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.

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.”)

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

As we’ve looked for potential gaps in the world of scientific research funding - focusing for now on life sciences - we’ve come across many suggestions to look at the “valley of death” that sits between traditional academic research and industry research. Speaking very broadly, the basic idea is that:

Read More

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.

A major goal of the Open Philanthropy Project is to explore the topic of scientific research funding, starting with life sciences. This post discusses the process we’ve used so far, including some of the challenges we’ve faced and changes we’ve made in our investigation methods:

  • We first discuss some of the general challenges of finding good giving opportunities in this space.
  • We then introduce the concept of scientific research “gaps” - areas that the existing system doesn’t put enough investment into, leaving potential philanthropic opportunities. One type of gap, which we call a “neglected goal,” has been the focus of many of our efforts so far.
  • We discuss our process so far for investigating neglected goals, and our plans for the future. Future posts will discuss other types of potential gaps that we think could be very important, but would find more difficult to investigate: gaps in high-risk early-stage research and gaps in “translational” research that sits between academic and industry work.

Read More

Note: The Open Philanthropy Project was formerly known as GiveWell Labs. 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 fourth post (of six) we’re planning to make focused on our self-evaluation and future plans.

We’re in the midst of finalizing detailed updates on Open Philanthropy Project progress and plans. This post gives a high-level summary, comparing our progress and stage of development with what we hoped for as of a year ago. In brief:

Read More

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 lays out our progress, since last year, on identifying potential focus areas for our work on global catastrophic risks.

SummaryNote: this section is similar to the introduction of our previous post on U.S. policy. The overall approach of our work has evolved similarly in the two areas.

Last year, we set a “stretch goal” for the Open Philanthropy Project:

There are two types of causes – global catastrophic risks and US policy issues – that we now feel generally familiar with (particularly with the methods of investigation). We also believe it is important for us to pick some causes for serious commitments (multiple years, substantial funding) as soon as feasible, so that we can start to get experienced with the process of building cause-specific capacity and finding substantial numbers of giving opportunities. As such, our top goal for 2014 is a stretch goal (substantial probability we will fail to hit it): making substantial commitments to causes within these two categories. We aren’t sure yet how many causes this will involve; it will depend partly on our ability to find suitable hires. We also haven’t fully formalized the notion of a “substantial commitment to cause X,” but it will likely involve having at least one staff member spending a substantial part of their time on cause X, planning to do so for multiple years, and being ready to commit $5-30 million per year in funding.

Since then:

Read More

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.

Last year, we set a “stretch goal” for the Open Philanthropy Project:

There are two types of causes – global catastrophic risks and US policy issues – that we now feel generally familiar with (particularly with the methods of investigation). We also believe it is important for us to pick some causes for serious commitments (multiple years, substantial funding) as soon as feasible, so that we can start to get experienced with the process of building cause-specific capacity and finding substantial numbers of giving opportunities. As such, our top goal for 2014 is a stretch goal (substantial probability we will fail to hit it): making substantial commitments to causes within these two categories. We aren’t sure yet how many causes this will involve; it will depend partly on our ability to find suitable hires. We also haven’t fully formalized the notion of a “substantial commitment to cause X,” but it will likely involve having at least one staff member spending a substantial part of their time on cause X, planning to do so for multiple years, and being ready to commit $5-30 million per year in funding.

This post is an update on our plans for U.S. policy; a future post will discuss global catastrophic risks.

In brief:

Read More

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 continued to look into scientific research funding for the purposes of the Open Philanthropy Project. This hasn’t been a high priority for the last year, and our investigation remains preliminary, but I plan to write several posts about what we’ve found so far. Our early focus has been on biomedical research specifically.

Most useful new technologies are the product of many different lines of research, which progress in different ways and on different time frames. I think that when most people think about scientific research, they tend to instinctively picture only a subset of it. For example, people hoping for better cancer treatment tend instinctively to think about “studying cancer” as opposed to “studying general behavior of cells” or “studying microscopy techniques,” even though all three can be essential for making progress on cancer treatment. Picturing only a particular kind of research can affect the way people choose what science to support.

I’m planning to write a fair amount about what I see as promising approaches to biomedical sciences philanthropy. Much of what I’m interested in will be hard to explain without some basic background and vocabulary around different types of research, and I’ve been unable to find an existing guide that provides this background. (Indeed, many of what I consider “overlooked opportunities to do good” may be overlooked because of donors’ tendencies to focus on the easiest-to-understand types of science.)

This post will:

Read More

Pages