Marcus_A_Davis

Co-Excutive Director of Rethink Priorities

Wiki Contributions

Comments

Animal Welfare Fund: Ask us anything!

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.

Animal Welfare Fund: Ask us anything!

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.

Animal Welfare Fund: Ask us anything!

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.

Animal Welfare Fund: Ask us anything!

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.

Animal Welfare Fund: Ask us anything!

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.

Animal Welfare Fund: Ask us anything!

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.

Animal Welfare Fund: Ask us anything!

I don’t think it is true the EA AW Fund is essentially neartermist, though this may depend somewhat on what you mean. We definitely consider grants that have potential long term payoffs beyond the next few decades. In my opinion, much of the promise of PBM and cultivated meat relies on impacts that would be 15-100 years away and there’s no intrinsic reason held, for me and I believe other funders, to discount or not consider other areas for animal welfare that would have long term payoffs.

That said, as you suggest in (2), I do think it is true that it makes sense for the LTFF to focus more on thinking through and funding projects that involve what would happen assuming AGI were to come to exist. A hypothetical grant proposal which is focused on animal welfare but depends on AGI would probably make sense for both funds to consider or consult each other on and it would depend on the details of the grant as to whose ultimate domain we believe it falls under. We received applications at least somewhat along these lines in the prior grant round and this is what happened.

Given the above, I think it’s fair to say we would consider grants with reasoning like in your post, but sometimes the ultimate decision for that type of grant may make more sense to be considered for funding by the LTFF.

On the question of what I think of the moral circle expansion type arguments for prioritizing animal welfare work within longtermism, I’ll speak for myself. I think you are right that the precise nature of how moral circles expand and whether such expansion is unidimensional or multidimensional is an important factor. In general, I don’t have super strong views on this issue though so take everything I say here to be stated with uncertainty.

I’m somewhat skeptical, to varying degrees, about the practical ability to test people’s attitudes about moral circle expansion in a reliable enough way to gain the kind of confidence needed to determine if that’s a more tractable way to influence long run to determine, as you suggest it might, whether to prioritize clean meat research or advocacy against speciesism, which groups of animals to prioritize, or which subgroups of the public to target if attempting outreach. The reason for much of this skepticism (as you suggest as a possible limitation of this argument) is largely the transferability across domains and cultures, and the inherent wide error bars in understanding the impact of how significantly different facts of the world would impact responses to animal welfare (and everything else).

For example, supposing it would be possible to develop cost-competitive clean meat in the next 30 years, I don’t know what impact that would have on human responses to wild animal welfare or insects and I wouldn’t place much confidence, if any, in how people say they would respond to their hypothetical future selves facing that dilemma in 30 years (to say nothing of their ability to predict the demands of generations not yet born to such facts). Of course, reasons like this don’t apply to all of the work you suggested doing and, say, surveys and experiments on existing attitudes of those actively working in AI might tell us something about whether animals (and which animals if any) would be handled by potential AI systems. Perhaps you could use this information to decide we need to ensure non-human-like minds to be considered by those at elite AI firms.

I definitely would encourage people to send us any ideas that fall into this space, as I think it’s definitely worth considering seriously.

Animal Welfare Fund: Ask us anything!

In the just completed round we got several applications from academics looking to support research on plant-based and cultivated meat projects though we ultimately decided not to support any of them. We definitely welcome grant applications in this area and our new requests for proposals explicitly calls for applications on work in this space. Additionally, I would direct them to consider applying to GFI’s alternative protein research grants, and the Food Systems Research Fund, among other locations, if they believe they have promising projects in this space.

On the specific reasoning, there are reasons against funding some work in this area, as there are every area we consider, but ultimately I don’t think the general case for or against grants in this space is decisive. It’s definitely true, as you point out, that some grant requests in this area can be high relative to the median grant request but this prior round featured five grants over $100,000. So, to me, the ultimate concern is the expected rate of return on the particular grant relative to other possible options we have before us. In this particular instance we didn’t fund one of these projects but I definitely wouldn’t want to deter researchers with valuable ideas from applying, as I think work in this space has the potential to be extremely valuable.

All the said, I think there are a some reasons other places might be a better fit for some other funders:

  • Academic social science research is often a better fit for the EA research fund or Food Systems Fund because of their expertise + focus.
  • Academic plant-based + cultured meat research is often a better fit for the GFI fund because of their expertise + focus.
  • Academic farm animal welfare science research is often a better fit for Humane Slaughter Association, or a bunch of other scientific funders.

I think we should be open to funding all of the above, but I think a $1M academic grant will always be a heavy lift if we only have ~$1-2M to give away (i.e. the academic grant would be almost the whole thing).

Ask Rethink Priorities Anything (AMA)

What new charities do you want to be created by EAs?

I don't have any strong opinions about this and it would likely take months of work to develop them. In general, I don't know enough to suggest that it is desirable that new charities work in areas I think could use more work rather than existing organizations up their work in those domains.

What are the biggest mistakes Rethink Priorities did?

Not doing enough early enough to figure out how to achieve impact from our work and communicate with other organizations and funders about how we can work together.

Ask Rethink Priorities Anything (AMA)

Thanks for the questions!

If one is only concerned w/ preventing needless suffering, prioritising the most extreme suffering, would donating to Rethink Priorities be a good investment for them, and if so, how so?

I think this depends on many factual beliefs you hold, including what groups of creatures count and what time period you are concerned about. Restricting ourselves to the present and assuming all plausibly sentient minds count (and ignoring extremes, say, less than 0.1% chance), I think farm and wild animals are plausibly candidates for enduring some of the worst suffering.

Specifically, I'd say it's plausible some of the worst persistent current suffering is plausibly in farmed chickens and fish, and thus work to reduce the worst aspects of those is a decent bet to prevent extreme suffering. Similarly, wild animals likely experience the largest share of extreme suffering currently because of the sheer numbers and nature of life largely without interventions to prevent, say, the suffering of starvation, or extreme physical pain. For these reasons, work to improve conditions for wild animals plausibly could be a good investment.

Still restricted to the present, and outside the typical EA space altogether, I think it's plausible much of the worst suffering in the world is committed during war crimes or torture under various authoritarian states. I do not know if there's anything remotely tractable in this space or what good donation opportunities would be.

If you broaden consideration to include the future, a much wider set of creatures plausibly could experience extreme suffering including digital minds running at higher speeds, and/or with increased intensity of valenced experience beyond what's currently possible in biological creatures. Here, what you think is the best bet would depend on many empirical beliefs again. I would say, only, that I'm excited about our longtermism work and think we'll meaningfully contribute to creating the kind of future that decreases the risks of these types of outcomes.

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