The Open Philanthropy Blog

Note: Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

This is the second post in a series about geomagnetic storms as a global catastrophic risk. A paper covering the material in this series was just released.

My last post raised the specter of a geomagnetic storm so strong it would black out electric power across continent-scale regions for months or years, triggering an economic and humanitarian disaster.

How likely is that? One relevant source of knowledge is the historical record of geomagnetic disturbances, which is what this post considers. In approaching the geomagnetic storm issue, I had read some alarming statements to the effect that global society is overdue for the geomagnetic “Big One.” So I was surprised to find reassurance in the past. In my view, the most worrying extrapolations from the historical record do not properly represent it.

I hasten to emphasize that this historical analysis is only part of the overall geomagnetic storm risk assessment. Many uncertainties should leave us uneasy, from our incomplete understanding of the sun to the historically novel reliance of today’s grid operators on satellites that are themselves vulnerable to space weather. And since the scientific record stretches back only 30–150 years (depending on the indicator) and big storms happen about once a decade, the sample is too small to support sure extrapolations of extremes.

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Note: Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

Image from NASA via Wikipedia

This is the first post in a series about geomagnetic storms as a global catastrophic risk. A paper covering the material in this series was recently released.

The Open Philanthropy Project has included geomagnetic storms in its list of global catastrophic risks of potential focus.

To be honest, I hadn’t heard of them either. But when I was consulting for GiveWell last fall, program officer Howie Lempel asked me to investigate the risks they pose. (Now I’m an employee of GiveWell.)

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Note: Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post. This post was updated on July 6 with language edits but substantially unchanged content. As a new funder, we’ve found it surprisingly difficult to “learn the ropes” of philanthropy. We’ve found relatively little reading material - public or private - on some of the key questions we’re grappling with in starting a grantmaking organization, such as “What sorts of people should staff a foundation?” and “What makes a good grant?” To be sure, there is some written advice on philanthropy, but it leaves many of these foundational questions unaddressed. As we’ve worked on the Open Philanthropy Project, we’ve accumulated a list of questions and opinions piecemeal. This blog post is the first in a series that aims to share what we’ve gathered so far. We’ll outline some of the most important questions we’ve grappled with, and we’ll give our working answer for each one, partly to help clarify what the question means, and partly to record our thoughts, which we hope will make it easier to get feedback and track our evolution over time. We’d love to see others - particularly experienced philanthropists - write more about how they’ve thought through these questions, and other key questions we’ve neglected to raise. We hope that some day new philanthropists will be able to easily get a sense for the range of opinions among experienced funders, so that they can make informed decisions about what kind of philanthropist they want to be, rather than starting largely from scratch. This post focuses on the question: “what is the role of a funder, relative to other organizations?” In brief:

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Note: Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

We’re excited to announce that Chloe Cockburn has accepted our offer to join the Open Philanthropy Project team as a Program Officer, leading our work on criminal justice reform. She expects to start in August and to work from New York, where she is currently based. She will lead our work on developing our grantmaking strategy for criminal justice reform, selecting grantees, and sharing our reasoning and lessons learned.

Chloe comes to us from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where she currently serves as the Advocacy and Policy Counsel for the ACLU’s Campaign to End Mass Incarceration, heading up the ACLU’s national office support to state-level ACLU affiliates.

The search to fill this role has been our top priority within U.S. policy over the last few months. We conducted an extensive search for applicants and interviewed many strong candidates.

We feel that hiring Chloe is one of the most important decisions we’ve yet made for the Open Philanthropy Project. In the future, we plan to write more about how we conducted the search and why we ultimately decided to make Chloe an offer.

We’re very excited to have Chloe on board to lead our investment in substantially reducing incarceration while maintaining or improving public safety.

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Note: Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

We’ve come across many cases where a funder took a leading role in creating a now-major nonprofit. This has been surprising to us: it intuitively seems that the people best suited to initiate new organizations are the people who can work full-time on conceiving an organization, fundraising for it, and doing the legwork to create it. Most successful companies seem to have been created by entrepreneurs rather than investors, and the idea that a philanthropist can “create” a successful organization (largely through concept development, recruiting and funding, without full-time operational involvement) seems strange. Yet we’ve seen many strong examples:

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Note: Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

We’re hoping to set the Open Philanthropy Project’s initial priorities within scientific research this year. That means being in a place roughly comparable to where we currently are on U.S. policy and global catastrophic risks: having a ranked list of focus areas and goals for hiring and grantmaking.

The process is going to have to look very different. For both U.S. policy and global catastrophic risks, we were able to do a relatively large number of “shallow investigations,” in which we quickly got a sense for the importance, tractability, and crowdedness of a cause. By contrast, it seems to us that investigating even a single cause within scientific research - to the level of understanding we achieved with shallow investigations in other areas - is a major project.

