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April 2018 Open Thread

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 [email protected] 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.


What do people at Open Philanthropy think about the problem of running out of nonrenewable resources? Most famous is peak oil, but people raise concerns about other resources as well, such as phosphorous. A priori it doesn’t seem implausible to me that the world is heading to an economic disaster because the major players don’t have time preference to use these resources in a sustainable rate. I’ve also heard claims that these issues exaggerated and none of the important nonrenewable resources are close to being exhausted. A priori this also seems plausible to me, and I haven’t put in time to distinguishes these two possibilities.

We looked briefly into these issues, and didn’t see anything that we thought was competitive with the global catastrophic risks we’ve chosen to prioritize. It’s not something we ever went in depth on enough to have a public writeup, unfortunately.

Do you think it could be useful to reduce or offset some of the potential burden of openness? Perhaps through giving further encouragement to other foundations / funding organisations to be more open in various ways themselves. It seems to me that having a higher standard of openness at Open Philanthropy will attract more attention, which in a sense is a good thing, but this is probably going to be disproportionate in comparison to where other groups could (or ought to) receive attention. For instance where they place grants, for how much and the thinking which generally underpins their grantmaking. It seems to me that it is useful to see how Open Philanthropy does this, but it is a lot more useful if we also get to see how this happens with other organisations working in similar areas. For instance, whilst program managers may be in a general loop, it is difficult to feedback with more relevance without having access to more of the loop information. I know this type of work generally happens already but might there be some examples of successes / difficulties / alignment or divergence? I tend to think this type of issue is quite important from an outsider perspective.

Have you had any interest or investigation into the prospects of cryobiology, cryopreservation, or cryonics-specific research representing good opportunities for OPP? As a few examples: the work of Organ Preservation Alliance to catalyze organ banking R&D; the Large Mammalian Brain Preservation Prize (BPP) awarded in March and the potential to build upon it with additional criteria or a more robust program; and the following perspective on the BPP in relation to cryonics-specific research:

We haven’t looked much into this topic. My impression is that for long-termist purposes, it’s not likely to be competitive with global catastrophic risk reduction work. It’s possible there is a fit with our work on scientific research aimed at neglected goals, but we haven’t investigated it yet for that purpose.

I have been wondering a bit about how the animal welfare program was set up, in terms of origins and the trust network utilised to inform the process and how it is that counter considerations were valued? At present it seems to me that the animal welfare program is largely a welfare campaign supplemented by work around promoting clean meat / plant based food in relation to a business oriented approach centred on the investments of people like Bill Gates and Richard Branson. Probably useful things to a degree but possibly just accelerating those initiatives and bearing some of that cost. Overall this approach does not appear to be “hits-based giving” and I don’t think it would be reasonable to pass off that approach onto EA Funds which has a different set of criteria for donating (so weighted against the EA community) rather than weighed against Open Phil thinking on matters of welfare, and to not put too fine a point on it, I am sceptical to the degree of cluefulness with which yourself and Open Phil researchers are utilising in order to make informed decisions in relation to animal welfare in the broadest terms (rather than the ideology of welfare). For instance, Open Phil may appear to make sound decisions from an insider perspective, but they appear narrow from my own outsider view, and whilst I am sympathetic to the idea that researchers and the trust network ought to have highly valued opinions, i am uncertain that Open Philanthropy as a general matter sufficiently value opinions outside of that network. I think to insufficiently value outsider opinions leads to potential group think and gaming the system type problems (particularly in the sense that to be an EAA you may just need to go along with conventional thinking rather than thinking issues through or constructing criticism). In patrimonial terms this could also make quite a bit of sense, though ought to be stringently avoided by EA type organisations. I tend to think the present animal welfare approach at Open Philanthropy does not wholly reflect the values of the organisation, and further steps ought to be taken to move toward strengthening alignment. For a start, I would be less restrictive in terms of hits-based giving and more open minded about ‘welfare’, place greater value on criticism even if it is coming from outside the trust network. I would also reveal the trust network and be clearer about collective epistemology. Embrace uncertainty and regional cluelessness (because the knowledge base is heavily weighted toward ‘welfare’) to take more risks with smaller sums of money. I sympathise that it is difficult to know which criticism is worthwhile and worth acting upon when there are many different things to work on, and there are many thought leaders who probably think Open Philanthropy is more than satisfactory. But the present approach in terms of animal welfare doesn’t appear to cut it, and I think you need to start demanding more from the program, and also researchers if they’re mostly moving along with the flow of things. Thanks also for having an open blog where these types of issues can be raised.

