Geomagnetic Storms

This is a writeup of a shallow investigation, a brief look at an area that we use to decide how to prioritize further research.

In a nutshell

What is the problem?

A severe solar storm might have the potential to shut down power grids on a continental scale for months.

Who is already working on it?

Power companies, transformer makers, insurers, and governments all have an interest in protecting the grid from geomagnetic storms. As far as we know, there is little philanthropic involvement in this issue.

What could a new philanthropist do?

The grid can be protected through hardening and through the installation of ground-induced current blocking devices that would prevent the currents generated by a geomagnetic storm from flowing through the grid. A philanthropist could fund further research on the threat posed by geomagnetic storms or on mitigation possibilities, fund advocacy for dealing with the threat, or directly fund mitigation.

1. What is the problem?

Eruptions from the sun bombard the earth with energetic matter, called coronal mass ejections (CMEs). CMEs damage satellites and, by temporarily disrupting Earth’s magnetic field, can disrupt the operation of power grids.

In extreme cases, roughly once per decade, CMEs reach Earth within 24 hours.1 Whether a CME hits Earth depends on its direction and angular width. In July 2012, for instance, a powerful CME with an estimated angular width of 160° missed Earth because it launched during a week when its source region on the sun faced away from Earth.2 When a CME hits the earth, it can damage satellites, including ones critical for communication and navigation.3 It may also induce turbulence in the magnetic field on the planet’s surface, which in turn can generate abnormal currents in long-distance power lines.4 The intensity of these effects depends on the speed and magnetic strength and orientation of a CME.5

In March 1989, a major geomagnetic storm destabilized the grid in Québec enough to force it to shut down within minutes.6 This damaged equipment, including two major transformers, and blacked out most of the province. 83% of power was restored within nine hours.7 After, the Canadian government invested $1.2 billion in equipment upgrades intended to make the Québec grid more robust to storms.8

In 1859, a storm approximately twice as powerful as the 1989 one occurred, though it caused no major damage because there was little electrical infrastructure at the time.9

According to John Kappenman, a consultant who works on geomagnetic storms, a 1 in 100-200 years worst-case geomagnetic storm could destroy large transformers throughout the world and cause a global power outage that would take years to fix. The knock-on effects for other infrastructure–hospitals, police, pipelines, food delivery—could cause a humanitarian disaster.10 Other estimates appear to be substantially less aggressive: the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a power industry group, reported that only older transformers would be likely to be damaged in a severe geomagnetic storm, and the US Department of Homeland Security noted that Kappenman was the only source of more extreme estimates of damages from geomagnetic storms.11 A 2011 report for the OECD concluded that the threat from geomagnetic storms is not well understood.12

Besides the risk to the power grid, geomagnetic storms also threaten satellites and aviation.13

At the completion of this shallow review in May 2014, we did not feel that we had a good understanding of the degree of risk from geomagnetic storms, though we guessed, with low confidence, that Kappenman’s 1 in 100-200 year figure for a globally devastating storm is likely to overstate the degree of risk. The deep dive has made us more confident in this estimate.14 Nevertheless, the historical record from which to infer probabilities is short, and the responses of electric grids to storms are not well studied. Given the high humanitarian stakes, we believe the threat may well offer opportunities for philanthropy.

A high-altitude detonation of a single nuclear weapon, known as an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack, could cause similar effects as for a geomagnetic storm over an area the size of the continental US.15

2. Who is already working on it?

Power companies, state and federal governments, and insurance companies all have a stake in responding to geomagnetic storms:

  • Power companies presumably want to protect their infrastructure from damage.16 We have not investigated the extent to which power companies have responded to geomagnetic storm risks.
  • Insurance companies might be able to pressure power companies to protect their assets from geomagnetic storms by promising lower premiums for those who take this step.17 Insurance companies appear to be considering how to incorporate geomagnetic storms into their risk models.18
  • The US federal government has been concerned by the risk of electromagnetic pulse attack (which would cause similar damage and require similar mitigation strategies to a geomagnetic storm) since the Cold War, although its commitment to mitigating the damage from such an attack may have lessened since then.19The SHIELD Act, which would require power companies to mitigate the threat from geomagnetic storms, has been introduced in the House but, as of July 2013, had not been voted on by either chamber.20
  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is charged with enforcing geomagnetic storm-related regulations on the power industry. FERC works with an industry group, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) to devise standards, which FERC can then either accept or remand to NERC for revision. As of May 2015, NERC had issued a detailed draft reliability standard relating to geomagnetic disturbances, for a 60-day period of public comment.21
  • To our knowledge, Maine is the only state to have passed a law requiring power installations to be robust to EMPs and geomagnetic storms.22

A small number of advocates like Kappenman currently try to persuade NERC and the government to do more about the threat from geomagnetic storms, but as far as we know, there is very little philanthropic involvement in this issue.23

3. What could a new philanthropist do?

A philanthropist could potentially pursue a number of different approaches aiming to reduce risks from geomagnetic storms:24

  • further research on the risks of geomagnetic storms and potential mitigation strategies
  • advocacy for stronger geomagnetic safety standards for electric utilities, or for public funding to support mitigation efforts
  • directly funding mitigation in partnership with electric utilities.

We do not have a strong sense of the likely returns to any of these strategies, though we would guess that the research and advocacy approaches would carry higher expected returns than direct support for mitigation.

3.1 Approaches to mitigating geomagnetic storm risk

The two basic options available to protect the grid are operational mitigation and hardening. Operational mitigation entails operating the grid in such a way as to reduce the threat from geomagnetic storms.25 The most radical kind of operational mitigation would be to unplug grid components in advance of a predicted geomagnetic storm so that they are not vulnerable to the effects of the storm. This strategy is feasible because satellites can predict periods of a few days when geomagnetic storms are likely.26 However, the national grid would likely have to be shut down for several days, which would cause enormous economic damage.27

Kappenman believes that for $1 billion, the US grid could be hardened to resist the effects of geomagnetic storms with ground-induced current (GIC) blockers.28 However, GIC blocking devices may turn out to be more expensive than Kappenman estimates, and a more diversified hardening strategy might be necessary to protect the grid.29

It is possible to undertake some operational mitigation and hardening for satellites, though both approaches face challenges.30


4. Questions for further investigation

Our research in this area has yet to answer many important questions.

Amongst other topics, our further research on this cause might address:

  • How much attention do national governments (including the U.S.) pay to the threat of geomagnetic storms and EMP attack?
  • How do power companies currently respond to the threat posed by geomagnetic storms?
  • How likely is further research to pay off in better estimates of the likely damage from severe geomagnetic storms and in better mitigation strategies? Are better estimates already available from experts we did not contact?
  • How significant is the risk of an EMP attack?

5. Our Process

We initially decided to investigate geomagnetic storms because we thought that damage to the power grid from geomagnetic storms might be a serious risk that is relatively easy to quantify and interventions to mitigate the risk might be relatively tractable.

The investigation that went into this shallow review has been very limited, consisting primarily of review of risk assessments by government agencies and other actors and a conversation with John Kappenman, the owner of Storm Analysis Consultants.

In late 2014, we commissioned a “deep dive” investigation. The report focuses on assessing the probability of an extreme storm, with shallower coverage of the impacts on grids and no discussion of options for limiting them. Previous version of this page here.

6. Sources

Kappenman Comments Before the FERC – Source

Kappenman 2010 – Source

Lloyd’s 2013 – Source

NRC 2008 – Source

NERC 1990 – Source

Notes from a conversation with John Kappenman, 8/6/2013 – Source

Odenwald 2000 – Source

Roodman 2015 – Source

Severe Space Weather Events 2008 – Source

Siscoe, Crooker, and Clauer 2006 – Source

World Data Center for Geomagnetism – Source

Wales 2012 – Source


Baker et al. 2013 Source
CENTRA 2011 Source
Cliver and Svalgaard 2004 Source
DHS Office of Risk Management and Analysis 2011 Source
FERC 2015 Source
Foster et al. 2004 Source
Geomagnetic Disturbance Task Force 2012 Source
Gopalswamy 2006 Source
Kappenman 2005 Source
Kappenman 2006 Source
Kappenman Comments Before the FERC Source
Kappenman 2010 Source
Lloyd’s 2013 Source
NRC 2008 Source
NERC 1990 Source
Notes from a conversation with John Kappenman, 8/6/2013 Source
Odenwald 2000 Source
Roodman 2015 Source
Severe Space Weather Events 2008 Source
Siscoe, Crooker, and Clauer 2006 Source
World Data Center for Geomagnetism Source
Wales 2012 Source

Risks from Atomically Precise Manufacturing

This is a writeup of a shallow investigation, a brief look at an area that we use to decide how to prioritize further research.

In a nutshell


Atomically precise manufacturing is a proposed technology for assembling macroscopic objects defined by data files by using very small parts to build the objects with atomic precision using earth-abundant materials. There is little consensus about its feasibility, how to develop it, or when, if ever, it might be developed. This page focuses primarily on potential risks from atomically precise manufacturing. We may separately examine its potential benefits and development pathways in more detail in the future.

What is the problem?

If created, atomically precise manufacturing would likely radically lower costs and expand capabilities in computing, materials, medicine, and other areas. However, it would likely also make it substantially easier to develop new weapons and quickly and inexpensively produce them at scale with an extremely small manufacturing base. In addition, some argue that it would help make it possible to create tiny self-replicating machines that could consume the Earth’s resources in a scenario known as “grey goo,” but such machines would have to be designed deliberately and we are highly uncertain of whether it would be possible to make them.

What are possible interventions?

A philanthropist could seek to influence research and development directions or support policy research. Potential goals could include achieving consensus regarding the feasibility of atomically precise manufacturing, identifying promising development strategies, and/or mitigating risks from possible military applications. We are highly uncertain about how to weigh the possible risks and benefits from accelerating progress toward APM and about the effectiveness of policy research in the absence of greater consensus regarding the feasibility of the technology.

Who else is working on it?

A few small non-profit organizations have explicitly focused on research, development, and policy analysis related to atomically precise manufacturing. Atomically precise manufacturing receives little explicit attention in academia, but potential enabling technologies such as DNA nanotechnology and scanning probe microscopy are active fields of research.

