The Open Philanthropy Blog

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.

Open Philanthropy Scientific Research Program Officers Heather Youngs and Chris Somerville sat down with Communications Officer Michael Levine to talk about the rationale for the grant and investment, how market forces affect biotech companies, and what we hope Sherlock Biosciences will be able to accomplish. The questions and answers have been edited lightly for clarity.

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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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Last year, the year before, and the year before that, we published a set of suggestions for individual donors looking for organizations to support. This year, we are repeating the practice and publishing updated suggestions from Open Philanthropy Project staff who chose to provide them.

The same caveats as in previous years apply:

  • These are reasonably strong options in causes of interest, and shouldn’t be taken as outright recommendations (i.e., it isn’t necessarily the case that the person making the suggestion thinks they’re the best option available across all causes).
  • In many cases, we find a funding gap we’d like to fill, and then we recommend filling the entire funding gap with a single grant. That doesn’t leave much scope for making a suggestion for individuals. The cases listed below, then, are the cases where, for one reason or another, we haven’t decided to recommend filling an organization’s full funding gap, and we believe it could make use of fairly arbitrary amounts of donations from individuals.
  • Our explanations for why these are strong giving opportunities are very brief and informal, and we don’t expect individuals to be persuaded by them unless they put a lot of weight on the judgment of the person making the suggestion.
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In October 2016, we wrote:

we are contracting [a developer] to build a simple online application for credence calibration training: training the user to accurately determine how confident they should be in an opinion, and to express this confidence in a consistent and quantified way.

That online application is now available:

Play “Calibrate Your Judgment”

Note that you must sign in with a GuidedTrack, Facebook, or Google account, so that the application can track your performance over time.

We expect many users will find this program to be the most useful free online calibration training currently available.

That said, we think there are several ways in which a calibration app could be more engaging and useful than ours, if someone were to invest substantially more development effort than we did. Some reflections on the challenges we encountered, and some lessons we learned, are available in this Google doc.

Spencer Greenberg, the lead developer of Calibrate Your Judgment, has released a paper describing the scoring rules used in the app, here.

Update April 23: In response to feedback, we have now improved the set of questions used for the app’s confidence intervals module, by removing hundreds of ill-formed or confusingly worded questions. We hope this leads to a better and more useful experience for users.

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We believe that every life has equal value — and that philanthropic dollars can go particularly far by helping those who are living in poverty by global standards. Currently, the best giving opportunities we’ve found in the Global Health and Development focus area are recommended by GiveWell. (Read more about our relationship to GiveWell here.)

Throughout the course of this year, we have recommended GiveWell Incubation Grants to support the development of potential future top charities, as well as general support funding for GiveWell’s operations (capped at 20% of operating expenses for reasons described here). GiveWell recently announced its updated list of top charities that focus on programs with a strong track record and excellent cost-effectiveness, can use additional funding to expand their core programs, and are exceptionally transparent. As we have in the past, we coordinated with GiveWell on how to recommend grants from Good Ventures — both in terms of the total amount donated and in terms of the distribution between recipient charities. GiveWell recommended, and we plan to approve, an allocation of $64 million for top charities in 2018.

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This post aims to give blog readers and followers of the Open Philanthropy Project an opportunity to publicly raise comments or questions about the Open Philanthropy Project or related topics (in the comments section below). As always, you’re also welcome to email us at info@openphilanthropy.org if there’s feedback or questions you’d prefer to discuss privately. We’ll try to respond promptly to questions or comments.

You can see our most recent previous open thread here.

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