ogden
5:Reducing the Knowledge Gap in Global Health Delivery: Contributions and Limitations of Randomized Controlled trials, Andres Garchitorena, Megan Murray, Bethany Hedt-Gauthier, Paul Farmer, and Matthew Bonds
6:Trials and Tribulations: The Rise and Fall of the RCT in the WASH Sector, Dean Spears, Radu Ban, and Oliver Cumming
7:Microfinance RCTs in Development: Miracle or Mirage?, Florent Bédécarrats, Isabelle Guérin, and François Roubaud
8:The Rhetorical Superiority of Poor Economics, Agnès Labrousse
9:Are the 'Randomistas' Evaluators?, Robert Picciotto
10:Ethics of RCTs: Should Economists Care about Equipoise?, Michel Abramowicz and Ariane Szafarz
11:Using Priors in Experimental Design: How Much Are We Leaving on the Table?, Eva Vivalt
12:Epilogue: Randomization and Social Policy Evaluation Revisited, James J. Heckman

Clean technology innovation as the most cost-effective climate action

Excellent post - strong upvote!

Your analysis of the climate impacts of clean protein is really interesting and the dual benefits of clean protein R&D on the environment and animal welfare are definitely worth highlighting, but I agree that in the long-term it's unlikely to be competitive with clean energy R&D.

However, I think what's more interesting is: 

  1. That there are just so many similarities in modelling the problem of climate change and factory farming  i.e. benefits of clean energy R&D and clean protein R&D.
  2. The resulting "Extreme cost-effectiveness of clean protein R&D"

Put simplistically, if you were to take the Let's Fund clean energy analysis (lets-fund.org/clean-energy) and replace the negative externalities (i.e. "emissions" with "farm animal suffering") and solution the "clean energy R&D" with "clean protein R&D" - I think you might still get a lot of mileage out it. 

For instance, in the climate change report I had the following crucial considerations:

  1. The focus of advanced economies like EU countries to prioritize reducing their own domestic emissions is a natural impulse ('clean up your own backyard first'). But 75% of all emissions will come from emerging economies such as China and India by 2040. Only if advanced economies' climate policies reduce emissions in all countries, will we prevent dangerous climate change.
  2. For this reason, the best climate policies are those that stimulate clean energy innovation. Advanced economies need to provide the global public good of cheaper clean energy technology. Only technology spillovers help all countries reduce their emissions, because they lower the cost of low-carbon energy and make carbon taxes more likely.
  3. Many policies stimulate clean energy innovation and create global technology spillovers (e.g. carbon taxes, subsidies for renewable energy, phasing out fossil fuel subsidies). But the most effective policy is increasing government budgets for public clean energy research and development (R&D).
  4. Public clean energy R&D is neglected: only $22 billion is spent per year globally. Many advanced economies such as the US could unilaterally increase this substantially i.e. even without international coordination.

Clean protein R&D's effect on farm animal welfare is similar, where a lot of demand for meat will come from emerging economies, and, because of the global technology spillover, if we were to make clean protein cheaper for all countries, it would reduce factory farming globally, and thus dominate interventions like corporate campaigns, vegan advocacy, meat taxes, etc.

As you write, it's often good to use leverage through policy advocacy for more clean protein R&D. 

Here I feel like the Good Food Institute is most similar to the effective clean energy R&D advocacy interventions:

One of the The Good Food Institute missions is “educate grant-making institutions, corporations, and governmental bodies about plant-based and clean meat R&D as a critical component of endeavors related to sustainability, climate change, and global health.“ 

“Following GFI lobbying, Congress registered its support for alternative protein research in the fiscal 2020 Senate Agriculture Appropriations Report, and it included new language providing extra funding for the Agricultural Research Service to conduct research on pulses. GFI also launched GFI-Israel, now a team of four, and expanded the size of their affiliates in Brazil, India, Asia Pacific, and Europe (now ~25 total across the five offices).” 

