As part of our research on the history of philanthropy, I recently investigated several case studies of early field growth, especially those in which philanthropists purposely tried to grow the size and impact of a (typically) young and small field of research or advocacy.

The full report includes brief case studies of bioethics, cryonics, molecular nanotechnology, neoliberalism, the conservative legal movement, American geriatrics, American environmentalism, and animal advocacy. My key takeaways are:

  • Most of the “obvious” methods for building up a young field have been tried, and those methods often work. For example, when trying to build up a young field of academic research, it often works to fund workshops, conferences, fellowships, courses, professorships, centers, requests for proposals, etc. Or when trying to build up a new advocacy community, it often works to fund student clubs, local gatherings, popular media, etc.
  • Fields vary hugely along several dimensions, including (1) primary sources of funding (e.g. large philanthropists, many small donors, governments, companies), (2) whether engaged philanthropists were “active” or “passive” in their funding strategy, and (3) how much the growth of the field can be attributed to endogenous factors (e.g. explicit movement-building work) vs. exogenous factors (e.g. changing geopolitical conditions).

Besides these major takeaways, I also learned many more specific things about particular fields. For example:

  • The rise of bioethics seems to be a case study in the transfer of authority over a domain (medical ethics) from one group (doctors) to another (bioethicists), in large part due to the first group’s relative neglect of that domain. [More]
  • In the case of cryonics and molecular nanotechnology, plausibly growth-stunting adversarial dynamics arose between advocates of these young fields and the scientists in adjacent fields (cryobiology and chemistry, respectively). These adversarial dynamics seem to have arisen, in part, due to the young fields’ early focus on popular outreach prior to doing much scientific or technical work, and their disparagement of those in adjacent fields. [More]
  • The rise of neoliberalism is a victory for an explicit strategy of decades-long investment in the academic development and intellectual spreading of a particular set of ideas, though this model may not work as well when the ideas themselves don’t happen to benefit a naturally well-resourced set of funders (large corporations and their wealthy owners, as in the case of neoliberalism). [More]
  • A small group of funders of the conservative legal movement managed to critique their own (joint) strategy, change course, and succeed as a result. [More]
  • The rise of the environmental and animal advocacy movements contrast sharply with the cases above, both because they grew mostly via a large network of small funders rather than a small network of large funders, and because many of those movements’ activities do not materially benefit any funder or political actor (e.g. in the case of wilderness preservation or campaigns against factory farming). [More]

For more detail, see the full report.

Comments

The full article was very interesting - thanks!

How were the returns on info in this area? Specifically, are you / is OpenPhil planning to put a lot more effort into filling out this list of expamples / prioritising work in this area?

Relatedly, have there been any practical decisions e.g. Grants that OpenPhil has done differently as a result of this information?

Hi Ben,

Thanks for your questions.

We aren’t currently planning to prioritize the investigation of additional case studies of early field growth. As with most research investigations, there are diminishing marginal returns to effort after this initial batch of work, and our staff’s time is scarce.

That said, our more general interest in learning from the history of philanthropy remains, and I would guess that some of our future work on the history of philanthropy will be seeking to answer specific questions relevant to our grantmaking at that time. For example, we launched the investigation reported above when we were just beginning to do “field-building” work in our potential risks from advanced AI focus area. In the future, when we are embarking on some other new-to-us kind of work, we may decide to check what we can learn from the history of philanthropy about how that kind of work has succeeded or failed in the past.

Has this investigation affected any of our practical decisions thus far? Teles’ book on the conservative legal movement (discussed in my report) had some influence on Open Phil’s general strategy — e.g. see the mentions of Teles’ book in our posts on How to Approach Policy-Oriented Philanthropy and Hits-based Giving — but that occurred before this investigation began; this is just the first time we’ve written at some length about Teles’ book specifically.

My impression is that early results from my case studies of cryonics and molecular nanotechnology had a small effect on our early strategy for field-building related to potential risks from advanced AI, though I would characterize that effect as “reinforcing and elaborating some things about our already-chosen strategy” rather than “causing us to substantially change our strategy.”

More generally, as we’ve thought about our field-building strategy across a variety of causes, I think the findings of this investigation have made us somewhat more confident that “doing the obvious things” is often fine. In other words, we haven’t yet seen anything in the history of field-building to suggest that any particular “obvious things” reliably fail or backfire, and we have seen multiple cases where doing the “obvious things” seems to work.

You say:

> Most of the “obvious” methods for building up a young field have been tried, and those methods often work. For example, when trying to build up a young field of academic research, it often works to fund workshops, conferences, fellowships, courses, professorships, centers, requests for proposals, etc. Or when trying to build up a new advocacy community, it often works to fund student clubs, local gatherings, popular media, etc.

I agree you’ve demonstrated your first sentence pretty well with your case studies, but I’m not sure exactly which case studies demonstrate the *specific* attempts in the second and third sentences?

Hi Peter,

Thanks for your question. The specific efforts I mention in that paragraph played a role in several of the case studies I looked at. I don’t say much about specific activities in this report, but they are described in many of the sources in my annotated bibliographies.

Here are just a few examples:

- My report’s comments on the role of philanthropy in bioethics mentions the creation and continued funding of several centers for bioethics. The early activities of these centers included workshops, conferences, etc. You can read more about these activities in the sources cited in the footnotes in that section.
- Teles’ book on the conservative legal movement details the philanthropic funding of several centers, conferences, workshops, professorships, as well as the Federalist Society’s student groups.
- Local gatherings and popular media aimed at growing an advocacy community were especially prominent in the history of American environmentalism and modern animal advocacy. For example, see my my comments about Rachel Carson’s bestseller Silent Spring and about the local gatherings of the original Earth Day.

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