The Open Philanthropy Blog

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

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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 [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 previous open thread here.

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This is the first in a series of posts summarizing the Open Philanthropy review of the evidence on the impacts of incarceration on crime. The full report is available in PDF, Kindle, and ePub formats.

About when Chloe Cockburn joined Open Philanthropy to spearhead our grantmaking for criminal justice reform, I was tasked with reviewing the research on whether reducing the number of people in American jails and prisons might actually increase crime. In effect, we at Open Philanthropy asked ourselves: what if we’re wrong? What if our grantees win reforms that cut the number of people behind bars, and that pushes the crime rate up? How likely is that? And how likely is it that any increase would be large enough to overshadow the benefits of decarceration, which include taxpayer savings and expanded human freedom?

It may seem strange to launch a grantmaking program even as we question its empirical basis. But Open Philanthropy had already invested significant time in studying criminal justice reform as a cause. And practical decisions must always be made in the face of incomplete information, forcing people and organizations to exercise what Herbert Simon called “bounded rationality.” It can be boundedly rational to act on the information gathered so far, even as we gather more.

The final report reaches two major conclusions:

  • I estimate that, at typical policy margins in the United States today, decarceration has zero net impact on crime outside of prison. That estimate is uncertain, but at least as much evidence suggests that decarceration reduces crime as increases it. The crux of the matter is that tougher sentences hardly deter crime, and that while imprisoning people temporarily stops them from committing crime outside prison walls, it also tends to increase their criminality after release. As a result, “tough-on-crime” initiatives can reduce crime in the short run but cause offsetting harm in the long run.
  • Empirical social science research—or at least non-experimental social science research—should not be taken at face value. Among three dozen studies I reviewed, I obtained or reconstructed the data and code for eight. Replication and reanalysis revealed significant methodological concerns in seven and led to major reinterpretations of four. These studies endured much tougher scrutiny from me than they did from peer reviewers in order to make it into academic journals. Yet given the stakes in lives and dollars, the added scrutiny was worth it. So from the point of view of decision makers who rely on academic research, today’s peer review processes fall well short of the optimal.

The rest of this post elaborates on those conclusions.

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This is the second in a series of posts summarizing the Open Philanthropy review of the evidence on the impacts of incarceration on crime. The full report is available in PDF, Kindle, and ePub formats.

As I explain in the intro post, in thinking about how incarceration affects crime rates, it is useful to distinguish between “before,” “during,” and “after” effects. The “before” effects of incarceration are deterrence: the prospect of jail or prison time may dissuade people from committing crime. Surely this must happen to some extent, but how much at current policy margins is a question for research. The experimental and quasi-experimental studies I read and reproduced mostly said: not much.

Below, I review research on:

  • laws criminalizing driving under the influence of alcohol;
  • a mass prison sentence suspension in Italy;
  • whether young people commit less crime as they obtain the age of criminal majority, when they first face the risk of adult-level sanctions;
  • California’s severe “Three Strikes and You’re Out” sentencing law;
  • laws adopted in many states to increase minimum sentences for various crimes, or lengthen sentences for crimes involving guns.

For the last two, I obtained the data and computer code for the relevant studies and analyzed them afresh.

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This is the third in a series of posts summarizing the Open Philanthropy review of the evidence on the impacts of incarceration on crime. The full report is available in PDF, Kindle, and ePub formats.

In my deterrence post, I explained why, in my reading, the research says that stiffer sentencing hardly deters crime in this country today.

In this post, I move from the “before” of incarceration to the “during,” what criminologists call “incapacitation.” Does putting more people in prison markedly reduce crime outside prison walls—at least while those people are still in prison? I think that in writing my full report, I approached the research on this question with just as much skepticism as I did with deterrence. Yet the incapacitation research better withstood my scrutiny. I am convinced that decarceration on the scale proponents hope for measurably increases crime in the short run. (It may do the opposite in the long run, by reducing exposure to the potentially criminogenic influences of prison; my next post investigates that possibility.)