1. Background

1.1 Terminology

There are a number of related, but distinct, concepts discussed in the context of atomically precise manufacturing, including:1

  • Nanotechnology
  • Molecular nanotechnology
  • Atomically precise manufacturing (APM, which is roughly synonymous with ‘molecular manufacturing’)

1.1.1 Nanotechnology

According to the definition set by the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative:2

Nanotechnology is the understanding and control of matter at the nanoscale, at dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers, where unique phenomena enable novel applications. Encompassing nanoscale science, engineering, and technology, nanotechnology involves imaging, measuring, modeling, and manipulating matter at this length scale.

‘Nanotechnology’ is used in a broad sense to include APM, but also many rather different products and R&D projects. Nanomaterials (such as carbon nanotubes), DNA origami, and scanning tunneling microscopes are all considered nanotechnology, but they are not considered atomically precise manufacturing (as defined below) because they do not allow for programmable manufacturing of macroscopic structures.

1.1.2 Molecular nanotechnology

‘Molecular nanotechnology’ is a concept associated with Dr. Drexler’s 1986 book, Engines of Creation. Our understanding of this concept is highly limited, though we understand that:

  • It involves using very small, mobile ‘assemblers’ to bond atoms into desired stable patterns, and that they could be used to “build almost anything that the laws of nature allow to exist.”3
  • It has been explained with less technical detail than APM, and Dr. Drexler regards his analysis of it as more uncertain than his analysis of APM.4

On the first point, Dr. Drexler has received criticism from Richard Jones (a Professor of Physics at the University of Sheffield), Richard Smalley (a Nobel laureate in Chemistry), and the Royal Society.5 However, Dr. Drexler has suggested to us that these criticisms are based on misunderstandings of his work.6 For example, he has described the idea of “literally building ‘atom by atom’ ” as a “technically inaccurate popularization of the idea of atomically precise manufacturing.”7 In Engines of Creation Dr. Drexler noted that molecular nanotechnology “will not be able to build everything that could exist.” In conversation with us, Dr. Drexler said that atomically precise manufacturing—which is the focus of this investigation—”does not include the concept of a ‘universal assembler’ capable of making any possible object.”8

1.1.3 Atomically precise manufacturing

In a conversation with us, Dr. Drexler characterized APM as follows:9

At a more mature stage in the development of APM, Dr. Drexler envisions desktop-sized (or larger), programmable “nanofactories” which would use earth-abundant materials (e.g., molecules composed of elements from the upper-right hand corner of the periodic table, including carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and silicon) as inputs/feedstocks, and use arrays of molecule-binding nanoscale devices (using gearboxes, motors, and so on to implement positioning/transport mechanisms) to guide the motion of reactive molecules from the feedstocks to assemble objects and machines defined by data files (as in 3D printers today). Such a nanofactory would be capable of placing its inputs in controlled configurations in controlled sequences, providing a degree of control of chemical synthesis that cannot be achieved by means that rely on the diffusion of molecules in solution. Drexler suggests that systems of this general kind could produce a superset of the range of products that can be made by modern industry. The physical principles, mechanisms, and potential system architectures of such nanofactories are examined in greater detail in Nanosystems.

In Nanosystems, Dr. Drexler proposes the following applications of APM:10

  • Programmable positioning of reactive molecules with ~0.1 nm precision
  • Mechanosynthesis at > 10^6 operations/device [per] second
  • Mechanosynthetic assembly of 1 kg objects in < 10^4 s
  • Nanomechanical systems operating at ~10^9 Hz
  • Logic gates that occupy ~10^-26 m^3 (~10^-8 μ^3)
  • Logic gates that switch in ~0.1 ns and dissipate < 10^-21 J
  • Computers that perform 10^16 instructions per second per watt
  • Cooling of cubic-centimeter, ~10^5 W systems at 300 K
  • Compact 10^15 MIPS parallel computing systems
  • Mechanochemical power conversion at > 10^9 W/m^3
  • Electromechanical power conversion at > 10^15 W/m^3
  • Macroscopic components with tensile strengths > 5 x 10^10 Pa
  • Production systems that can double capital stocks in < 10^4 s

Of these capabilities, several are qualitatively novel, and others improve on present engineering practice by one or more orders of magnitude.

Dr. Drexler also argued that these nanofactories could be used to quickly make additional nanofactories.11 This helps clarify the definition of APM above, though we do not fully understand the significance (or even the meaning) of many of these proposed applications. However, our understanding is that these capabilities include extremely precise manufacturing, very powerful computers, very stiff materials, and fast assembly of macroscopic objects from raw materials.

Our investigation focused on APM rather than nanotechnology or molecular nanotechnology because:

  • We are aware of arguments that APM and molecular nanotechnology could pose global catastrophic risks (see “What is the problem?”), but are not aware of arguments that other forms of nanotechnology could pose global catastrophic risks.
  • According to Dr. Drexler, there is stronger evidence for the feasibility of APM than the feasibility of molecular nanotechnology (as noted above).

1.2 Potential development pathways for APM

Progress toward APM may proceed along two different pathways:

  • ‘Soft’ approaches using biomolecular materials capable of organizing themselves into desired three-dimensional structures, such as DNA nanotechnology. DNA origami, in which DNA self-assembles in solution to form desired 3D molecular structures, is one example of DNA nanotechnology.12
  • ‘Hard’ pathways such as ‘scanning probe microscopy,’ where microscopes are used to pick up individual atoms and put them in desired arrangements, one by one. For example, IBM researchers used scanning tunneling microscopes (a special type of scanning probe microscope) to spell out “IBM” on a two-dimensional surface with individual atoms, as shown here.

There is disagreement about which path is more promising. People who think the soft pathway is more likely to yield progress include:

  • Eric Drexler,
  • Richard Jones, and
  • Adam Marblestone, scientific advisor to the Open Philanthropy Project and Director of Scientific Architecting at the MIT Synthetic Neurobiology Group.

Philip Moriarty, a Professor of Physics at the University of Nottingham, was more enthusiastic about the hard route.13

The following provides additional detail on Dr. Drexler’s preferred development pathway for APM:14

Dr. Drexler has a concept for a self-assembling, biomolecular, nano-resolution 3D printer operating in solution. The active head of this device (analogous to a printhead) could be moved by linear stepper motors with displacement increments of about a nanometer, operating along three axes and controlled by external optical inputs. Such a device could also be accurate to a resolution of a nanometer (though the system’s components would not be stiff enough to enable accurate positioning at the small-molecule length scale, due to thermal fluctuations), and would construct objects out of biomolecular materials. One way the active head of a 3D printer could work is by removing protective groups from active sites on a surface, allowing the feedstock materials in the solution to bind to the selected sites, transported by Brownian motion.

Dr. Drexler envisions using these soft nanomachines to create the more mature form of APM described above.15 We are highly uncertain about how promising these development pathways are, and have not closely investigated them.

1.3 Will it eventually be possible to develop APM?

There is no scientific consensus on whether APM is feasible in principle, and significant skepticism has been expressed in some quarters. We have not carefully considered the object-level merits of the arguments on both sides of this issue—which we believe would require substantial additional work—and therefore we focus on the perspectives of the people we interviewed and the scientific sources we considered.

The feasibility of atomically precise manufacturing has been reviewed in a report published by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The NAS report was initiated in response to a Congressional request, and the result was included in the first triennial review of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative.16 It discusses APM for 4 pages under the heading, “Technical Feasibility of Site-Specific Chemistry for Large-Scale Manufacturing.”17 While the committee states that “many scientists foresee a long-term future in which a variety of strategies, tools, and processes allow nearly any stable chemical structure to be built atom by atom or molecule by molecule from the bottom up,”18 the report was inconclusive regarding the technical feasibility of APM. It noted that Dr. Drexler’s work was hard to evaluate because its questions—about the in-principle feasibility of potential future technologies—are “currently outside the mainstream of both conventional science (designed to seek new knowledge) and conventional engineering (usually concerned with the design of things that can be built more or less immediately).”19 The report did not identify specific technical flaws with Dr. Drexler’s theoretical calculations. However, it did not regard these calculations as a reliable basis for predicting the potential capabilities of future manufacturing systems, stating that “the eventually attainable range of chemical reaction cycles, error rates, speed of operation, and thermodynamic efficiencies of such bottom-up manufacturing systems cannot be reliably predicted at this time.”20 Despite this uncertainty, the NAS report recommended research funding for experimental demonstrations that link to abstract models of APM and guide long-term vision related to APM.21

A Royal Society report was dismissive of the feasibility of ‘molecular manufacturing,’ stating that they had “seen no evidence of the possibility of such nanoscale machines in the peer-reviewed literature, or interest in their development from the mainstream scientific community or industry.”22 However, like the NAS report, this report focused primarily on other aspects of nanotechnology rather than APM. Only pages 28 and 109 discuss concepts related to APM, and those pages only cite critical correspondence between Eric Drexler and Richard Smalley, one paper co-authored by Chris Phoenix (Co-Founder and Director of Research at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology) and Eric Drexler, and the opinion of George Whitesides (a Professor of Chemistry at Harvard University).23 Moreover, these pages seem to be focused on concepts that we and Drexler associate with molecular nanotechnology rather than molecular manufacturing/APM,24 so it is unclear whether these critiques carry over to APM.

The people we interviewed generally found it plausible that some form of atomically precise manufacturing was feasible in principle.25 However, some of them also expressed skepticism about the feasibility of some aspects of APM. For example:

  • Prof. Moriarty suggested that molecular manufacturing would only be feasible with a limited range of materials,26 though we are uncertain about the extent to which this is a disagreement with Dr. Drexler, who only discusses a limited range of materials in the context of APM/molecular manufacturing (see Drexler’s definition of APM above).
  • Prof. Jones was skeptical of the feasibility of developing ‘hard’ nanosystems from ‘soft’ nanosystems.27

We have an incomplete sense of which aspects of APM (such as range of materials, range of possible structures, size of structures created, speed of production, and capacity for self-replication) the people we spoke with thought were realistic, and which they did not.

Dr. Drexler’s most notable individual critic was Richard Smalley, who had an open, critical correspondence with Dr. Drexler in Chemical & Engineering News. We did not thoroughly review the correspondence between Dr. Drexler and Dr. Smalley, but no one we spoke with suggested to us that the correspondence was conclusive regarding the feasibility of APM.28 We are not aware of any specific, generally accepted, published scientific proof or refutation regarding the feasibility of APM.

