The Open Philanthropy Blog

How accurate do long-range (≥10yr) forecasts tend to be, and how much should we rely on them?

As an initial exploration of this question, I sought to study the track record of long-range forecasting exercises from the past. Unfortunately, my key finding so far is that it is difficult to learn much of value from those exercises, for the following reasons:

  1. Long-range forecasts are often stated too imprecisely to be judged for accuracy. [More]
  2. Even if a forecast is stated precisely, it might be difficult to find the information needed to check the forecast for accuracy. [More]
  3. Degrees of confidence for long-range forecasts are rarely quantified. [More]
  4. In most cases, no comparison to a “baseline method” or “null model” is possible, which makes it difficult to assess how easy or difficult the original forecasts were. [More]
  5. Incentives for forecaster accuracy are usually unclear or weak. [More]
  6. Very few studies have been designed so as to allow confident inference about which factors contributed to forecasting accuracy. [More]
  7. It’s difficult to know how comparable past forecasting exercises are to the forecasting we do for grantmaking purposes, e.g. because the forecasts we make are of a different type, and because the forecasting training and methods we use are different. [More]

We plan to continue to make long-range quantified forecasts about our work so that, in the long run, we might learn something about the feasibility of long-range forecasting, at least for our own case. [More]

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Note: This post originally appeared in the monthly farm animal welfare newsletter written by our farm animal welfare team. Sign up here to receive regular email updates with research and insights into a farm animal advocacy research topic. We decided to cross-post this one because we thought it was especially interesting and wanted to make people aware of the newsletter, but note that the newsletter is not thoroughly vetted by other staff and does not necessarily represent consensus views of the Open Philanthropy Project as a whole.

From 2015-17, advocates secured pledges from over 300 US food companies to eliminate battery cages for the more than 240M egg-laying hens in their supply chains, mostly by 2025. (Advocates also secured another 800+ pledges from non-US food companies — the subject of a future newsletter.)

This was a big win for the farm animal movement. Fewer than 50 full-time advocates pushed the $9B US egg industry to commit to eliminate its core business practice — confining hens in tiny cages — at a cost to the industry of $7B-$9.5B. A 2016 Washington Post front-page story declared a “victory for the animal welfare movement”, noting that even egg producers think a “cage-free future is a fait accompli.”

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Although we have typically emphasized the importance for effective philanthropy of long-term commitment to causes and getting the right people in place, the most obvious day-to-day decision funders face is whether to support specific potential giving opportunities. As part of our internal guidance for program officers, we’ve collected a series of questions that we like to ask ourselves about potential funding opportunities, including:

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Our thinking on prioritizing across different causes has evolved as we’ve made more grants. This post explores one aspect of that: the high bar set by the best global health and development interventions, and what we’re learning about the relative performance of some of our other grantmaking areas that seek to help people today.

To summarize:

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Note: This is an experiment with a different style of blog post, aiming to more casually share thoughts from a broader set of staff. We’re interested in feedback on this format.

Earlier this year, the Open Philanthropy Project awarded a five-year grant and made an additional investment in Sherlock Biosciences to support the development of a diagnostic platform to quickly, easily, and inexpensively identify any human virus present in a patient sample.

Development of this technology would represent a significant advance in viral diagnosis, and could both reduce threats from viral pandemics and also benefit health care broadly. In one implementation of the test, which might be suitable for use in field clinics or for home use, samples can be tested in less than an hour using just a strip of paper.

We believe that the broad potential of Sherlock’s technologies is matched by co-founders and a team of deeply experienced scientists, entrepreneurs, and clinicians who are aligned with our goal of making a universal viral diagnostic system available worldwide. The new company, recently spun out of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, is developing technologies licensed from the Broad Institute and Harvard University’s Wyss Institute.

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This post compares our progress with the goals we set forth a year ago, and lays out our plans for the coming year.

In brief:

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We have had a lot of new staff join Open Philanthropy over the last year. In this post, I’d like to introduce the new members of our team. We’re excited to have them!

More new staff are joining soon, and I will be introducing them in coming months.

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We’re now supporting History of Philanthropy work via a grant to the Urban Institute. One output of this project is a literature review on the social impact of - and role of philanthropic funding in - the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs (sometimes abbreviated as “Pugwash”), which “brought together notable scientists from both sides of the iron curtain in order to discuss nuclear disarmament in an informal but serious atmosphere” starting in 1957. This case is particularly interesting from the perspective of global catastrophic risk reduction, as Pugwash and its founder won the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to diminish the part played by nuclear arms in international politics and, in the longer run, to eliminate such arms.”

I thought this literature review made a fairly strong case for two propositions which, taken together, establish Pugwash as a seeming case of strong philanthropic impact via global catastrophic risk reduction:

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In February 2018, Open Philanthropy announced new openings for “generalist” Research Analyst (RA) roles, and we have since hired 5 applicants from that hiring round. This was one of our top priorities for 2018.

In this post I summarize our process and some lessons learned. I am hoping that in addition to our general audience, this post might be useful to others looking to hire a similar talent profile, and to potential future generalist RA applicants to Open Philanthropy.

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Today, Georgetown University announced our support for the launch of a new think tank dedicated to policy analysis at the intersection of national and international security and emerging technologies. The Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) is led by Jason Matheny, former Assistant Director of National Intelligence and Director of Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), the U.S. intelligence community’s research organization.

Read our full grant page here.

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