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An introduction to global priorities research for economists

Thanks a lot for sharing the syllabus, David, and for posting guidelines about using it. I think and hope this will serve as a really useful reference for people interested in pursuing (a career in) economics GPR. As you note, this is a bit broader than GPI's current research focus (which is fairly narrowly focused on longtermism and associated questions for the time being), but I think there is valuable GPR to be done in these other areas too. As you also note, GPI is currently refreshing its research agenda to account for some of the exploration research we've done in economics over the last ~18 months - hopefully we'll have a new and improved version out in the next 2-3 months.

Why I've come to think global priorities research is even more important than I thought

I just wanted to explicitly add to this post that valuable GPR can, does, and should happen outside of an academic setting. I think this is implied in this post (e.g. the mention of OpenPhil and the link to the GPR roles on the 80k website), but is not quite explicit, so I just wanted to flag it. Researchers outside of academia face a different set of incentives to academics, and can sometimes have more freedom to work on questions that are more practically relevant but less 'publishable' in academic journals. The point is made quite nicely on the 80k GPR page here: https://80000hours.org/problem-profiles/global-priorities-research/#what-are-some-top-career-options-within-this-area

"That said, we expect that other centres will be established over the coming years, and you could also pursue this research in other academic positions.

One downside of academia, however, is that you need to work on topics that are publishable, and these are often not those that are most relevant to real decisions. This means it’s also important to have researchers working elsewhere on more practical questions."

Personally, I think/hope the field of GPR will develop in a similar way to 'impact evaluation' in development economics over the last ~20 years -- i.e. significant progress has been made in academic research (including some of the more important methodological or foundational advances), but there has also been a lot of valuable non-academic impact evaluation research (including lots that is more directly relevant for decision-makers).

The case of the missing cause prioritisation research

This is a great post - thanks a lot for writing it. I work at GPI, so want to add a bit of context on a couple of points, and add some of my own thoughts. Standard disclaimer that these are my personal views and not those of GPI though. 


First, on GPI's research agenda, and our progress in econ:

"(One economics student told me that when reading the GPI research agenda, the economics parts read like it was written by philosophers. Maybe this contributes to the lack of headway on their economics research plans.)"

I think this is accurate and a reflection of how the research agenda was written and has evolved. For what it's worth, we're currently working on refreshing the research agenda to reflect some of the 'exploration research' we've done in economics in the past ~18 months - we should have an updated version in the next few months. More generally, we've had very little econ research capacity to date beyond pre-doctoral researchers (very junior in academic terms). This will improve very shortly -- as Phil notes in a previous comment, we've hired two postdocs to start in the next month -- but as others have noted, high quality academic work is hard and takes quite a lot of time, so this may not result in a step change in actionable econ research coming out of GPI in the short run, which leads on to my second comment... 


Second, on theories of change - your point D1 is really important. We've actively discussed various 'theories of change' internally at GPI and how these should affect our strategy. A decent part of this discussion depends on what others are doing in EA and how we think GPI fits into the overall EA movement portfolio. Even within the (relatively narrow) scope of doing academic GP research in econ and philosophy, possible theories of change for GPI include (but are not limited to!) prioritising building up academic credibility for long-run influence, prioritising research that is more actionable for EAs/philanthropists and policymakers, prioritising influencing policymakers / the general public, or prioritising influencing the next generation through higher education. These are not mutually exclusive, but placing different emphasis on one or the other may imply different strategy. We are still very young, and so far we have mostly been focused on laying foundations for the first of these, and have so far made much more progress on this in philosophy than econ, though I expect things will evolve in the next few years. Personally, I don't think we'll be able to effectively target all of the possible theories of change, and I'd love to see more people and groups working on these. 