1.4 When might APM be developed?

The timeline for APM development is controversial. Eric Drexler and Chris Phoenix—who had the shortest development timelines among people we spoke with—suggested that, given substantial investment and agreement about development pathways, it might be possible to develop atomically precise manufacturing—of a kind that could pose substantial risks or significantly change society—within a decade.29 The other people we spoke with (Philip Moriarty, Richard Jones, and Adam Marblestone) hold that atomically precise manufacturing advanced enough to pose substantial risks or significantly change society is further in the future.30 This is consistent with the NAS report’s conclusion that development pathways for APM were unclear. Because APM is a multifaceted concept that lacks a precise definition, we are uncertain about the extent to which the people we spoke with disagree about when different aspects of APM will reach different levels of capability.

Unless APM is developed in a secret “Manhattan Project”—and there is disagreement about how plausible that is31 —the people we spoke with believe it would be extremely unlikely for an observer closely watching the field to be surprised by a sudden increase in potentially dangerous APM capabilities.32

2. What is the problem?

2.1 Is there insufficient work on, and progress toward, APM?

According to Dr. Drexler, lack of consensus about feasibility and implementation pathways is stalling progress in development toward APM.33 At the same time, Prof. Jones argues that experimental work by nanoscientists has a direct bearing on Dr. Drexler’s proposals in Nanosystems,34 and that progress in the field has been slow primarily because of the inherent difficulty of the science (though he also acknowledges some institutional challenges to receiving funding for ambitious, uncertain research projects).35 We are highly uncertain about the extent to which progress toward APM is held back by resolvable uncertainty about feasibility and implementation pathways and the extent to which it would be desirable to accelerate progress toward APM (given the potential risks discussed below).

2.2 What are the potential risks from APM?

2.2.1 APM and weapons development and production

If APM were developed, it would likely be substantially easier to create new weapons and quickly and inexpensively produce them at scale. Our understanding is that APM would make this possible because:36

  • As discussed above, APM would allow for the manufacturing of a superset of the products of modern industry using abundant feedstocks.
  • Nanofactories could be used to produce additional nanofactories (using the same feedstocks).
  • APM might speed prototyping and product development because factories could immediately build parts on site, leading to a faster design/prototype/test cycle.

We would guess some especially concerning military applications would include new types of drones and centrifuges for enriching uranium that would be much easier to produce.37

In addition to the direct use of the weapons above, some related risks include:

  • The possibility that the above capabilities could disrupt geopolitics, including deterrence relationships. For example, Chris Phoenix suggested that there could be an arms race related to this technology, or that one nation might want to forcibly prevent another from gaining advanced APM.38
  • The possibility that an individual or small group could use nanofactories to cheaply mass-produce weapons, enabling terrorist organizations.39

2.2.2 Grey goo

‘Grey goo’ is a proposed scenario in which tiny self-replicating machines outcompete organic life and rapidly consume the earth’s resources in order to make more copies of themselves.40 According to Dr. Drexler, a grey goo scenario could not happen by accident; it would require deliberate design.41 Both Drexler and Phoenix have argued that such runaway replicators are, in principle, a physical possibility, and Phoenix has even argued that it’s likely that someone will eventually try to make grey goo. However, they believe that other risks from APM are (i) more likely, and (ii) very likely to be relevant before risks from grey goo, and are therefore more worthy of attention.42 Similarly, Prof. Jones and Dr. Marblestone have argued that a ‘grey goo’ catastrophe is a distant, and perhaps unlikely, possibility.43 We are highly uncertain about:

  • The in-principle feasibility and difficulty of grey goo,
  • The extent to which APM would assist in creating grey goo, and
  • Whether, if it is feasible, anyone would intentionally develop grey goo.

3. What are the possible interventions?

A philanthropist working in this area might:

  • Help develop an academic consensus regarding the feasibility of APM and possible development pathways. This would likely be accomplished by convening meetings, commissioning feasibility research, and communicating findings. Similar efforts have faced challenges in the past.44
  • Support policy research related to the development of atomically precise manufacturing. Such research could consider the goals of developing atomically precise manufacturing in addition to risks. However, such research may have limited impact in the absence of greater consensus about the feasibility and timeline of atomically precise manufacturing, and might better be left until such consensus is established.45 Topics of such research could include arms control, economic impacts of APM, the impact of APM on AI development, and the impact of APM on surveillance technology.46
  • Support research and development of atomically precise manufacturing. This could include attempts to steer research in particular directions or to grow the field.47 Prof. Jones estimated that an investment of about $150 million over ten years would significantly grow the field.48
  • Monitor progress toward atomically precise manufacturing, potentially supporting R&D or policy research as advanced capabilities become nearer.49

Dr. Drexler is not aware of any technical research agenda for this field—e.g. analogous to the technical research agendas for reducing possible risks from artificial intelligence that have been proposed by the Future of Life Institute or the Machine Intelligence Research Institute—that might help reduce the potential risks associated with APM. With respect to the risk of unauthorized use of nanofactories to manufacture weapons, he suggests that nanofactories could be designed so that they are only capable of making a limited range of products that does not include weapons.50

As stated above, we are uncertain about the desirability of faster progress toward APM. Before pursuing interventions that pushed forward its development, we think it would be important to weigh the possible risks and benefits of doing so.

4. Who else is working on this?

A few small non-profit organizations are explicitly focused on influencing and/or promoting the development of atomically precise manufacturing and/or molecular nanotechnology. Such organizations include:51

The Foresight Institute $814,135 $945,461
Center for Responsible Nanotechnology Not available Not available
Institute for Molecular Manufacturing $2,194 $14,028

We have a very limited understanding of the activities of these organizations because our investigation of the field so far has been brief.

The 2015 US Federal Budget provides more than $1.5 billion for the National Nanotechnology Initiative, a U.S. Government R&D initiative promoting and coordinating the development of nanotechnology.52 However, there is currently no focused R&D effort towards atomically precise manufacturing, though there is some relevant research toward a variety of shorter-term goals in applied and fundamental science.53 Although some academics work on ethical and legal issues associated with nanotechnology (e.g., the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at ASU), we have been told that little of this work is related to atomically precise manufacturing (as opposed to nanomaterials).54

Although atomically precise manufacturing currently receives little attention, it does not yet pose a significant risk. It is hard to know how much attention it will receive if/when the technology becomes more mature.

5. Questions for further investigation

Our investigation in this area left us with many open questions which could be addressed in further research, including:

  1. Do academic organizations studying social issues related to nanotechnology (such as the ASU Center for Nanotechnology and Society) do work that is relevant to atomically precise manufacturing?
  2. How would promoting progress in atomically precise manufacturing affect the potential risks posed by the technology and/or related technologies?
  3. How effectively would convening meetings and commissioning research build consensus regarding the feasibility of atomically precise manufacturing and/or build support for specific development pathways?
  4. Are there possible interventions that could be useful today in directly reducing risks, as opposed to simply improving the pace of progress toward APM, or our ability to forecast such progress?
  5. How confident can we be that there will be substantial lead time between early signs that APM is feasible and the deployment of APM?
  6. Are there promising proposals for advancing development toward atomically precise manufacturing? If so, how soon could atomically precise manufacturing be developed?
  7. Are there any technologies we would be able to differentially accelerate to offset potential risks of APM? (For example, there may be some inherently defensive technology which could neutralize weapons produced by nanofactories.)
  8. To what extent do critiques of the feasibility of molecular nanotechnology carry over to APM?
  9. How costly would it be to develop APM?
  10. Where would APM provide the largest additional benefits in comparison with other technologies currently in existence and under development?

6. Our process

We decided to look into this topic because:

  • Atomically precise manufacturing is discussed as a possible global catastrophic risk in some comprehensive treatments of global catastrophic risks.55
  • Our impression was—and continues to be—that atomically precise manufacturing receives little attention from government or philanthropy.

Our investigation to date has mainly consisted of conversations with five individuals with knowledge about atomically precise manufacturing and/or its potential risks:

  • Eric Drexler – Academic Visitor, Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology, University of Oxford
  • Richard Jones – Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation, Professor of Physics, University of Sheffield
  • Adam Marblestone – Director of Scientific Architecting, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Synthetic Neurobiology Group (scientific advisor to the Open Philanthropy Project)
  • Philip Moriarty – Professor of Physics, University of Nottingham
  • Chris Phoenix – Co-Founder and Director of Research, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

We also had informal conversations with Eric Drexler, reviewed documents he provided, and listened to three audiobooks related to atomically precise manufacturing:

  • Nano by Ed Regis
  • Radical Abundance by Eric Drexler
  • The Visioneers by Patrick McKray

The research on this page focuses substantially on Dr. Drexler’s perspective because work in this field has been very limited,56 and our understanding is that he has been responsible for a substantial fraction of the work on atomically precise manufacturing.

Relationship disclosure: This page was prepared by Nick Beckstead, who previously worked with Dr. Drexler at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University.

7. Sources

Chris Phoenix and Mike Treder 2008, Nanotechnology as global catastrophic risk Source (archive)
Drexler 1986, Engines of CreationEngines of Creation Source (archive)
Drexler 1992, NanosystemsNanosystems Source (archive)
Drexler 2013, Radical AbundenceRadical Abundence Source (archive)
Drexler-Smalley Debate Source (archive)
FLI survey of research questions, 2015 Source (archive)
Foresight Institute’s 990 for 2013 Source (archive)
GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Adam Marblestone, August 27, 2014 Source
GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Chris Phoenix, August 20, 2014 Source
GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Eric Drexler, January 23, 2015 Source
GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Eric Drexler, October 8, 2014 Source
GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Philip Moriarty, September 3, 2014 Source
GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Richard Jones, September 30, 2014 Source
“IBM” atoms Source
Institute for Molecular Manufacturing’s 990 for 2013 Source (archive)
Jones 2004, Soft MachinesSoft Machines Source (archive)
Jones 2004, Did Smalley deliver a killer blow to Drexlerian MNT? Source (archive)
Jones 2004, Molecular nanotechnology, Drexler and Nanosystems – where I standNanosystems – where I stand Source (archive)
Jones 2005, The mechanosynthesis debate Source (archive)
Jones 2007, Nanotechnology and visions of the future (part 1) Source (archive)
Jones 2008, Rupturing the Rapture Source (archive)
MIRI Research Agenda, 2015 Source (archive)
National Academy of Sciences 2006, A Matter of Size: Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology InitiativeA Matter of Size: Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative Source (archive)
National Nanotechnology Initiative Website Source (archive)
NNI Website, What It Is and How It Works Source (archive)
Nick Beckstead’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Miles Brundage, April 4, 2014 Source (archive)
Sander Olson interview with Philip Moriarty 2011 Source (archive)
The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering 2004 Source



U.S. Health Care Reform

This is a writeup of a shallow investigation, a brief look at an area that we use to decide how to prioritize further research.