Thanks Kevin. You seem to be raising concerns you’ve raised before in other open threads, and we’ve explained on those occasions that we’re trying to fund the farm animal welfare work we find most promising and believe will have the best per-dollar impact. We don’t have much more to say about this.

Welfare impact per dollar is only one parameter to consider. I know i’ve raised these issues before but they are important points to address within a broader pluralistic framework. It would be wrong to largely dismiss them.

I would also say this seems to be a decoupling issue. I’m not saying it is wrong to do that, but i am saying that in terms of acting within the world it is fairly incorrect to take a decoupled calculation and simply apply it without taking some account for context. Even with the high relative cost of time constraints this could be navigated somewhat by drawing on a broader pool of experts, though this would increase the burden of time spent on these types of issues the possibility of improved outcomes would be the benefit whilst not externalising a cost onto the broader movement would also follow. Besides, there is most likely only a strong belief in welfare as an ideology and a weak belief in other approaches as making gains in reduction of animal suffering. So it therefore does not follow that weak belief equals non action. I also would not be surprised given the present approach that a situation comes to pass when agreement would be largely manufactured in relation to organisations who receive funding, because disagreement (alternative ideas and approaches) have by implication been marginalised and devalued.

I noticed that the grant… (of $225,000 over three years) that used to be on your website has been removed (both the url and the listing in the grants database). The grant appears to have been on the site between May 15 and May 30. Has the grant been cancelled, or was there some other reason for removing it from the site?

Hi Vipul – We don’t consider membership dues to be Open Philanthropy grants and our policy is accordingly not to include them in the grants database. The Science Philanthropy Alliance membership was included in the grants database by mistake, and when we realized this we decided to remove it rather than create the (false) impression that we do include membership dues in our grants database.

(you might want to let them know, their homepage now has a big broken link in the centre of it: )

Thanks Ben. This has been fixed.

I also noticed that in the grants CSV on the site there is a grant: “MoveOn Civic Action — Syrian Refugee Advocacy”,” Civic Action”,”Immigration Policy”,”$375,000”,”10/2015” However, this is not available in the HTML version of the grants table, nor does there seem to be any grant page associated with this grant. Can you clarify the status of this grant?

Hi Vipul – I’m not sure what the story is here. Let me look into it and I’ll get back to you.

Hi Vipul – thanks again for flagging this. The grant page is now live on our website:…

It had been showing up in the CSV database because we originally drafted the page when the grant was made but were waiting to publish it until after Open Phil owned the website so that this funding wouldn’t be mistakenly attributed to GiveWell. We’ve done the same thing over the last year with other old grants, but this one had slipped through the cracks. We’re checking to see whether any others might have as well.

In light of the bug you brought to our attention, we’ve also fixed our database so that pages in draft form don’t show up in the CSV file before they’re published. Thanks!

Hello, I was just wondering whether any of the Open Phil folks have any informal recommendations of (e.g. legal aid) organizations where more funding could help the immigrant families being separated by US border patrol? (I’ve seen a fundraiser for RAICES going around on Facebook, but figured I should check if there are knowably better options before donating.)

Hi Richard – I don’t have a formal recommendation here at all, but recently checked with one contact closer to this work and they thought RAICES was a fine choice if you’re interested in giving in response to this news.

Does OpenPhil have any plans to investigate grants towards methods work under the purview of the neglected goals in scientific research area? This is an area the John Templeton foundation has some experience in but the field overall seems incredibly neglected. I’d point to the roughly 2/3 of the top cited scientific papers of all time being either physical or statistical method innovations. There is some question of whether the outside view says that these innovations come mostly from people working on incidental object level problems or whether progress can be made when they are worked on directly. We have existence proofs of people successfully working on the problem directly and encouraging others to do so. Namely, Englebart and Hamming of Bell Labs fame.

and in case this seems too abstract, three examples to give some idea: Automated meta-analyses (Eva Vivault, AidGrade), Specification Curves (Leif Nelson), and Counterfactual outcome state transition parameters (Anders Huitfeldt).

Thanks Romeo. Good timing for this question. We’ve shared some updated thinking on our new science page, published just this week. I think what you’re describing would probably fall into the “tools and techniques” bucket. We agree that medical treatments and other innovations are often possible only after decades of less-publicized progress in developing novel techniques for measurement and manipulation. We support this work understanding that future scientists will build on our progress.

On the theme of thin slicing animal welfare i thought this podcast featuring Klein and Giridharadas proffered a degree of context to some of the criticism, particularly in relation to justice related approaches and rights thinking (Regan*). *…

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