One for the World: update after 6 months of our first staff member

Thanks, Aaron. Just to add to Steve's response below:

1) We think that part of the reason for the large increase in people pledging ~1% of their income this academic year is due to (a) better training and messaging (largely because we now have a full time staff member doing this), and (b) our improved donation platform. (b) has allowed us to set different defaults for different chapters, and for donors to set their start date further in the future, so it coincides with graduation. Before that, our donation defaults were targeted at MBAs, so undergrads in particular would log on, see a massive default relative to their expected salary, and pledge something significantly lower. Juniors and sophomores would also be unable to pledge far enough in the future to start giving at graduation and so would often put in a 'symbolic' $10 pledge, which partly explains why the average donation (as percentage of average graduation income) was pretty low before this year.

2) Our donation data indicates that the power of defaults is pretty strong among our members (a large mass of people give the default amount on the sign up page). We plan on experimenting with changing these default options (e.g. having 2% and/or 5% as well as 1%) and testing whether this makes a difference. At first we will just do this on the online platform, but we'll also consider randomly selecting some chapters to have messaging about higher percentages in future years, and again testing if this makes a difference.

Shop for Charity: how to earn proven charities 5% of your Amazon spending in commission

Is this scheme still running? This page suggests the scheme is closed (https://eahub.org/actions/shopping/intro). Should we therefore all be using Amazon Smile instead?

Either way, it would be nice to see a short update, in particular how much this scheme moved to top charities (and how much effort it was to set up). Thanks!

One for the World as a potential vehicle to expand the reach of Effective Altruism

This is useful feedback, and I've heard one or two similar sentiments before, though (in my experience) this type of "dismissive cynicism" has been quite rare.

We are quite careful in our messaging of the 1% figure, and try not to be self-congratulatory about giving this relatively small amount (but as you point out there is a tradeoff with trying to create a positive vibe vs being a bit more stoic about a small amount). For example, we often use the figure that Americans give 2.6% on average, to try to anchor people higher than 1% and show how normal that low level is. We also use this stat to have messaging along the lines of "you'll give 2.6% on average, and will likely have a portfolio of charities where you give. Our ask is for at least 1% of that portfolio to go towards some of the most effective global poverty charities". Increasingly, we do want to try to 'upsell' people more, but our efforts on this are fairly preliminary so far.

One for the World as a potential vehicle to expand the reach of Effective Altruism

This is a really good and important point - thanks, Eli_Nathan. I don't feel confident in having an 'answer' to this potential tradeoff (focusing on raising money vs deepening engagement), but a few thoughts:

1)

It seems that 1FTW attracts similar types of people that the GWWC pledge would, but at higher quantities due to the lower barrier. However, I'm skeptical that this lower barrier is necessarily a positive thing, because it would seem that, on average, these individuals are less likely to further engage with the EA community at large.

I think this is a reasonable view to take, and I agree that on average a OFTW members is less likely to engage deeply with EA than a GWWC member (or similar). I do think we have a number of cases, in particular some chapter leaders and 'student ambassadors', who have gone on to engage quite deeply with EA, and who may never have got involved without OFTW's more broad-based approach. (I guess any evidence I have here is anecdotal though, and I don't want to talk for others too much). So even if on average fewer people deeply engage with EA, I think it is very plausible that the total number is higher. I think the optimal setup at a university would be to have a thriving OFTW chapter (or something similar) that is engaging the broader student body with EA ideas, and a thriving general EA group that funnels those who are more interested in EA and other cause areas to get more involved. (See my other comments on the complementarity of these groups, and on the idea of 'widening the funnel' of engagement with EA, so more people just get involved, and more end up more deeply engaged).

2)

In my eyes, the comparative advantage for student groups is more about driving engagement and plan changes and less about raising funds.

I think this is also a very reasonable (and increasingly common) view to hold. Again, I think the ideal setup is for a general EA group to work with OFTW on this, but I think this is an area we would like our chapters to improve on. In discussions with GiveWell about the grant, they gave us feedback that they'd like to see more promotion of EA more generally by our chapters, and we also talked a bit about trying to offer 80,000-hours style material, to help generate engagement, plan changes and improve the 'talent pool' in EA. I think these are both areas that we want to improve on as we grow and increase our capacity.

3)

Of course, money still goes a long way, but I'm skeptical that group leaders should be spending their time focusing on (relatively) small donations over building communities of talented, engaged individuals.