In a nutshell

What is the problem?

The United States spends trillions of dollars on health care each year. A significant part of this spending appears to be wasted due to inefficiencies and misaligned incentives. Some policy changes could plausibly reduce these inefficiencies, causing significant fiscal and humanitarian improvements.

What are possible interventions?

Many existing efforts aim to improve the overall cost-effectiveness of the health care system. Using alternatives to fee-for-service payment, bundling payment for common types of care, or more transparent pricing, amongst other approaches, could reduce the amount spent on health care while holding constant or improving quality of care. Some other policy proposals that also might reduce costs, such as relaxing scope-of-practice laws to give nurse practitioners more autonomy or easing restrictions on immigrant doctors, don’t appear to be at the center of the broader discussion of cost and quality. A funder could potentially support a variety of different kinds of research or advocacy to advance these policy changes.

Who else is working on it?

Health care policy and access is an area of interest of a number of large foundations. Major foundations that work in this area include the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Commonwealth Fund. We’re hoping to investigate some of the subfields listed above more deeply to get a better sense of the overall “crowdedness” of the field.

1. What is the problem?

We find it helpful to break down current issues within US health care into three subcategories:1

  • Public health: Well-known issues such as obesity, smoking, alcohol and violence pose significant public health concerns, as do less discussed issues such as accidental drug deaths.
  • Increasing access to care: The 2010 Affordable Care Act attempts to expand health insurance coverage to more Americans, but there is lots of uncertainty and room for experimentation around how best to achieve this, as well as room for further potential expansion.
  • Improving the trade-off between cost and quality of care: The US spends significantly more on health care than other developed economies, but this excess spending does not appear to increase quality of care.

This investigation was primarily concerned with the third point, improving the trade-off between cost and quality.

The US spends more on health care than any other industrialized nation, both as a percentage of GDP and on a per capita basis. Total health care spending in 2012 was $2.6 trillion according to the OECD,2 which represents 16.9% of GDP (significantly higher than the OECD average, 9.3% of GDP).3 There seems to be consensus among experts that this higher level of spending does not correspond to better care.4

Misaligned incentives for health care providers, payers and consumers appear to be responsible for a large part of this discrepancy between cost and quality. We found broad agreement that the combination of fee-for-service payment arrangements, limited price transparency, and insurance that limits patient incentives to save costs (all of which are widespread in the US) incentivize health care providers to increase the volume of tests and services provided to patients, regardless of whether these tests and services will improve outcomes.5 While these are by no means the only source of inefficiency in American health care, they seem to account for many of the commonly cited problems in the system. However, many different diagnoses of the “root causes” of America’s high health care costs have been offered, and we do not have a strong sense of which are most accurate or most “fundamentally” correct.6

2. What are possible interventions?

Our impression is that health care reform in general is a large and crowded field, with many different players and a high level of funding. Much of this funding appears to be directed towards changing incentive structures so that health care is delivered more cost-effectively. Examples of efforts to shift incentives include:

  • The formation of Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs), which was made possible by the Affordable Care Act.7 These are groups of health care providers (typically physicians and hospitals) which pool responsibility for the financial and medical outcomes of their patients. Where they are able to produce good outcomes at lower cost, they share in some of the financial savings.8
  • “Bundling” payments for certain types of treatment. The idea behind bundling is that aggregating the expenses for a single episode of care (for example, a joint replacement) or a certain period of time should incentivize providers to reduce the cost of care and standardize practices for similar procedures.9 Bundling by episode has been the subject of a successful pilot by Medicare, and the ACO model is based around bundling a set of patients together across a given time frame.10
  • Promoting price transparency. Limited access to prices makes it difficult for decisions to be made based on value, whether the relevant decision-maker is a patient choosing a provider, a doctor prescribing treatments, or a hospital purchasing equipment. Increased price transparency should also incentivize sellers to lower their prices.11 A number of public initiatives already make some pricing information available; further policy proposals and private entrepreneurs aim for greater transparency.12

This list is not exhaustive. Our general understanding is that there are many ongoing efforts to change incentives and to address broad cost/quality issues; although we aren’t confident, we suspect that this area may be well covered by existing organizations. For this reason, we are interested in looking into issues which might not be taken care of by efforts to realign incentives or broadly address the cost/quality problem. Below, we outline several issues which we feel may be promising opportunities, but which are somewhat orthogonal to the approaches described above.

  • Changing state scope-of-practice laws to reduce restrictions on nurse practitioners (also known as “advanced practice registered nurses”, or APRNs). Nurse practitioners perform some of the same services as doctors, but are under restrictive regulation in many states.13 Allowing nurse practitioners to contribute more to primary care could be especially beneficial if, as one projection shows, the number of medical students entering internal and family medicine falls while the number of nurse practitioners increases in coming years.14 Our impression is that the evidence to date indicates that nurse practitioners deliver a similar quality of care to more highly trained doctors in the subset of cases that they handle.15
  • Making state regulations more compatible with one another, to allow health providers to practice across state lines. This may become a more important issue if tele-medicine (diagnosing and treating patients remotely via video and sound connections) becomes more prevalent.
  • Reducing the barriers preventing immigrants to the US with medical backgrounds from practicing, whether by allowing more doctors to immigrate or making it easier for immigrants to use foreign medical certifications in the US.
  • Addressing antitrust issues, including hospital monopolies and barriers to entry in the health care industry.16

We have not investigated these policy proposals thoroughly and are not confident in the likely returns to pursuing them, but we are interested in exploring them further for two main reasons:

  • We would tentatively guess that the overall field of cost/quality reform efforts is fairly crowded, and we think that issues that don’t straightforwardly fit into that framework could possibly be relatively neglected, and therefore relatively more promising.
  • Smaller subfields are typically easier to investigate. If further investigation suggests that these subfields do appear relatively neglected, the broader cost/quality landscape may not be as crowded as we have assumed, and we may want to invest further resources in investigating the whole field.

Further work to advance these proposals would likely take the form of research or political advocacy. A funder could support any of a variety of organizations to advocate for particular policies, develop policy proposals, or research existing health systems.17

3. Who else is working on this?

Health-related causes represent a major target of philanthropic spending; in 2012, US foundations granted more money towards this area than to any other.18 Influencing health policy and increasing access to care makes up a small portion of this total, on the order of several hundred million dollars per year.19

Some of the foundations we have come across which work in this space are:

  • Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF): the largest health foundation in the United States. Policy and access issues account for a sizable minority of their grants.
  • Kaiser Family Foundation: an operating foundation focused on health policy analysis.
  • Commonwealth Fund: supports research on health care issues as well as making grants aiming to improve health care practice and policy.
  • Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation
  • California Wellness Foundation
  • California Endowment
  • Cambia Health Foundation
  • John A. Hartford Foundation
  • Scan Foundation
  • Blue Shield of California Foundation

It is also worth noting that the recent passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has made a significant amount of funding available for local pilots to experiment with new models; one source puts the amount of funding available at over $22 billion.20

4. Questions for further investigation

Our research in this area has been relatively limited, and many important questions remain unanswered by our investigation. Amongst other topics, further research on this cause might address:

  • How successful have previous efforts by philanthropists to influence health care reform been? As part of our history of philanthropy research project, we hope to learn more about the role of different philanthropic actors in the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
  • Which specific strategies are being pursued by the major funders in this field, what do they hope to achieve, and what gaps might remain?
  • What kinds of resources are being directed towards the ideas we list above that are not likely to be solved by changing the overall systemic incentives?

5. Our process

We rely heavily on a conversation with David Cutler. For general background, we also read the books The Quality Cure by David Cutler and Where Does it Hurt? by Jonathan Bush, as well as the articles Big Med, The Cost Conundrum and Letting Go, written by Atul Gawande and published in the New Yorker.

6. Sources

Anderson et al. 2003 Source
Bipartisan Policy Center 2012 Source
Calsyn 2014 Source
Cohen 2010 Source
Cutler 2013 Source
Cutler and Ghosh 2013 Source
Emanuel et al. 2012 Source
FAQ on ACOs, Kaiser Health News Source
FC 1000 Grants, Foundation Center Source
FC 1000 Health Grants, Foundation Center Source
Frequently requested data, OECD Health Statistics 2014 Source
GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with David Cutler on October 17, 2014 Source
Grantmakers in Health 2013 Source
Health Policy and Access Funding: Tips and Tricks, Inside Philanthropy Source
Kroch et al. 2012 Source
Lawrence 2004 Source
Miller 2010 Source
Naylor and Kurtzman 2010 Source
Nelson 2012 Source
Reinhardt, Hussey and Anderson 2004 Source
Richman 2012 Source
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation 2013 Source
The Commonwealth Fund Commission on a High Performing Health System 2013 Source
Total healthcare expenditure, OECD StatExtracts Source
White et al. 2014 Source

Advocacy for Improved or Increased U.S. Foreign Aid

This is a writeup of a shallow investigation, a brief look at an area that we use to decide how to prioritize further research.

1. In a nutshell

What is the problem?

U.S. development assistance achieves less for beneficiaries than it conceptually could, due both to relatively poor cost-effectiveness and to limited funding.

Who is already working on it?

There are a variety of organizations working to improve or increase U.S. development assistance, with support from a number of foundations. We would guess that total philanthropic funding for this field is in the ballpark of $100 million/year.

What could a new philanthropist do?

A philanthropist could support a wide variety of advocacy efforts, ranging from grassroots organizing to lobbying to think tank research, aiming for more or better foreign aid. We do not have a good sense of the track record of or likely returns to these activities.

