1210 karmaJoined Sep 2014


Co-Excutive Director of Rethink Priorities


Jeff, are you saying you think "an intuition that a human year was worth about 100-1000 times more than a chicken year" is a starting point of "unusually pro-animal views"?

In some sense, this seems true relative to most humans' implied views by their actions. But, as Wayne pointed out above, this same critique could apply to, say, the typical American's views about global health and development. Generally, it doesn't seem to buy much to frame things relative to people who've never thought about a given topic substantively and I don't think you'd think this would be a good critique of a foreign aid think tank looking into how much to value global health and development.

Maybe you are making a different point here?

Also, it would help more if you were being explicit about what you think a neutral baseline is. What would you consider more typical or standard views about animals from which to update? Moment to moment human experience is worth 10,000x that of a chicken conditional on chickens being sentient? 1,000,000x? And, whatever your position, why do you think that is a more reasonable starting point?

Thanks for the question, but unfortunately we can not share more about those involved or the total.

I can say we're confident this unlocked millions for something that otherwise wouldn't have happened. We think maybe half of the money moved would not have been spent, and some lesser amount would have been spent on less promising opportunities from an EA perspective.

Thanks for the question and the kind words. However, I don’t think I can answer this without falling back somewhat on some rather generic advice. We do a lot of things that I think has contributed to where we are now, but I don’t think any of them are particularly novel:

  • We try to identify really high quality hires, bring them on, train them up and trust them to execute their jobs.
  • We seek feedback from our staff, and proactively seek to improve any processes that aren’t working.
  • We try to follow research and management best practices, and gather ideas on these fronts from organizations and leaders that have previously been successful.
  • We try to make RP a genuinely pleasant place to work for everyone on our staff.

As to your ideas about the possibility of RP’s success being high founder quality, I think Peter and I try very hard to do the best we can but I think in part due to survivorship bias it’s difficult for me to say that we have any extraordinary skills others don’t possess. I’ve met many talented, intelligent, and driven people in my life, some of whom have started ventures that have been successful and others who have struggled. Ultimately, I think it’s some combination of these traits, luck, and good timing that has lead us to be where we are today.

Thanks for the question! I think describing the current state will hint at a lot on what might make us change the distribution, so I’m primarily going to focus on that.

I think the current distribution of what we work on is dependent on a number of factors, including but not limited to:

  1. What we think about research opportunities in each space
  2. What we think about the opportunity to exert meaningful influence in the space
  3. Funding opportunities
  4. Our ability to hire people

In a sense, I think we’re cause neutral in that we’d be happy to work on any cause provided the good opportunities arise to do so. We do have opinions on high level cause prioritization (though I know there’s some disagreement inside RP about this topic) but I think given the changing nature of marginal value of additional work in any given the above considerations, and others, we meld our work (and staff) to where we think we can have the highest impact.

In general, though this is fairly generic and high level, were we to come to think our in a given area wasn’t useful or the opportunity cost were too high to continue to work on it, we would decide to pursue other things. Similarly, if the reverse was true for some particular possible projects we weren’t working on, we would take them on

Given we know so little about their potential capacities and what alters their welfare, I’d suggest the potential factory farming of insects is potentially quite bad. However, I don’t know what methods are effective at discouraging people from consuming them, though some of the things you suggest seem plausible paths here. I think it is pretty hard to say much on the tractability of these things, without further research.

Also, we are generally keen to hear from folks who are interested in doing further work on invertebrates. And, personally, if you know of anyone interested in working on things like this I would encourage them to apply to be ED of the Insect Welfare Project.

I would like to see more applications in the areas outlined in our RFP and I’d encourage anyone with interest in working on those topics to contact us.

More generally, I would like to see far more people and funding engaged in this area. Of course, that’s really difficult to accomplish. Outside of that, I’m not sure I’d point to anything in particular.

We don’t have a cost-effectiveness estimate of our grants. The reason as to why not, is it’s likely very difficult to produce, and while it could be useful, we're not sure it's worth the investment for now.

On who to be in touch with, I would suggest such a prospective student is in touch with groups like GFI and New Harvest if they would like advice on attempting to find advisors for this type of work.

On advice, I would generally stay away from career advice. If forced to answer, I would not give general advice that everyone or most people are better off attempting to do as high impact research as soon as is feasible.

I think we’re looking for promising projects and one clear sign of that is often a track-record of success. The more challenging the proposal, the more something like this might be important. However, we’re definitely open to funding people without a long track record if there are other reasons to believe the project would be successful.

Personally, I’d say good university grades alone is probably not a strong enough signal, but running or participating in successful small projects on a campus might be particularly if the projects were similar in scope or size to what was being proposed, and/or this person had good references on their capabilities from people we trusted.

The case of a nonprofit with a suboptimal track record is harder for me in the abstract. I think it depends a lot on the group’s track record and just how promising we believe the project to be. If a group has an actively bad track record, failing to produce what they’ve been paid to do or producing work of negative value, I’d think we’d be reluctant to fund them even if they were working in an area we considered promising. If the group was middling, but working in a highly promising area, I’d guess we would be more likely to fund them. However, there is obviously much grey area between these two poles and I think it really depends on the details of the proposal and track record of the group in determining whether we’d think such a project would be worth funding.

We grade all applications with the same scoring system. For the prior round, after the review of the primary and secondary investigator and we’ve all read their conclusions, each grant manager gave a score (excluding cases of conflict of interests) of +5 to -5, with +5 being the strongest possible endorsement of positive impact, and -5 being a grant with an anti-endorsement that’s actively harmful to a significant degree. We then averaged across scores, approving those at the very top, and dismissing those at the bottom, largely discussing only those grants that are around the threshold of 2.5 unless anyone wanted to actively make the case for or against something outside of these bounds (the size and scope of other grants, particularly the large grants we approve, is also discussed).

That said, in my mind, grants for research are valuable to the extent they unlock future opportunities to directly improve the welfare of animals. Of course, figuring out whether, or how much, that’s feasible with any given research grant can be very difficult. For direct work, you can, at least in theory, relatively straightforwardly try to estimate the impact on animals (or at least the range of animals impacted). We try to estimate plausible success and return on animal lives improved for both but given these facts there are some additional things I think we keep in mind. Some considerations:

  • Path to impact for research. If the research is on, say, a certain species of fish you can estimate how many of those fish are killed/raised/farmed per year and any trends in these figures. You could use that number of animals as a kind of upper bound on the animals possible to be impacted, before figuring out how many could plausibly be affected by actors, aligned (on this topic) foundations or governments or NGOs that could plausibly act on this information. And if these parties can act, how likely is it, and how big of change would it be.
  • For research with more diffuse or longer term impacts, you can attempt similar calculations or approximations, it can be difficult to assess with any precision, but this is also true of some direct work that involves field-building or, say, conferences.

There are other considerations, notably that research and direct work may have different counterfactual support options depending on the topic. There may be less funders interested in supporting certain types of research (say, non-academic work on neglected animals) and more on other topics that may be more established.

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