On this, I think this is a fair short-term critique of the amount of money we are currently raising, but I think a lot of the (monetary) value in what we are doing is yet to be realised. I don't know the stats off the top of my head, but X% of Wharton MBAs go on to become worth $Ym, and we want to try and engage these 'future rich' (and influential) people with EA at a relatively early stage (and while their preferences are still fairly malleable!). Keeping our members engaged over the years is going to be a key factor in our success going forward though!

One for the World as a potential vehicle to expand the reach of Effective Altruism

Yeah, pretty much MBA students and Law students to a lesser extent. To be honest, when I was first approached by Josh and Kate (the founders) to join OFTW, I was fairly skeptical that it would catch on in the Wharton MBA class, but was impressed by the amount of market research and thought they'd put into the concept, the messaging and branding etc. One of the lessons I've learned over time is that the stereotype of a 'typical' MBA student caring more about money and a career than charities and doing good may not be (entirely!) fair - most people want to good, but haven't thought deeply about it or know the best ways. We're trying to make it easier and more convenient for them, and the idea has proved more popular than I had initially thought! I'm not sure to what extent this will extend to other communities, but one thing we want to start experimenting with is 'corporate' chapters, starting in companies where a lot of our members work.

One for the World as a potential vehicle to expand the reach of Effective Altruism

I'm cross posting answers to some questions on the EA group organisers Facebook group below:

Have you found this to be significantly more successful than the 1% student version of GWWC?

In my personal experience, in terms of number of pledges, I would say yes. I've helped run Gwwc groups in Oxford (2011-2012) and Penn (2014-2017) and over those years I think we probably 'caused' 10-20 Gwwc pledges at Penn and <10 in my year at Oxford. The most established Oftw chapters seem capable of bringing in ~60-100+ each year. This compares favourably to the Gwwc groups I've been involved with, but probably not the most successful ones (eg Cambridge generated a huge number of Gwwc pledges through its pledge drive ~2.5(?) years ago). We also have some less established oftw chapters yet to hit those numbers.

In terms of deeper engagement with EA, I think a more general EA local group likely does a better job than a OFTW chapter on average. But overall I see the two approaches as complementary - Oftw to 'broaden the funnel' of engagement with EA and raise money, then a general EA group for those who become most engaged in EA, particularly in non-poverty cause areas. I think a OFTW pledge drive can help with engagement too, by giving concrete, tangible actions for members to work on.

Do you ever see people increase their pledge from 1%? Or do you see people feeling content with only 1%?

We haven't seen many people increasing their donation past 1% so far, and have found this default pretty sticky. In the last year, we've emphasised the at least 1% messaging more, and changed defaults in our sign up page to include 2% options. We've also started experimenting with 'upselling' some of our more engaged members to higher amounts, but our first attempts didn't yield much. Overall, this is an area (and donor engagement more generally) that we haven't done much with so far, and are hoping to improve a lot on now we have more capacity.

One for the World as a potential vehicle to expand the reach of Effective Altruism

Thanks Peter, Josh.

Personally, I see oftw as complementary to existing EA outreach, in particular local EA groups. I think Oftw can be very effective in 'broadening the funnel' of engagement with EA and raising money, then a general EA group provides a platform for those who become most engaged in EA, particularly in non-poverty cause areas. I think a OFTW pledge drive can help with engagement too, by giving concrete, tangible actions for members to work on.

In terms of how this works in practice, there are a couple of cases that have taken different approaches here. At Penn, the Oftw groups have operated pretty independently from the penn EA group - they have organised some events together, sometimes join each others' discussion groups and socials, but the core organisers haven't overlapped much. They've also focused on different populations I think (Oftw on MBA, law students and the broad undergrad body, the EA group focusing more on a smaller group of people very engaged in EA). At HLS, I think Oftw operates more as a 'project' of the general EA group, and the core organising team has a lot of overlap. To avoid crowding out or duplicating effort, I think some collaboration is desirable, but I think either of these approaches can work well.

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