I found six studies that met my criterion of exploiting an experiment or a strong natural experiment. One takes place in Italy, one in the Netherlands, and the rest in the United States. I will briefly describe four, and say more about the two U.S. ones whose data and code availability allowed for replication and reanalysis.

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This is the fourth in a series of posts summarizing the Open Philanthropy review of the evidence on the impacts of incarceration on crime. The full report is available in PDF, Kindle, and ePub formats.

The two other in-depth posts in this series share what I learned about the incarceration’s “before” effect, deterrence of crime, and the “during” effect, which is called “incapacitation.” In sum, in the current U.S. policy context, I doubt deterrence and believe in incapacitation.

Going by the analysis so far, rolling back mass incarceration would increase crime. But that tally is incomplete. This post turns to the “after” effects of crime, which I call, cleverly, “aftereffects.” Unlike deterrence and incapacitation, even the overall sign of aftereffects cannot be determined from general principles. Having been in jail or prison could “rehabilitate” you or “harden” you into greater criminality.

The traditionally favored term for aftereffects, “specific deterrence,” captures the idea that doing time viscerally strengthens the fear of punishment and deters people from reoffending. The corrections system corrects. Penitentiaries elicit penitence. No doubt, those things do often happen. And prisons do good in other ways. Some help people off of addictive substances, teach job and life skills, or improve literacy and self-control.

However, the prison experience can also manufacture criminality. It can alienate people from society, giving them less psychological stake in its rules. It can make people better criminals by bringing them together to learn from each other. It can strengthen their allegiances to gangs whose reach extends into prisons. While some may get drug treatment, others may not, even as they suffer through withdrawal or preserve access to drugs. And incarceration can permanently mark people in the eyes of employers, making it hard to find legal work.

My review includes 15 aftereffects studies. Six conclude that more time (or time in harsher conditions) leads to less crime, eight that it leads to more crime. One study is neutral, but it involves sentences of only a day or two, for drunk driving. If we give each study one vote, then the view that prison generally increases criminality wins, narrowly. Of course, all the studies could be correct for their setting, since the prison experience varies from place to place. Bearing in mind the potential for diversity, it is still worth searching for a consensus view, as the basis for a first-order generalization about the likely impacts of decarceration nationwide. In fact, I think closer inspection of the literature tends to strengthen the view that in the U.S. today, aftereffects are typically harmful. Some reasons:

  • Of the six studies in the minority, two come from Georgia; their results appear explicable by a statistical artifact I have christened “parole bias.”
  • Another is set in California nearly a half century ago, before retribution overturned rehabilitation as the dominant philosophy of corrections in the U.S.
  • A study set in contemporary Seattle appears to suffer from baseline imbalance, meaning that the treatment and control groups differed from beginning.
  • One study in the minority looks compelling, yet is set in Norway, which appears to be much more committed to rehabilitating inmates than most American prisons (see this, this).

(The sixth looks at the impact of up to a month’s detention on juvenile offenders in Washington state. I find no serious problems with it.)

I also discovered reasons to doubt some of the studies in the majority. For example, I noticed baseline imbalance in a randomized trial that put some inmates in higher-security prison. And in the study I’ll detail next, the quasi-experiment looks imperfect.

Nevertheless a substantial family of studies coalesces around the finding that when incapacitation and aftereffects are measured in the same setting, the first is offset by the second, over time. That is to say: putting someone in prison cuts crime in the short run but increases it in the long run, on net.

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Over the last two years, animal welfare organizations successfully secured pledges from major restaurants and grocers to eliminate battery cages from their supply chains, which are collectively expected to bring cage-free housing from ~13% of the domestic egg supply to ~70% when fully implemented. We have been the largest funder of these campaigns.

In our blog post announcing our support for these campaigns, we claimed that cage-free systems were much better than battery cages for hen welfare, based on initial research conducted by Lewis Bollard, our program officer for farm animal welfare. Lewis briefly argued against a memorandum by animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) which claimed the opposite. This disagreement was further explored in a series of comments written by Lewis and Wayne Hsiung of DxE.

