The Open Philanthropy Blog

Note: Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

We’ve been looking for gaps in the world of scientific research funding: areas that the existing system doesn’t put enough investment into, leaving potential opportunities to do unusually large amounts of good with philanthropic funding. We previously wrote about the alleged “valley of death” that makes it challenging to translate academic insights about biology into new medical technologies. This post is about a different issue, one that has come up in the vast majority of conversations I’ve had with scientists: it is believed to be extremely difficult to do what this post will call “breakthrough fundamental science” in the existing life sciences ecosystem.

Breakthrough fundamental science is the term I’m using for what I believe many of the people I’ve spoken to have meant when they’ve used terms such as “basic research,” “high-risk/high-reward research” and “revolutionary/path-breaking research.” My subject matter knowledge is extremely limited, so I can’t be confident that I’ve correctly classified the comments I’ve heard as having a consistent theme or that I’m correctly defining the theme, but I’m attempting to do so anyway because the theme has seemed consistent and important. In brief, “breakthrough fundamental science” (in the context of life sciences) refers to research that achieves important, broadly applicable insights about biological processes, such that the insights bring on many new promising directions for research, yet it is difficult to anticipate all the specific ways in which they will be applied and thus difficult to be assured of “results” in the sense of new clinical applications. This type of work stands in contrast to research that is primarily aimed at producing a particular new drug, diagnostic or other medical technology.

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Note: Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

As we’ve looked for potential gaps in the world of scientific research funding - focusing for now on life sciences - we’ve come across many suggestions to look at the “valley of death” that sits between traditional academic research and industry research. Speaking very broadly, the basic idea is that:

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Note: Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

A major goal of the Open Philanthropy Project is to explore the topic of scientific research funding, starting with life sciences. This post discusses the process we’ve used so far, including some of the challenges we’ve faced and changes we’ve made in our investigation methods:

  • We first discuss some of the general challenges of finding good giving opportunities in this space.
  • We then introduce the concept of scientific research “gaps” - areas that the existing system doesn’t put enough investment into, leaving potential philanthropic opportunities. One type of gap, which we call a “neglected goal,” has been the focus of many of our efforts so far.
  • We discuss our process so far for investigating neglected goals, and our plans for the future. Future posts will discuss other types of potential gaps that we think could be very important, but would find more difficult to investigate: gaps in high-risk early-stage research and gaps in “translational” research that sits between academic and industry work.

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Note: The Open Philanthropy Project was formerly known as GiveWell Labs. Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

This is the fourth post (of six) we’re planning to make focused on our self-evaluation and future plans.

We’re in the midst of finalizing detailed updates on Open Philanthropy Project progress and plans. This post gives a high-level summary, comparing our progress and stage of development with what we hoped for as of a year ago. In brief:

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Note: Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

This post lays out our progress, since last year, on identifying potential focus areas for our work on global catastrophic risks.

SummaryNote: this section is similar to the introduction of our previous post on U.S. policy. The overall approach of our work has evolved similarly in the two areas.

Last year, we set a “stretch goal” for the Open Philanthropy Project:

There are two types of causes – global catastrophic risks and US policy issues – that we now feel generally familiar with (particularly with the methods of investigation). We also believe it is important for us to pick some causes for serious commitments (multiple years, substantial funding) as soon as feasible, so that we can start to get experienced with the process of building cause-specific capacity and finding substantial numbers of giving opportunities. As such, our top goal for 2014 is a stretch goal (substantial probability we will fail to hit it): making substantial commitments to causes within these two categories. We aren’t sure yet how many causes this will involve; it will depend partly on our ability to find suitable hires. We also haven’t fully formalized the notion of a “substantial commitment to cause X,” but it will likely involve having at least one staff member spending a substantial part of their time on cause X, planning to do so for multiple years, and being ready to commit $5-30 million per year in funding.

Since then:

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Note: Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

Last year, we set a “stretch goal” for the Open Philanthropy Project:

There are two types of causes – global catastrophic risks and US policy issues – that we now feel generally familiar with (particularly with the methods of investigation). We also believe it is important for us to pick some causes for serious commitments (multiple years, substantial funding) as soon as feasible, so that we can start to get experienced with the process of building cause-specific capacity and finding substantial numbers of giving opportunities. As such, our top goal for 2014 is a stretch goal (substantial probability we will fail to hit it): making substantial commitments to causes within these two categories. We aren’t sure yet how many causes this will involve; it will depend partly on our ability to find suitable hires. We also haven’t fully formalized the notion of a “substantial commitment to cause X,” but it will likely involve having at least one staff member spending a substantial part of their time on cause X, planning to do so for multiple years, and being ready to commit $5-30 million per year in funding.

This post is an update on our plans for U.S. policy; a future post will discuss global catastrophic risks.

In brief:

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Note: Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

We’ve continued to look into scientific research funding for the purposes of the Open Philanthropy Project. This hasn’t been a high priority for the last year, and our investigation remains preliminary, but I plan to write several posts about what we’ve found so far. Our early focus has been on biomedical research specifically.

Most useful new technologies are the product of many different lines of research, which progress in different ways and on different time frames. I think that when most people think about scientific research, they tend to instinctively picture only a subset of it. For example, people hoping for better cancer treatment tend instinctively to think about “studying cancer” as opposed to “studying general behavior of cells” or “studying microscopy techniques,” even though all three can be essential for making progress on cancer treatment. Picturing only a particular kind of research can affect the way people choose what science to support.

I’m planning to write a fair amount about what I see as promising approaches to biomedical sciences philanthropy. Much of what I’m interested in will be hard to explain without some basic background and vocabulary around different types of research, and I’ve been unable to find an existing guide that provides this background. (Indeed, many of what I consider “overlooked opportunities to do good” may be overlooked because of donors’ tendencies to focus on the easiest-to-understand types of science.)

This post will:

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Note: Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

Note: Steve Daetz of the Sandler Foundation reviewed a draft of this post prior to publication.

Previously, we wrote about the tradeoff between expertise and breadth in philanthropy. We noted the traditional “program officer” model of philanthropy, in which staff specialize in particular causes, and we contrasted it with some other possible models that sacrifice true cause-level expertise, while allowing a philanthropist to work in more areas at once.

We cited the Sandler Foundation as an example of a foundation that appears to have a strong track record despite not following the traditional “program officer” model. Since then, we’ve had a couple of extended conversations with the Sandler Foundation’s Herb Sandler and Steve Daetz. We’ve tried to understand better how its approach differs from more traditional approaches, and what the pros and cons are. We’ve come out thinking that:

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Note: Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

Last November, we held a day-long convening in Washington, D.C. to discuss possible priorities for Open Philanthropy Project work on U.S. policy.

Our main goal was to present our picture of several policy issues, as well as to receive input to inform upcoming decisions about which issue(s) we should focus on. For each issue, we laid out what sort of change we’d like to see, why we find the issue especially promising for philanthropy, what the current landscape looks like (including other funders), and what possible strategies might look like. We sought feedback on all of these points, as well as ideas for promising issue areas and promising strategies that haven’t occurred to us.

We’ve now posted a summary of points raised at the convening, a partial list of participants, and the briefing materials for the convening here:

Page on Nov. 10 policy convening

Many points were raised at the convening, and it served as an input into our overall strategy setting on U.S. policy (which we will be writing more about). Some of the highlights, from our perspective, were:

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Note: Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

Our last major public updates on the Open Philanthropy Project were our May and June posts on global catastrophic risks and U.S. policy. This post summarizes our progress since then and where we currently stand on our goal of committing to causes.

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