November 2017

Update on Investigating Neglected Goals in Biological Research

We divide our scientific research funding into two categories: neglected goals and basic research. We believe that some research areas are underfunded because achieving the relevant research objectives is underrated by the “broad market” (according to our values). We call such research objectives “neglected goals.”

In 2014, we set a goal to be in a position to identify focus areas in science by the end of 2016. This post explains our initial plan for this work, our original hopes and expectations, what we have done so far, and our plans for work in this area going forward. In brief:

  • Our initial plan was to identify focus areas using a series of shallow and medium-depth investigations, analogous to the process we used to identify focus areas in U.S. policy and global catastrophic risks.
  • We found that our investigations took longer than expected and we felt that they gave us an inadequate basis to declare focus areas and hire specialist program staff to lead our work in those areas. Moreover, we could not envision investigations with acceptable time costs that would form an adequate basis for making such decisions.
  • However, our investigations did, in multiple cases, result in our science advisors’ identifying “standout” giving opportunities: giving opportunities that seemed unusually promising by the standards of the field they were investigating, and strong compared to giving opportunities we’ve seen generally.
  • We decided to pivot to a model in which generalist scientific advisors are given a broad mandate to opportunistically identify standout giving opportunities within about a dozen areas. Rather than investigating each area in depth and choosing a few as focus areas, they investigate one at a time, looking primarily for standout opportunities, and choose which area to investigate based on their subjective estimate of the odds of finding standout opportunities. We’re very excited by the giving opportunities that the science team is finding under this model, and it’s unclear whether it would have been better to use our previous model and hire staff specializing in just a couple of program areas.
  • A spreadsheet summarizing our list of priorities and cause-specific progress so far (listed in alphabetical order) is here.

We are likely to give a separate, shorter update on basic research in the future.1