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Note: Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

We’ve tried to approach scientific research funding - focusing initially on life sciences - by looking for gaps and deficiencies in the current system for supporting scientific research. We’ve identified several possibilities, including a set of systematic issues that make it difficult to support attempts at breakthrough fundamental science.

One way to respond to a gap in the system would be to fill it ourselves: support the kind of science that has trouble getting support from existing funding agencies, universities, etc. We believe this is the approach taken by organizations such as Howard Hughes Medical Institute. But another way to respond would be to try to improve the system directly, by funding the development of - and advocacy for - proposals for structural changes. Structural changes could include changes in how government agencies allocate funding, in how universities determine professorships, or in other practices that we believe are important in influencing what scientists are able to do. (We broadly refer to universities, journals, and other institutions that play an important role in scientists’ incentives and support as “infrastructure.”)

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Note: Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

Mike and I are committed to giving away a lot of our wealth during the course of our lifetime. It’s very early days, so one of our biggest goals is educating ourselves about the landscape and and context of philanthropy today. For example: What issue areas are important and underfunded? How do we evaluate and compare giving opportunities? What are effective ways to structure grants? What role can or should funders play in a nonprofit’s operations?

That said, we don’t want to wait until we feel 100% informed before we start giving. It’s important for us to learn through doing as well.

When Mike and I met with Cari Tuna, we were immediately struck by how much her approach at the Open Philanthropy Project resonated with us. We sensed that the Open Philanthropy Project’s values aligned with ours: open-mindedness, rigorous analytical thinking, and transparency. We were impressed by their staunch commitment to making the greatest impact possible, through their evaluation framework incorporating importance, tractability, and crowdedness of causes.

We see this partnership as an opportunity to draw on all the knowledge the Open Philanthropy Project team has accrued over the past several years, rather than starting from scratch. We believe it’s a highly efficient way to learn, plus it allows us to help fund important causes sooner than we could on our own.

This partnership is an opportunity for both sides to experiment with a co-funding agreement, and hopefully pave the way for future similar partnerships. The Open Philanthropy Project team has been exceptionally welcoming and it’s clear they are invested in making this successful.

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Note: Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

We are excited to announce a new co-funding partnership with Kaitlyn Trigger and her fiancé Mike Krieger (co-founder of Instagram). They have committed to learning with us and supporting the Open Philanthropy Project’s work over the next two years. It’s an opportunity for us to experiment with a new type of partnership and a lower-volume, higher-intensity way of communicating about our work.

Kaitlyn and Mike have made a financial commitment of $750,000 over the next two years. 10% will go to GiveWell to support operations related to the Open Philanthropy Project. 90% will be allocated to grants identified and recommended through the Open Philanthropy Project process. We expect that the funds will be allocated evenly to all grants, rather than selectively allocated on the basis of individual grants.

We have reserved a desk in the office for Kaitlyn, and she expects to spend around two days a week there. While she also will work on her own projects, she will join team meetings (both regular and impromptu) that are of interest to her, be included in internal correspondence around our process, and do some work (the nature of which we haven’t yet settled on) to help move the project forward. Our goal is to give her an inside look at the Open Philanthropy Project process and generally be a resource to her in learning about how to give as effectively as possible.

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Note: Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

We’ve been looking for gaps in the world of scientific research funding: areas that the existing system doesn’t put enough investment into, leaving potential opportunities to do unusually large amounts of good with philanthropic funding. We previously wrote about the alleged “valley of death” that makes it challenging to translate academic insights about biology into new medical technologies. This post is about a different issue, one that has come up in the vast majority of conversations I’ve had with scientists: it is believed to be extremely difficult to do what this post will call “breakthrough fundamental science” in the existing life sciences ecosystem.

Breakthrough fundamental science is the term I’m using for what I believe many of the people I’ve spoken to have meant when they’ve used terms such as “basic research,” “high-risk/high-reward research” and “revolutionary/path-breaking research.” My subject matter knowledge is extremely limited, so I can’t be confident that I’ve correctly classified the comments I’ve heard as having a consistent theme or that I’m correctly defining the theme, but I’m attempting to do so anyway because the theme has seemed consistent and important. In brief, “breakthrough fundamental science” (in the context of life sciences) refers to research that achieves important, broadly applicable insights about biological processes, such that the insights bring on many new promising directions for research, yet it is difficult to anticipate all the specific ways in which they will be applied and thus difficult to be assured of “results” in the sense of new clinical applications. This type of work stands in contrast to research that is primarily aimed at producing a particular new drug, diagnostic or other medical technology.

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