We left that discussion unsatisfied with our knowledge about the evidence on hen welfare in different housing systems, and I (Ajeya Cotra) conducted a more thorough investigation – the full report can be found here. My findings were, in short:

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One of the challenges of large-scale philanthropy is: how can a small number of decision-maker(s) (e.g., donors) find a large number of giving opportunities that they understand well enough to feel good about funding?

Most of the organizations I’ve seen seem to use some combination of project-based, people-based, and process-based approaches to delegation. To illustrate these, I’ll use the hypothetical example of a grant to fund research into new malaria treatments. I use the term “Program Officers” to refer to the staff primarily responsible for making recommendations to decision-makers.

  • Project-based approaches: the decision-makers hire Program Officers to look for projects; decision-makers ultimately evaluate the projects themselves. Thus, decision-makers delegate the process of searching for potential grants, but don’t delegate judgment and decision-making. For example, a Program Officer might learn about proposed research on new malaria treatments and then make a presentation to a donor or foundation Board, explaining how the project will work, and trying to convince the donor or Board that it is likely to succeed.
  • People-based approaches: decision-makers delegate essentially everything to trusted individuals. They look for staff they trust, and then defer heavily to them. For example, a Program Officer might become convinced of the merits of research on new malaria treatments and propose a grant, with the funder deferring to their judgment despite not knowing the details of the proposed research.
  • Process-based approaches: the decision-makers establish consistent, systematic criteria for grants, and processes that aim to meet these criteria. Decisions are often made by aggregating opinions from multiple grant reviewers. For example, a donor might solicit proposals for research on new malaria treatments, assemble a technical review board, ask each reviewer to rate each proposal on several criteria, and use a pre-determined aggregation system to make the final decisions about which grants are funded. Government funders such as the National Institutes of Health often use such approaches. These approaches often seek to minimize the need for individual judgment, effectively delegating to a process.

    These different classifications can also be useful in thinking about how Program Officers relate to grantees. Program Officers can recommend grants based on being personally convinced of a particular project; recommend grants based primarily on the people involved, deferring heavily on the details of those people’s plans; or recommend grants based on processes that they set up to capture certain criteria.

    This post discusses how I currently see the pros and cons of each, and what our current approach is. In large part, we find the people-based approach ideal for the kind of hits-based giving we’re focused on. But we use elements of project-based evaluation (and to a much lesser degree, process-based evaluation) as well - largely in order to help us better evaluate people over time.

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  • In 2015, I researched and wrote about the risk to industrial society from geomagnetic storms—terrestrial phenomena that, despite their name, originate on the sun. Mild storms give us the ineffable beauty of the Northern Lights, and the Southern Lights too. Severe geomagnetic maelstroms might, some fear, knock out key satellites or cause continent-wide blackouts that would take months to undo.

    I concluded that the risk had been exaggerated in the studies that gained the most attention. Still, given the potential stakes and the historical neglect of the problem, the issue deserved more attention from people in science, business, and government.

    As I wrapped up my investigation, I tripped on a question of statistical method that I did not have time to fully explore. I have since put more time into the question. I just finalized a working paper about the results and submitted it to a journal. The upshot for the geomagnetic storm investigation is that I have modified my methods for extrapolating storm risks from the historical record. As a result, I have raised my best estimate of the chance of a really big storm, like the storied one of 1859, from 0.33% to 0.70% per decade. And I have expanded my 95% confidence interval for this estimate from 0.0–4.0% to 0.0–11.6% per decade.

    More explanation follows.

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    Over a year ago, we started exploring options for spinning the Open Philanthropy Project out from GiveWell as an independent organization. Though the process took a bit longer than we had hoped, the new legal arrangement took effect on June 1.

    This post covers the evolution of the Open Philanthropy Project into an independent entity, and the reasons for the spin-out from our perspective. It also discusses why we’re operating the Open Philanthropy Project as an LLC, and what our relationship to GiveWell will be going forward. (For some more technical details on the transaction, see the GiveWell post here.)

    This transition has been in motion for some time, and we expect that the bulk of our operations will appear unchanged to outsiders.

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