2. What is the problem?

Official development assistance from the United States achieves less benefit for beneficiaries than it conceptually could. 1 Opportunities for improvement could take the form of fiscally neutral improvements in the effectiveness of aid delivery (quality), or more aid (quantity). Quality improvements could be important in humanitarian terms, as the U.S. is the single largest provider of bilateral development aid, giving roughly $30 billion/year. 2 We would guess that increasing the quantity of altruistically motivated (as opposed to merely self-interested) official development aid would be welfare-improving from a global perspective because we believe that altruistically motivated aid is likely to have larger net positive effects in recipient countries than costs for sending countries. However, we do not believe there is rigorous evidence on the impact of altruistically motivated government aid, and some prominent development scholars disagree that more official aid is likely to be strongly welfare-improving. 3 Were the U.S. to provide the same level of aid proportional to GNI as the United Kingdom, aid spending would rise to ~$90 billion/year. 4

3. Who is already working on it?

The advocacy group ONE, which predominantly but not exclusively focuses on the U.S., appears to be the largest advocate for more and better foreign aid, with a (global) annual budget of roughly $30 million.
5 Other groups that do considerable advocacy or lobbying in favor of foreign aid programs include:

  • RESULTS (2011 501c3 spending: ~$9 million; 501c4 spending: ~$200,000) 6
  • Bread for the World (2011 501c3 spending: ~$9 million; 501c4 spending: ~$4 million) 7
  • Friends of the Global Fight (2011 501c3 spending: ~$2 million) 8
  • US Global Leadership Coalition (2011 501c3 spending: ~$4 million; 501c4 spending: ~$1 million) 9
  • Large international NGOs like Oxfam and CARE that conduct some advocacy efforts in the U.S. and other high-income countries. We aren’t sure what portion of their funding goes to advocacy efforts. 10

There are also a number of organizations that advocate for international aid on specific issues, such as a particular disease. We have not tried to systematically survey such organizations. A number of U.S. think tanks also work on issues around foreign aid, including: 11

  • Center for Global Development
  • Brookings Institution
  • Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)

We believe the Center for Global Development, which focuses solely on development issues and has an annual budget of roughly $10 million, does more work on foreign aid than Brookings or CSIS does, but we have not seen figures that would allow us to make this comparison. 12 Major philanthropic support for advocacy and research related to foreign aid comes from the Gates Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation, which have each made sizable grants to both ONE and CGD. 13 We have not systematically searched for other foundation efforts in this area. In addition to funding advocacy groups such as ONE, we also believe that the Gates Foundation has played a role in directing aid agency funds through its role in the creation of and support for vehicles like the Global Fund and GAVI.14

Not counting the Gates Foundation’s contributions to the Global Fund or GAVI, we would guess that total philanthropic funding for this field is in the ballpark of, but probably less than, $100 million/year.

4. What could a new philanthropist do?

Advocacy to improve or increase U.S. foreign aid could take a number of forms, including:

  • Think tank-style research and outreach (e.g. the Center for Global Development) 15
  • Improving the amount or kind of media coverage of development or aid issues
  • Media-savvy mass outreach and lobbying efforts (e.g. ONE) 16
  • Grassroots organizing (e.g. RESULTS) 17
  • Co-funding an international aid organization to attract funding from governments (e.g. the Gates Foundation’s funding for GAVI and the Global Fund)18

Specific philanthropic opportunities might range from general support for one or more of these approaches or organizations (e.g. funding RESULTS’ expansion to additional districts where it is not currently represented) 19 to specific programmatic support for work on a particular proposed reform (e.g. think tank work on additional funding for electricity infrastructure in Africa, grassroots organizing to support the Global Fund replenishment). 20

4.1 What has the track record of past advocacy efforts been?

We have heard or read about a number of claimed foreign advocacy success stories, though we are not aware of any cases of policy changes that are unambiguously attributable to efforts on behalf of advocacy organizations. A very incomplete list of some fairly recent claimed successes by foreign aid advocacy groups includes:

  • Efforts by ONE and the Center for Global Development to shape President Obama’s recent Power Africa initiative. 21 (The Power Africa initiative includes more than $7 billion in financial commitments over several years, though the large majority of the commitments take the form of loans rather than grants). 22
  • Re-authorization of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a multi-billion dollar aid program, in 2008. 23
  • Multi-billion dollar U.S. commitments to the Global Fund and GAVI Alliance. 24
  • Significant advanced market commitments from Canada for new vaccines. 25
  • A major 2006 debt-relief deal for Nigeria. 26

We have not investigated any of these claimed successes in sufficient depth to feel confident that the advocacy groups involved played a causal role, but the returns on investment if these represent true cases of advocacy impact would likely be very large.

5. Questions for further investigation

Our research in this area has been relatively limited, and many important questions remain unanswered by our investigation. Amongst other topics, further research on this cause might address:

  • In which cases can claimed success stories be confidently attributed to the efforts of one or more advocacy groups?
  • How would additional funding translate into additional advocacy efforts? To what extent is funding the bottleneck to advocacy success on foreign aid issues?
  • How do the likely returns to advocacy efforts in the U.S. compare to likely returns in other high-income countries?
  • Would it be better to focus on other policy issues in high-income countries instead of improving or increasing foreign aid? Should a philanthropist focus on other policy issues in low-income countries instead of focusing on aid?

6. Our process

We decided to investigate this area because we believe that advocacy to improve or augment U.S. foreign aid could conceptually have high returns relative to direct service efforts like our top charities. We spoke to three individuals with knowledge of the field, including:

We also conducted some limited desk research on the size of some of the organizations involved in advocacy related to U.S. foreign aid.

7. Sources

Birdsall and Kharas 2010 Source
Bread for the World 501(c)(3) IRS Form 990 Source
Bread for the World 501(c)(4) IRS Form 990 Source
CARE Advocacy Source
Center for Global Development 501(c)(3) IRS Form 990 Source
Center for Global Development Homepage Source
Center for Global Development: Evaluation of Impact Source
Easterly and Williamson 2011 Source
Fact sheet: Power Africa Source
Friends of the Global Fight 501(c)(3) IRS Form 990 Source
Gates Foundation grant to the Center for Global Development Source
Gates Foundation grant to the Global Fund Source
Gates Foundation grant to the One Campaign Source
Hewlett Foundation grant to the One Campaign Source
Hewlett Foundation match for gifts to the Center for Global Development Source
Knack, Rogers, and Eubank 2011 Source
Nossal 2003 Source
Notes from a conversation with Ben Leo on September 3, 2013 Source
Notes from a conversation with John Fawcett on September 3, 2013 Source
OECD 2012 Source
ONE ACTION 501(c)(4) IRS Form 990 Summary Source
ONE Homepage Source
ONE IRS Form 990 2011 Source
Oxfam America Advocacy Fund Source
RESULTS 501(c)(3) IRS Form 990 Source
RESULTS 501(c)(4) IRS Form 990 Summary Source
RESULTS Homepage Source
State and USAID – FY 2013 Budget Fact Sheet Source
The One Campaign 501(c)(3) IRS Form 990 Source
US Global Leadership Coalition 501(c)(3) IRS Form 990 Source
US Global Leadership Coalition 501(c)(4) IRS Form 990 Source


Land Use Reform

This is a writeup of a shallow investigation, a brief look at an area that we use to decide how to prioritize further research.

In a nutshell

What is the problem?

Local laws often prohibit the construction of dense new housing, which drives up prices, especially in a few large high-wage metropolitan areas. The increased prices transfer wealth from renters to landowners and push people away from centers of economic activity, which reduces their wages and total economic output, likely by a very large amount.

What are possible interventions?

Local organizations could directly advocate for municipal governments to permit more and denser development. Changes in the local decision-making process (e.g. “zoning budgets”) could increase the likelihood of policy outcomes that allow higher density. Shifting decision-making to larger administrative bodies, such as state governments, could reduce the influence of the narrow local interests that most often impose barriers to permitting additional density. We don’t have a strong sense of how a new funder might best promote these outcomes.

Who else is working on it?

Some major foundations support a variety of work related to affordable (subsidized) housing, but they usually do not focus on increasing supply more generally. Some local organizations support increased supply and allowing denser development, but these organizations are generally quite small.

1. What is the problem?

Local governments in the United States typically have a variety of laws that limit what kinds of building can be built in different places, including limits on how much total built floor area any given lot is allowed to contain.1 Our understanding is that one effect of these policies is to prevent the construction of dense housing.2 This drives up prices,3 and makes many people less productive by making it unaffordable for them to live close to centers of economic activity.4

Economists Edward Glaeser, Joseph Gyourko, and Raven Saks have compared the sale price of housing to the combined cost of construction and price of land in different cities to estimate the level of regulatory “tax” that drives up prices by limiting construction.5 They estimate that land use regulations increase housing prices by 19% in Boston, 34% in Los Angeles, 12% in New York, 53% in San Francisco, and 22% in Washington, DC, while estimates for other areas are generally much smaller (close to zero).6 The real estate website Zillow estimates that total residential rents in those metropolitan areas are around $120 billion/year, which implies that the “tax” on renters in those metropolitan areas amounts to roughly $30 billion per year.7 However, these figures do not represent straightforward welfare costs, since the “regulatory taxes” would be paid as inflated rents to owners. A rough back of the envelope calculation drawing on the same Glaeser et al. 2005 figures suggests that foregone housing consumption in the five large supply-restricted metropolitan areas might add up to over $600 billion in value, and that the deadweight loss in those areas might be around $100 billion.8

Allowing more people to move to a higher-wage higher-productivity area is also a way to increase overall productivity and earning potential in the economy. Economists Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti, in a working paper, estimate that these land use restrictions depress annual output by more than $2 trillion, and wages by more than $1 trillion, by restricting the movement of workers into more productive regions.9 In their model, a large majority of the foregone production is attributed to land use restrictions in New York, Washington, DC, Boston, San Francisco / San Jose, and Seattle. However, we regard this model as offering a conceptual upper bound on the gains to liberalizing land use restrictions, rather than a best guess, since its assumptions would require the majority of the US labor force to relocate to the few most productive regions for the gains to be realized.

2. What are possible interventions?

2.1 What policy changes could be helpful?

There are likely many types of policy changes that could reduce the harm caused by excessively restrictive local land use regulations. A few that have been mentioned to us include:

  • Local governments in high-wage high-regulation metropolitan areas could simply “upzone,” permitting more and denser development.
  • Local governments could change the process by which they decide how to regulate land use. For example, they could adopt a “zoning budget” targeting an overall level of housing growth, so that restrictions in one area would have to be balanced by expansions elsewhere.10 This would help align incentives of advocates for individual projects to support greater overall growth.
  • Decision-making in land use policy could be re-assigned from local to regional or state authorities, which would likely be less susceptible to neighborhood pressure to oppose new development.11

We don’t have a strong sense of which of these policies might be most helpful in addressing the problem.

