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Open Philanthropy’s Early-Career Funding for Individuals Interested in Improving the Long-Term Future - New Application Round

Does Open Phil have any plans to re-open applications for early-career funding for work on biosecurity, as well (sometime in the next 12 months, say)?

What EA projects could grow to become megaprojects, eventually spending $100m per year?

Yeah, I mean, to be clear, my impression was that Yglesias wished this weren't required and believed that it shouldn't be required (certainly, in the abstract, it doesn't have to be), but nonetheless, it seemed like he conceded that from a practical standpoint, when this is what all your staff expect, it is required. I guess maybe then the question is just whether he could "avoid the pitfalls from his time with Vox," and I suppose my feeling is that one should expect that to be difficult and that someone in his position wouldn't want to abandon their quiet, stable, cushy Substack gig for a risky endeavor that required them to bet on their ability to do it successfully. I think too many of the relevant causes are things that you can't count on being able to control as the head of an organization, particularly at scale, over long periods of time, and I'd been inferring that this was probably one of the lessons Yglesias drew from his time at Vox.

What EA projects could grow to become megaprojects, eventually spending $100m per year?

Yeah, I guess the impression I had (from comments he made elsewhere — on a podcast, I think) was that he actually agreed with his managers that at a certain point, once a publication has scaled enough, people who represent its “essence” to the public (like its founders) do need to adopt a more neutral, nonpartisan (in the general sense) voice that brings people together without stirring up controversy, and that it was because he agreed with them about this that he decided to step down.

What EA projects could grow to become megaprojects, eventually spending $100m per year?

I would be extremely surprised if he had any interest in doing this, given what he’s said about his reasons for leaving Vox.

MichaelA's Shortform

Yeah, I think it’s very plausible that career RAs could yield meaningful productivity gains in organizations that differ structurally from “traditional” academic research groups, including, importantly, many EA research institutions. I think this depends a lot on the kinds of research that these organizations are conducting (in particular, the methods being employed and the intended audiences of published work), how the senior researchers’ jobs are designed, what the talent pipeline looks like, etc., but it’s certainly at least plausible that this could be the case.

On the parallels/overlap between what makes for a good RA and what makes for a good research manager, my view is actually probably weaker than I may have suggested in my initial comment. The reason why RAs are sometimes promoted into research management positions, as I understand it, is that effective research management is believed to require an understanding of what the research process, workflow, etc. look like in the relevant discipline and academic setting, and RAs are typically the only people without PhDs who have that context-specific understanding. Plus, they’ll also have relevant domain knowledge about the substance of the research, which is quite useful in a research manager, too. I think these are pretty much all of the reasons why RAs may make for good research managers. I don’t really think it’s a matter of skills or of mindset anywhere near as much as it’s about knowledge (both tacit and not). In fact, I think one difficulty with promoting RAs to research management roles is that often, being a successful RA seems to select for traits associated with not having good management skills (e.g., being happy spending one’s days reading academic papers alone with very limited opportunities for interpersonal contact). This is why I limited my original comment on this to RAs who can effectively manage people, who, as I suggested, I think are probably a small minority. Because good research managers are so rare, though, and because research is so management-constrained without them, if someone is such an RA and they have the opportunity, I would think that moving into research management could be quite an impactful path for them. 

MichaelA's Shortform

I actually think full-time RA roles are very commonly (probably more often than not?) publicly advertised. Some fields even have centralized job boards that aggregate RA roles across the discipline, and on top of that, there are a growing number of formalized predoctoral RA programs at major research universities in the U.S. I am actually currently working as an RA in an academic research group that has had roles posted on the 80,000 Hours job board. While I think it is common for students to approach professors in their academic program and request RA work, my sense is that non-students seeking full-time RA positions very rarely have success cold-emailing professors and asking if they need any help. Most professors do not have both ongoing need for an (additional) RA and the funding to hire one (whereas in the case of their own students, universities often have special funding set aside for students’ research training, and professors face an expectation that they help interested students to develop as researchers).

Separately, regarding the second bullet point, I think it is extremely common for even full-time RAs to only periodically be meaningfully useful and to spend the rest of their time working on relatively low-priority “back burner” projects. In general, my sense is that work for academic RAs often comes in waves; some weeks, your PI will hand you loads of things to do, and you’ll be working late, but some weeks, there will be very little for you to do at all. In many cases, I think RAs are hired at least to some extent for the value of having them effectively on call.

MichaelA's Shortform

For the last few years, I’ve been an RA in the general domain of ~economics at a major research university, and I think that while a lot of what you’re saying makes sense, it’s important to note that the quality of one’s experience as an RA will always depend to a very significant extent on one’s supervising researcher. In fact, I think this dependency might be just about the only thing every RA role has in common. Your data points/testimonials reasonably represent what it’s like to RA for a good supervisor, but bad supervisors abound (at least/especially in academia), and RAing for a bad supervisor can be positively nightmarish. Furthermore, it’s harder than you’d think to screen for this in advance of taking an RA job. I feel particularly lucky to be working for a great supervisor, but/because I am quite familiar with how much the alternative sucks.

On a separate note, regarding your comment about people potentially specializing in RAing as a career, I don’t really think this would yield much in the way of productivity gains relative to the current state of affairs in academia (where postdocs often already fill the role that I think you envision for career RAs). I do, however, think that it makes a lot of sense for some RAs to go into careers in research management. Though most RAs probably lack the requisite management aptitude, the ones who can effectively manage people, I think, can substantially increase the productivity of mid-to-large academic labs/research groups by working in management roles (I know J-PAL has employed former RAs in this capacity). A lot of academic research is severely management-constrained, in large part because management duties are often foisted upon PIs (and no one goes into academia because they want to be a manager, nor do PIs typically receive any management training, so the people responsible for management often enough lack both relevant interest and relevant skill). Moreover, productivity losses to bad management often go unrecognized because how well their research group is being managed is, like, literally at the very bottom of most PIs’ lists of things to think about (not just because they’re not interested in it, also because they’re often very busy and have many different things competing for their attention). Finally, one consequence of this is that bad RAs (at least in the social sciences) can unproductively consume a research group’s resources for extended periods of time without anyone taking much notice. On the other hand, even if the group tries to avoid this by employing a more active management approach, in that case a bad RA can meaningfully impede the group’s productivity by requiring more of their supervisor’s time to manage them than they save through their work. My sense is that fear of this situation pervades RA hiring processes in many corners of academia.

The despair of normative realism bot

This discussion reminds of a comment R.M. Hare made in his 1957 essay “Nothing Matters”:

Think of one world into whose fabric values are objectively built; and think of another in which those values have been annihilated. And remember that in both worlds the people in them go on being concerned about the same things - there is no difference in the 'subjective' concern which people have for things, only in their 'objective' value. Now I ask, What is the difference between the states of affairs in these two worlds? Can any other answer be given except 'None whatever'? How, therefore can we torment ourselves with doubts about which of them our own world resembles?

In another interesting parallel, in the same essay, Hare uses the term “play-acting” to refer to describe those who claim that nothing matters.

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