Similarly, one of New Harvest’s missions is to “educate and inform stakeholders and the public at large of what cellular agriculture research is, and why it is necessary, in an honest, transparent, science-based manner.” Increasing neglected basic government R&D e.g. on tissue engineering might have very large leverage. For instance, in the US, the National Institutes of Health funds most tissue-engineering research, but focuses on biomedical applications; the Department of Agriculture funds most food-science studies, but spends little on clean meat. Advocacy to increase interdisciplinary research on this might be very effective to increase overall R&D budgets.

Further links: 

  1. Protein Industries Canada | Unleashing the Potential of Canadian Crops
  2. Japan is investing in protein research.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jb_EeTu8MEw
  3. How Government-Funded Research on Alternative Proteins Can Grow the Bioeconomy
  4. https://thebreakthrough.org/articles/federal-support-for-alt-protein
  5. https://thebreakthrough.org/issues/food/cultivated-meat
  6. https://thebreakthrough.org/articles/econ-recovery-ag-innovation
BenMillwood's Shortform

I'm sure if I thought about it for a bit I could figure out when these two mutually contradictory strategies look better or worse than each other. But mostly I don't take either of them very seriously most of the time anyway :)

I think these strategies can actually be combined:

A patient philanthropist sets up their endowment according to mission hedging principles.

For instance, someone wanting to hedge against AI risks could invest in (leveraged) AI FAANG+ ETF (https://c5f7b13c-075d-4d98-a100-59dd831bd417.filesusr.com/ugd/c95fca_c71a831d5c7643a7b28a7ba7367a3ab3.pdf), then when AI seems more capable and risky and the market is up, they sell and buy shorts, then donate the appreciated assets to fund advocacy to regulate AI.

I think this might work better for bigger donors.

Like this got me thinking: https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/10/20/21523492/future-forward-super-pac-dustin-moskovitz-silicon-valley

“We can push the odds of victory up significantly—from 23% to 35-55%—by blitzing the airwaves in the final two weeks.”


BenMillwood's Shortform

it's possible to make money this way

Agreed, but I don't think there's a big market inefficiency here with risk-adjusted above market rate returns. Of course, if you do research to create private information then there should be a return to that research.

Trading based on private information is sometimes illegal, but sometimes not, depending on what the information is and why you have it, and which jurisdiction you're in. [...[

True, but I've heard that in the US, normally, if I lobby in the U.S. for an outcome and I short the stock about which I am lobbying, I have not violated any law unless I am a fiduciary or agent of the company in question. Also see https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2014/04/24/its-perfectly-fine-for-herbalife-short-sellers-to-lobby-the-government/#95b274610256

I have my own counterargument

I really like this, but...

it can be made to look bad

This seems to be why people have a knee jerk reaction against it.

Michael_Wiebe's Shortform


Related: "Some programs have received strong hints that they will be killed off entirely. The Oxford Policy Fellowship, a technical advisory program that embeds lawyers with governments that require support for two years, will have to withdraw fellows from their postings, according to Kari Selander, who founded the program."



Can my self-worth compare to my instrumental value?

most of the impact is achieved by a few, very impactful people could also make the people who perceive themselves as having potential for high impact particularly vulnerable, since the gap between their intrinsic value or self-worth and their instrumental value would seem even wider.


Not sure if relevant to what you're saying, but there's this very interesting paper that shows:

Suppose that all people in the world are allocated only two characteristics over which they have (almost) no control: country of residence and income distribution within that country. Assume further that there is no migration. We show that more than one-half of variability in income of world population classified according to their household per capita in 1% income groups (by country) is accounted for by these two characteristics. The role of effort or luck cannot play a large role in explaining the global distribution of income.

This has obvious implications how much people can realistically earn to give, but also suggests that other forms of impact, like social impact, might be mostly outside people's control. This is good reason to not be too hard on oneself for not achieving more, and not compare yourself to people like Bill Gates.

This blog post "Why not give 90%?" also seems relevant. 

Crowdfunding platform tips?

Some people don't have facebook or don't like to give credit card information. You might consider setting up on both FB and GFM, where you try to get people to FB first, because it doesn't take any fees and then maybe either to PayPal, which also doesn't take fees, and only then perhaps to GFM, just make a website with your own aggregate donation count.

You might also want to check out Youtube's new crowdfunding capabilities.

Good luck! Suvita seems  like a great project.

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