2.2 Where can additional funding make a difference?

This cause seems not to have generated a lot of activity relative to our sense of its promise, which makes funding opportunities difficult to assess. Amongst other possibilities, a funder might be able to:

  • Support existing local groups or seed new groups in key housing markets.12
  • Fund a campaign to move land use decision-making power from the local to the regional or state level. We are not aware of any existing arrangements of this form in the United States, or of any active efforts to promote them, so this would likely be an exercise in “active funding.”13
  • Support the development of a policy consensus (for example, by convening conferences or sponsoring work on this issue in prominent think tanks).14 This would have the benefits of both encouraging coordination on this issue by policymakers, and improving our understanding of what policy changes are most likely to be beneficial.15

We don’t have a strong sense of which of these funding approaches might be most promising overall.

2.3 How likely is additional funding to make a difference?

We suspect that land use reform is unusually tractable for an issue of its importance, because:

  • The opposition to land use reform does not seem organized on any more than an ad hoc, local level, though it can be extremely strong at that level.16
  • Support for land use reform seems to cut across partisan boundaries.17
  • Some economists think that most of the harm caused by land use restrictions comes from a few very expensive metropolitan areas.18 If the need for reform is concentrated in a few key metropolitan areas, an advocacy effort with far less than universal coverage may achieve most of the potential benefits.
  • There are several interest groups that are potential allies on this issue. Groups that directly participate in development – e.g. real estate developers and construction workers – may benefit financially from laws that permit denser cities. Public employee unions may also benefit from increased municipal revenues in growing cities.19 Since land use reform would lower housing prices by increasing supply, in principle it ought to appeal to affordable housing advocates, though in practice the situation is complex; environmental advocacy groups appear to have a similarly ambiguous position.20

On the other hand, changing local policy may be difficult if land use restrictions are an economically rational response to the incentive by homeowners to protect the value of their investments.21

3. Who else is working on this?

Some major foundations support work around affordable housing, but we have not found a large campaign specifically around relaxing regulations to increase housing supply (see footnote for details).22 Some local organizations are supportive of, and in a few cases directly advocate for, permitting increased and denser development. Generally, these organizations are quite small.23

4. Questions for further investigation

Our research in this area has been relatively limited, and many important questions remain unanswered by our investigation. Further research on this cause might address:

  • How much room is there for national research or advocacy on this topic, given that actual progress on this issue is likely to be local or regional?
  • How feasible is it to support new groups in an area when there does not appear to be an existing organized effort to support?
  • What other interest groups could be most effectively mobilized in support of reform on this issue?
  • How likely are advocacy efforts to overcome existing opposition? How powerful are the contravening forces?

5. Our process

We decided to investigate this area because there appears to be an expert consensus that land use restrictions cause substantial economic harm, but little advocacy relative to its importance. The work of journalists such as Matthew Yglesias and Ryan Avent helped bring the issue to our attention.

We’ve spoken to roughly a dozen individuals in our exploration of this issue to date. Public notes are available from our conversations with:

6. Sources

Avent 2011 Source
Avent 2012 Source
Avent 2013 Source
Chen 2007 Source
Combined Value of US Homes to Top $25 Trillion in 2013, Zillow Source
Flanagan and Schwartz 2013 Source
GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with David Schleicher, May 15, 2014 Source
GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Gabriel Metcalf, March 31, 2014 Source
GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Stephen Smith, March 13, 2014 Source
Glaeser and Gyourko 2008 Source
Glaeser et al. 2005 Source
Grant Search: Housing – MacArthur Foundation Source
Grants Database Search Results: Metropolitan Opportunity Program, Ford Foundation Source
Hanushek and Quigley 1980 Source
Harding 2014 Source
Hines 1998 Source
Housing, MacArthur Foundation Source
Hsieh and Moretti 2014 Unpublished
Lean Urbanism: About Source
Metropolitan Opportunity, Ford Foundation Source
Noah 2013 Source
Promoting Metropolitan Land-Use Innovation, Ford Foundation Source
Saiz 2010 Source
Salam 2014 Source
San Francisco Metro Home Prices & Values, Zillow Source
Summers 2014 Source
Sustainable Environments, Surdna Foundation Source
The Equality of Opportunity Project Source
Total Rent Paid 2013 and 2014, Zillow Source
Transform Cities, The Rockefeller Foundation Source
Yglesias 2012 Source

Aid to Fragile and Conflict-Affected States

This is a writeup of a shallow investigation, a brief look at an area that we use to decide how to prioritize further research.

In a nutshell

  • What is the problem? In “fragile” states, the government lacks the capacity or legitimacy to perform basic functions, including the prevention of internal violent conflicts. Fragile states and associated violence seem to be both a cause and an effect of poverty. The proportion of the global poor living in fragile states is expected to increase from one-third now to two-thirds by 2030.
  • What are possible interventions? Possible interventions focus on conflict prevention and early warning, conflict mediation and negotiation, post-conflict peacebuilding, and technical assistance programs for building government capacity. We do not have a sense of which interventions are likely to be most effective or cost-effective.
  • Who else is working on it? In 2008 and 2009, funding from private foundations for preventing and resolving conflict totaled $67 million, and of that total, $33 million was for field work in conflict-affected areas. Total Official Development Assistance to all fragile states in 2010 was $50 billion, but it is not clear how much of this total was used for building government capacity or addressing violence.

1. What is the problem?

Extreme poverty is becoming increasingly concentrated in fragile states, in which the government lacks the ability to perform basic functions. The poorest residents of stable (i.e. not “fragile”) states like China and India have seen significant income gains since 1990.1 However, income growth for the poor in fragile states has been slower, even in fragile states rich enough to be classified as “middle-income.”2 These trends are expected to continue, resulting in the proportion of the global poor residing in fragile states increasing from one-third now to two-thirds in 2030.3

Weak governance and associated violence seems to be both a cause and effect of poverty.4 There is some evidence that income shocks due to drought in sub-Saharan Africa increase the likelihood of civil conflict in the following year, though we haven’t investigated it deeply.5 In turn, conflict may cause poverty through the destruction of household assets, the loss of foreign investment,6 and reduction in human capital due to inadequate nutrition, education, or work experience.7

In addition to likely impacts on the perpetuation of poverty, violence in fragile states directly causes enormous internal and external displacement and loss of life. Some recent (as of September 2014) examples include:

  • Over 190,000 deaths in the Syrian Civil War between March 2011 and April 2014;8
  • 2.5 million new refugees and 8.2 million people newly displaced within their countries in 2013 according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees;9
  • An estimated 178,300 deaths globally due to organized internal conflicts in 2012.10

Beyond direct injury and loss of life, violent conflicts are also associated with increased gender-based violence,11 psychological trauma, and damage to property and infrastructure.12

Because of the increasing concentration of poverty in fragile states and the huge humanitarian impacts of conflict, successfully preventing violent conflict or improving the capacity of fragile state institutions would be enormously valuable.

2. What are the possible interventions?

Interventions for fragile states generally seem to focus on preventing or mediating conflict, post-conflict peacebuilding, or building state capacity:13

  • Conflict prevention and early warning systems: Conflict prevention interventions vary widely. Some examples include: funding education programs promoting non-violence, supporting documentaries on groups working through conflicts,14 income security or insurance programs to prevent shocks,15 and proactive human rights monitoring programs.16 Some early warning systems analyze flows of weaponry and relationships between ethnic, religious, and political groups to anticipate where conflict may occur in the future.17 In the early 1990s, conflict prevention and early warning systems focused on national diplomacy, but our understanding is that more recently the focus has shifted to the local level.18
  • Conflict mediation and negotiation: Work in this area includes research on improving the effectiveness of negotiation19 and facilitating third-party mediation.20
  • Post-conflict peacebuilding: Many post-conflict interventions involve fieldwork, including leadership and communication training, reintegration programs for ex-soldiers and prisoners, assistance to groups lobbying for reparations, and women’s empowerment.21
  • Building state capacity: Outside actors have frequently attempted to provide technical assistance to fragile governments for developing stable state institutions, especially after conflicts. However, we have the tentative impression that many attempts to import bureaucratic best practices have not been successful, despite substantial aid spending.22

We currently do not have a strong sense of the effectiveness of these interventions, and do not feel that we have a particularly promising strategy for reaching confident judgments about their effectiveness.

3. Who else is working on it?

In 2008 and 2009, funding from private foundations for preventing and resolving conflict totaled $67 million, and of that total, $33 million was used for field work in conflict-affected areas.23 (These figures do not include funding for controlling and eliminating nuclear weapons, which GiveWell has examined in a separate shallow overview.) Field programs often focus on group mediation, working with victims of conflict, and women’s empowerment.24 Other strategies for preventing and resolving conflict include funding US-based advocacy organizations25 and funding conflict resolution research.26

Major private funders in this area included Humanity United, Skoll Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and MacArthur Foundation in 2008 and 2009.27 The Carnegie Corporation funded studies on conflict prevention in the early 1990s, and continues to fund conflict early warning systems.28

Net Official Development Assistance (ODA) to all fragile states from governments, international financial institutions, global funds, and UN agencies totaled $50 billion in 2010.29 About one-third of these funds usually go directly to the public sector.30 It is not clear what portion of these funds are used for technical assistance for developing state capacity or addressing violence. However, many official development aid agencies, particularly in Scandinavian countries, have substantial commitments to conflict prevention.31

Most ODA is delivered to a small number of fragile states, including Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Pakistan, while other fragile states are relatively neglected.32

4. Questions for further investigation

  • How can we most effectively learn about the effectiveness of conflict prevention, mediation, and reconciliation programs?
  • What are the most effective and cost-effective strategies a funder could pursue to strengthen fragile state institutions?
  • How much Official Development Assistance to fragile states directly addresses violent conflict?

5. Our process

We decided to look into this issue because of the increasing percentage of the global poor living in fragile states and our background perception of the large humanitarian costs of violent conflicts.

Our very limited investigation consisted primarily of conversations with a few experts on conflict resolution and fragile state interventions. Public notes are available from our conversations with:

  • Steve Riskin, Senior Program Officer, United States Institute of Peace
  • Darren Kew, Associate Professor, Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance, McCormack Graduate School, University of Massachusetts, Boston

We also did limited desk research on different types of interventions for fragile states and on engagement by other philanthropists in the field.

6. Sources

Blattman and Miguel 2009 Source (archive)
Chandy, Ledlie, and Penciakova 2013 Source (archive)
Economist 2013 Source (archive)
Foundations for Peace 2009 Source (archive)
GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Darren Kew, September 13, 2013 Source
GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Steve Riskin, November 26, 2013 Source
Kharas and Rogerson 2012 Source (archive)
Lockhart and Vincent 2013 Source (archive)
Miguel 2007 Source (archive)
OECD Factsheet 2013 Source (archive)
OECD Fragile States 2013 Source (archive)
Oslo Forum 2013 Source (archive)
Peace and Security Funders Group 2010 Source (archive)
Price, Gohdes, and Ball 2014 Source (archive)
Pritchett and de Weijer 2010 Source (archive)
PSFG Supplemental Information 2010 Source (archive)
UNHCR 2013 Source (archive)

Autonomous Vehicles

This is a writeup of a shallow investigation, a brief look at an area that we use to decide how to prioritize further research.

In a nutshell

  • Why did we decide to look into this area? Widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles may be able to save roughly ten thousand lives and a hundred billion dollars a year in the U.S., making their development a topic of substantial humanitarian significance. Autonomous vehicles will also likely have major impacts on urban planning and the advisability of various infrastructure projects, and we wondered whether the prospect of autonomous vehicles was being appropriately incorporated into long-term planning in these areas.
  • What did we learn? Other actors appear to largely have appropriate incentives to invest in research, development, and advocacy for effective policies around autonomous vehicles. The implications of autonomous vehicles for infrastructure projects and other long-term plans are very uncertain at this point, and are subject to increasing attention from urban planners and others. At this point, we do not see a major asymmetry between the importance of these issues and the funding and attention currently available, though we have very limited confidence in that judgment.

1. Why did we decide to look into this area?

We decided to look into this area for two reasons:

  • Widespread use of safe autonomous vehicles may eventually substantially reduce the rate of traffic accidents, which account for more than 30,000 deaths and an estimated $300 billion of economic costs annually in the U.S.1 Fagnant and Kockelman 2013 estimate that 50% market penetration of autonomous vehicles would save roughly $100 billion/year in economic costs and roughly 10,000 lives per year, though we have not vetted these estimates.2 Although we would guess that for-profit corporations have appropriate incentives to invest in research and development in this area, we wanted to confirm that impression and to investigate whether there might be other activities necessary for eventual widespread deployment of autonomous vehicles that were being overlooked.
  • The prospect of widespread use of autonomous vehicles may have implications for major infrastructure investment projects and other long-term social plans that are not being appropriately incorporated into existing analyses.3

2. Our process

We reviewed a number of reports about the state of autonomous vehicle technology and regulation and spoke with two people with knowledge of the field:

  • Daniel Fagnant, Assistant Professor at University of Utah (starting August 2014) and author of Fagnant and Kockelman 2013.
  • Bryant Walker Smith, Fellow, the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford and the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School; Lecturer, Stanford Law School.

3. What did we learn?

Our impression continues to be that for-profit corporations have appropriate incentives for pursuing most of the relevant research and development necessary for the deployment of autonomous vehicles.4 Although philanthropists may be better suited to supporting work on advocacy than research itself, many actors are already moving to regulate autonomous vehicles and appear to be doing so broadly in line with the public interest.5 The people we spoke with broadly seem to perceive the field of autonomous vehicle research to receive an appropriate amount of funding and attention,6 though Bryant Walker Smith noted a few areas that current actors may be overlooking.7 The long-term implications of autonomous vehicles currently seem to be too uncertain to warrant inclusion in planning to for major infrastructure projects and other long-term social investments, and the relevant professional communities appear to be paying increasing attention to the prospects for autonomous vehicles.8 Reports on autonomous vehicles lay out many areas for further research and policy development, and we expect that significantly more investment will be required in coming years.9 However, in our very limited review of this field, we did not see evidence of a clear asymmetry between current funding and importance, and we expect that more traditional automative research and policy funders will enter over time as these questions become more salient. Based on our current understanding, we see further investigation of other potential focus areas as a more promising use of our resources at the moment.

4. Questions for further investigation

Our research in this area has been very limited, and many important questions remain unanswered by our investigation.

Amongst other topics, further research on this cause might address:

  • How might additional funding for research accelerate development of autonomous vehicles?
  • What kinds of planning decisions should take the prospect of autonomous vehicles into account, and what role should that prospect play in decision-making? How important are the decisions that might be affected?
  • What types of research are best-suited for philanthropic, as opposed to government or for-profit, funding?

5. Sources

Anderson et al. 2014 Source (archive)
Fagnant and Kockelman 2013 Source (archive)
Notes from a conversation with Bryant Walker Smith on April 11, 2014 Source
Notes from a conversation with Daniel Fagnant on March 18, 2014 Source
Planning for Autonomous Driving Source (archive)
The Impact of Automation on Environmental Impact Statements Source (archive)

Broadband Policy

This is a writeup of a shallow investigation, a brief look at an area that we use to decide how to prioritize further research.

In a nutshell

What is the problem?

There are a number of questions about how broadband internet providers should be regulated. U.S. consumers appear to pay more for slower internet access than European consumers partially because of a lack of regulation, and regulators are currently deciding whether and how to implement “network neutrality” rules that would prevent providers from discriminating between different types of traffic.

What are possible interventions?

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) appears to have the authority to implement regulations to enforce network neutrality and open access to broadband networks. A funder could support a variety of advocacy or research efforts to encourage effective regulations.

Who else is working on it?

A number of nonprofits and major technology companies are advocating for the FCC to adopt regulations requiring network neutrality, and a smaller set of groups are advocating for regulation to address cost issues.

1. What is the problem?

We decided to look into the topic of broadband policy because of claims that:

  • Consumers in the U.S. typically pay more for slower access to broadband internet than in other countries.1
  • Network neutrality regulations (which prevent providers from discriminating between different types of network traffic), currently being discussed, are important for preserving the openness and vibrancy of the internet.2

Because broadband is a natural monopoly, it is plausible that a lack of regulation might lead to poor service and high prices.3 The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does not publish enough data on broadband pricing to estimate a mean price paid by all American consumers, but estimates by the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute suggest that U.S. broadband subscribers pay roughly $15/month more than European broadband subscribers, though with significant variability.4 Under the somewhat heroic assumption that these costs are accurately estimated,5 reaching cost parity with Europe (which may not be possible) would shift around $15 billion/year from broadband companies to consumers.6 It is difficult to estimate the deadweight loss from natural monopoly pricing, and we have not seen any estimates of those costs for broadband services in the U.S.

The humanitarian importance of network neutrality regulations is also difficult to ascertain. To the extent that an unregulated internet architecture would impair the conditions that made the internet so successful in the first place, the issue could be quite important. However, it is not clear to what extent neutral networks are necessary to maintain the value of the internet or to what extent regulations are required to preserve neutral networks. Network neutrality violations have historically been rare even when they appear to have been legally permissible (which seems to have been for much of the history of the internet).7

2. What are possible interventions?

There are a number of policy options available to address both broadband cost issues and network neutrality. Most notably, the FCC could reclassify broadband as a “telecommunications service,” which would grant it the legal authority to enforce net neutrality rules by regulating internet service providers as common carriers and to enforce open access provisions (which are said to lower broadband costs in other countries).8 The FCC is currently considering reclassification, along with other policy options.9

Other policy options might include:

  • The FCC could propose some other form of network neutrality regulation.
  • The FCC could force “the nineteen states that currently limit or ban municipalities from building local networks” to lift their restrictions on local infrastructure investment.10
  • Municipalities could build open access local broadband networks to compete with private providers.11

A funder interested in promoting any of these policies might support advocacy or research organizations working in the field. We do not have a sense of which advocacy activities might be most helpful or how cost-effective they might be.

3. Who else is working on this?

A number of constituencies are advocating in favor of network neutrality regulations:12

  • Public interest technology and communications groups, including Free Press, Public Knowledge, the Center for Democracy and Technology, New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, the Benton Foundation, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. A number of other advocacy groups have signed onto an open letter supporting net neutrality regulations.13
  • Community-focused institutions, including the Schools, Health, and Libraries Broadband Coalition and the American Library Association
  • Consumer protection groups, including the Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America.
  • Groups focused on social justice in the media, such as the National Hispanic Media Coalition and the Media Action Grassroots Network.
  • Foundations, including the Ford Foundation and the Knight Foundation.
  • Former FCC commissioner Michael Copps, who now serves as Special Advisor to the Media and Democracy Reform Initiative at Common Cause.

Though the most frequent mentions of “network neutrality” in lobbying disclosure reports have been by major telecommunications providers and trade associations that oppose net neutrality, a number of major technology companies (such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Netflix, and Twitter) have also lobbied for and support net neutrality regulations.14

4. Questions for further investigation

Our research in this area has been relatively limited, and many important questions remain unanswered by our investigation.

Amongst other topics, further research on this cause might address:

  • How likely and how harmful are network neutrality abuses likely to be in the absence of regulation?
  • What degree of resources are for-profit and non-profit advocates for net neutrality and open access policies (which are designed to increase competition and reduce costs) devoting to the issue? Are there important gaps in the advocacy infrastructure on either issue?
  • What does the landscape for municipal broadband efforts look like? What are the benefits and costs of open access municipal networks?

5. Our process

We rely heavily on a conversation with Patrick Lucey and Danielle Kehl of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute.

6. Sources

Lee 2014 Source (archive)
Leichtman Research Group 2014 Source (archive)
Open Technology Institute 2013 Source (archive)
Notes from a conversation with Patrick Lucey and Danielle Kehl on March 19, 2014 Source
Organizations Supporting Net Neutrality May 2014 Source (archive)
Furnas and Drutman 2014 Source (archive)
Engine 2014 Source (archive)

Improving Funding Allocation within HIV/AIDS Programs in Developing Countries

This is a writeup of a shallow investigation, a brief look at an area that we use to decide how to prioritize further research.

In a nutshell

  • What is the problem? HIV control and treatment receives substantial funding, but much of it may be spent suboptimally.
  • Who else is working on this? The Gates Foundation has provided some funding to projects aiming to improve the allocation of HIV funding overall, and a number of smaller organizations have worked on specific aspects of the issue, but we do not know the extent of funding in the area.
  • What could a new philanthropist do? Pressuring major funders to improve the impact of their spending and supporting those funders and other organizations to collect data on the burden of the disease and the effectiveness of different interventions may help to increase the impact of HIV funding.

1. What is the problem?

Global HIV treatment and control is supported by roughly $15 billion in annual funding, but much of the spending in the area may be allocated suboptimally.1 Because of the amount of money involved, improving the allocation of spending in this area may have a significant humanitarian impact.

Examples of potentially suboptimal spending include:

  • Substantial funding goes to interventions with limited evidence, such as abstinence promotion. On the other hand, male circumcision – which has stronger evidence – remains under-funded.2 The WHO has a target of providing voluntary male circumcision to 80% of uncircumcised adult men in fourteen priority countries in Africa, at a cost of approximately $1.5 billion (~20 million circumcisions).3 As of December 2012, 3.2 million African men had been circumcised through specific services for voluntary circumcision.4
  • Despite the fact that first-line drug regimens are more cost-effective than second- and third-line treatments, funders are paying for existing patients to move to second-and third-line treatments while substantial demand for first-line treatment still remains.5
  • The optimal variety of medication is not always used. For example, the drug formulation most commonly used for first-line treatment in South Africa is more costly and less efficacious than other drugs which serve the same purpose.6
  • Interventions often aren’t effectively targeted, either to the locations which could be helped most cost-effectively or to the demographics within a given area that have the highest needs.7
  • Funders frequently use US contractors to deliver services when working with country-based organizations might be less costly.8

A hurdle to improving HIV spending is that there is a shortage of data available on how money is being spent and on which interventions are working. This appears to be because the large funders collect limited data on the effectiveness of their programs and do not share much data on their interventions or on their budgets. According to Amanda Glassman, Director of Global Health Policy at the Center for Global Development, “It is not possible to track spending on HIV treatment and prevention by intervention, since large organizations working on HIV don’t collect or share sufficient information and the field has poor reporting standards.”9

2. Who else is working on this?

According to Dr. Glassman and Anil Soni, former CEO of the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI), PEPFAR and the Global Fund want to improve the impact of their own spending – including by restricting funding to effective interventions, more closely tracking their costs, and switching to country-based technical assistance rather than high-cost US contractors – but it is unclear to what extent changes will happen in practice.10

The Gates Foundation has provided some funding to address this issue, including supporting a group of economic experts at the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS to focus on efficiency and sustainability.11

A number of other organizations have done some work on specific aspects of HIV spending, including:12

The American Foundation for AIDS Research
The International Budget Partnership project at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation
The World Bank, which does public expenditure tracking and measures and maps service delivery, although not specifically focused on HIV spending.
Some civic groups within African countries, which monitor HIV treatment programs

There are also a number of academics who have researched and worked on efficiency issues in HIV spending.13

We do not have an estimate of the amount of funding working on this issue.

3. What could a new philanthropist do?

Possible philanthropic approaches include:14

  • Supporting groups that monitor intervention coverage and quality within target countries.
  • Funding the collection of better epidemiological data so that interventions can be targeted more accurately to the demographics or the locations with the highest need.
  • Pushing for specific interventions that are cost-effective and supported by evidence, such as male circumcision.
  • Running large scale trials to determine and demonstrate which interventions are most effective.
  • Working with countries to help them better allocate the funding they receive from the major funders.
  • Pressuring the HIV community to improve data sharing and to spend money more efficiently. This might involve funding a group like the Center for Global Development to research and write about this issue or donating enough money to a large organization such as the Global Fund to secure a seat on its board.
  • Aiding countries in reallocating HIV-focused vertical funds to approaches that promote health more broadly.15

We do not have a strong sense of the likely effectiveness or cost-effectiveness of these different approaches.

4. Questions for further investigation

Our research in this area has been limited, and many important questions remain unanswered by our investigation.

Amongst other topics, further research on this cause might address:

  • Which strategies to improve funding allocation for HIV/AIDS programs are most cost-effective?
  • How large are the possible gains from reallocating HIV-related spending? How does the expected cost-effectiveness of improving funding allocation for HIV/AIDS programs compare to the expected cost-effectiveness of advocating for increased funding for HIV/AIDS programs?
  • To what extent might the Global Fund and PEPFAR improve their transparency and spending on their own over the next few years?

5. Our process

For this investigation, we had conversations with 3 individuals with knowledge of the field, including:

  • Anil Soni, former CEO, Clinton Health Access Initiative
  • Amanda Glassman, Director of Global Health Policy and Senior Fellow, Center for Global Development

We also reviewed documents that those individuals pointed us to and conducted a limited amount of desk research.

6. Sources

Center for Global Development Financial Flows of PEPFAR report Source (archive)
Center for Global Development More Health for the Money Report Source (archive)
Conversation with Amanda Glassman on December 13, 2013 Source
Conversation with Anil Soni on October 18, 2012 Source
UNAIDS report on the global AIDS epidemic 2013 Source (archive)
WHO voluntary medical male circumcision for HIV prevention fact sheet Source (archive)

Global Catastrophic Risks

This is a writeup of a shallow investigation, a brief look at an area that we use to decide how to prioritize further research.

In a nutshell

What is the problem?

Some relatively low-probability risks, such as a major pandemic or nuclear war, could carry disastrous consequences, making their overall expected harm substantial. Because such occurrences are unprecedented and relatively unlikely, they may not receive adequate attention from other actors. While we do not have credible estimates of the likelihood of these risks, some seem to be non-trivial.

What are possible interventions?

A philanthropist could focus on individual risks, such as nuclear or biological weapons, or on global catastrophic risks in general. We feel that we have a somewhat better understanding of the potential impact of philanthropy on individual risks, but do not have a sense of whether it would be better to focus on individual risks or on the general category of global catastrophic risks. This page focuses on the latter.

Who else is working on it?

A few small organizations, with budgets totaling a few million dollars a year, focus on the general topic of global catastrophic risks (as opposed to individual risks).

1. What is the problem?

We use the term “global catastrophic risk” on this page to refer to risks that could be bad enough to change the very long-term trajectory of humanity in a less favorable direction (e.g. ranging from a dramatic slowdown in the improvement of global standards of living to the end of industrial civilization or human extinction).1 Such risks might include an asteroid striking earth, an extremely large volcanic eruption, extreme climate change, or, conceivably, a threat from a novel technology, such as intelligent machines, an engineered pathogen, or nanotechnology.2

We are not aware of any reliable estimates of the overall magnitude of these global catastrophic risks.3 Naive estimates suggest that the probabilities of “natural” global catastrophic risks such as those from extremely large asteroid impacts or volcanic eruptions are likely to be low.4 We would guess, though with very limited confidence, that risks of global catastrophe from novel human technology are significantly higher, and are likely to grow in the coming decades.5

Some prominent philosophers have argued that global catastrophic risks are especially worthy of attention, suggesting that cutting short the potentially extraordinarily long future of humanity would be worse than nearly any other outcome.6

Even if the potential impacts of a global risk are not large enough to significantly curtail human flourishing over centuries, it may still be a good fit for philanthropic attention, because other actors (governments, for-profits, etc.) may not have sufficient incentive to address highly uncertain, low-probability risks whose potential consequences would be widely shared.

We have discussed a number of potential global catastrophic risks in separate shallow investigations:

On this page, we focus on groups and interventions that are explicitly aiming to address global catastrophic risks as a whole, rather than focusing on one particular type of risk. We do not have a strong view on whether work on particular risks or work across risks is likely to be more effective.

2. What are possible interventions?

We do not have a good sense of which interventions focused on the general category of global catastrophic risk (as opposed to a particular risk) might be most effective.

Some areas of focus might include, amongst others:7

  • Decreasing the likelihood of major global conflicts.
  • Improving resilience to unexpected shocks of all kinds, such as by increasing the amount of food and other supplies that are stockpiled globally or by strengthening support networks between countries.
  • Safeguarding people and knowledge to increase the chances that civilization could be rebuilt in the wake of a global catastrophe.
  • Regulating novel technology to avoid a potentially catastrophic deployment.
  • Supporting research to better understand the level and distribution of global catastrophic risks and the potential returns to specific or cross-cutting efforts to mitigate such risks.
  • Advocating for other actors to take greater action on global catastrophic risks.

We do not have a strong understanding of how additional funding in this area would translate into reductions in risk, or of the track record of existing organizations in this field.

3. Who else is working on this?

A few organizations are explicitly focused on reducing global catastrophic risks broadly. Such organizations include:8

  • Future of Humanity Institute (affiliated with the University of Oxford)
  • Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (affiliated with the University of Cambridge)
  • Global Catastrophic Risk Institute
  • Machine Intelligence Research Institute
  • Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies
  • Lifeboat Foundation
  • Global Challenges Foundation

Our understanding is that these groups are quite small in terms of staff and budget, with the Future of Humanity Institute and Machine Intelligence Research Institute being the largest, each with an annual budget of about $1.1 million.9

The Skoll Global Threats Fund, which made grants worth roughly $10 million in 2011, primarily on climate change, has also supported work on other potential global catastrophic risks, including nuclear weapons and pandemics.10

We would guess that some government bodies are also tracking and devoting resources to addressing multiple risks, though we don’t have a sense of the magnitude of resources involved.

4. Questions for further investigation

Our research in this area has been relatively limited, and many important questions remain unanswered by our investigation.

Amongst other topics, further research on this cause might address:

  • Which interventions focused on the general category of global catastrophic risk might be most effective in reducing the total amount of global catastrophic risk?
  • Is it possible to generate more credible estimates of the overall likelihood of particular global catastrophic risks, or of the sum thereof?
  • Should a philanthropist concerned about global catastrophic risks focus on one or more particular risks, or on cross-cutting global catastrophic risk research, advocacy, or preparation?
  • What degree of ethical weight does the far future warrant? How should we understand the value of preserving the possibility of a very long future?

5. Our process

Our investigation to date has been rather cursory, mainly consisting of conversations with two individuals with knowledge of the field:

In addition to these conversations, we also reviewed documents that were shared with us.

6. Sources

Notes from a conversation with Carl Shulman on September 25, 2013 Source
Notes from a conversation with Seth Baum on October 2, 2013 Source
Barnosky et al. 2011 Source (archive)
Bostrom 2013 Source (archive)
Skoll Global Threats Fund 2011 Form 990 Source (archive)
MIRI 2012 Form 990 Source (archive)