Botswana-Harvard AIDS Institute – Early detection of preterm births

Att 2_ Caption - Team in Action

Image courtesy of Botswana-Harvard AIDS Institute

Open Philanthropy recommended a grant of $90,000 to the Botswana–Harvard AIDS Institute to support an NIH-funded study led by Dr. Jeff Klausner. This study is investigating the early diagnosis and treatment of Chlamydia trachomatis and Neisseria gonorrhea in pregnant women in order to prevent adverse neonatal outcomes. This grant will cover cost overruns caused by COVID-19.

This falls within our focus area of scientific research, specifically within our interest in advancing human health and wellbeing.

New Shallow Investigations: Telecommunications and Civil Conflict Reduction

We recently published two shallow investigations on potential focus areas to the Effective Altruism Forum. Shallow investigations, which are part of our cause selection process, are mainly intended as quick writeups for internal audiences and aren’t optimized for public consumption. However, we’re sharing these two publicly in case others find them useful.

The default outcome for shallow investigations is that we do not move forward to a deeper investigation or grantmaking, though we investigate further when results are particularly promising.

If you have thoughts or questions on either of these investigations, please use this feedback form or leave a comment on the EA Forum.


Telecommunications in Low and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs)

By Research Fellow Lauren Gilbert (EA Forum link)

  • Lauren finds that expanding cellular phone and internet access appears to cost-effectively increase incomes. Randomized trials and quasi-experimental studies in LMICs showed that gaining internet access led to substantial increases in income, with high social returns on investment.
    • We find these reported effects surprisingly large, and are continuing to dig into them more.
  • Lauren estimates that 3-9% of the world’s population do not have access to cellular service, and ~40% of the world’s population either have no access to mobile internet or do not use it. Lauren finds that the biggest barrier to usage is the cost of devices and coverage. These coverage gaps and costs are shrinking over time.
  • A large majority of spending on telecommunications is private/commercial, with a smaller amount of philanthropic spending. While the private investments are large, they aren’t as focused as a philanthropist might be on improving access for poor and rural communities.
  • Philanthropists could potentially help improve access by subsidizing investments in cell phone towers to improve coverage, and in internet cables to reduce the cost of internet. Lauren’s rough back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that these investments may be cost-effective. A funder could also potentially lobby for policy changes to reduce costs — for example, reducing tariffs on imported electronics or changing the rules around how spectrum can be licensed.

Civil Conflict Reduction

Also by Lauren Gilbert (EA Forum link)

  • Civil conflict is a very important problem. Lauren estimates that civil wars directly and indirectly cause the loss of around 1/2 as many disability-adjusted life years as malaria and neglected tropical diseases combined. Civil wars also substantially impede economic growth, mostly in countries that are already very poor. 
  • While civil conflict is important and arguably neglected, it isn’t clear how tractable it is. However, some interventions have shown promise.
    • Lauren finds some evidence that UN peacekeeping missions are effective, and argues philanthropists could lobby for more funding.
    • Some micro-level interventions, such as mediation or cognitive behavioral therapy, also have suggestive empirical evidence behind them. Philanthropists could fund more research into these interventions.

Incoming Program Officer for Effective Altruism Community Building (Global Health and Wellbeing): James Snowden

Earlier this year, I wrote that Open Philanthropy was looking for someone to help us direct funding for our newest cause area:

We are searching for a program officer to help us launch a new grantmaking program. The program would support projects and organizations in the effective altruism community (EA) with a focus on improving global health and wellbeing (GHW) […] We’re looking to hire someone who is very familiar with the EA community, has ideas about how to grow and develop it, and is passionate about supporting projects in global health and wellbeing.

Today, I’m excited to announce that we’ve hired a Program Officer who exemplifies these qualities: James Snowden.

 

About James

James spent his last 5+ years as a researcher and program officer at GiveWell; in the latter role, he led GiveWell’s work on policy and advocacy. Before GiveWell, he worked at the Centre for Effective Altruism and as a strategy consultant. He holds a B.A. in philosophy, politics and economics from Oxford University and an M.Sc. in philosophy and economics from the London School of Economics.

You can hear a sample of how James thinks in this podcast interview, and read some of his work on GiveWell’s blog.

 

What James might work on

We’ve already made a few grants to EA projects that were highly promising from a GHW perspective, including Charity Entrepreneurship (supporting the creation of new animal welfare charities) and Founders Pledge (increasing donations from entrepreneurs to outstanding charities). 

Areas of potential interest include:

  • Increasing engagement with effective altruism in a broader range of countries
  • Encouraging charitable donations to effective organizations working in GHW-related areas
  • Incubating new ideas for highly impactful charities
  • Creating resources to facilitate impactful career decisions within GHW

We still have a lot of growth ahead of us and will be expanding to start more programs in the coming months and years — check out our jobs page if you’re interested in helping drive that growth!

Jeanne Marchig Centre — Farm Animal Welfare Advocacy in East Asia and the Philippines

Open Philanthropy recommended a grant of $555,000 over two years to the Jeanne Marchig International Centre for Animal Welfare Education at the University of Edinburgh to support its work to improve farm animal welfare in East Asia. The Centre plans to continue hosting workshops for pig producers, begin poultry workshops (focusing specifically on retailers), and develop animal welfare material for academics. It also plans to expand its model into the Philippines, recruiting a farmed animal welfare PhD student and delivering training and workshops to pig and poultry producers.

This follows our February 2019 support and falls within our focus area of farm animal welfare.

University Of Science Technical And Technologies De Bamako — Malaria Vaccine Clinical Trial (Alassane Dicko)

Open Philanthropy recommended a grant of $630,123 over three years to the University Of Science Technical And Technologies De Bamako to participate in a phase III clinical trial of a malaria vaccine developed by the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford. Dr. Alassane Dicko will serve as the University’s principal investigator. The trial, funded by the Serum Institute of India, will be conducted in collaboration with the Institut des Sciences et Techniques, Bobo-Dioulasso; the Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé; the KEMRI Wellcome Trust Research Programme; and the Ifakara Health Institute.

This falls within our focus area of scientific research, specifically within our interest in advancing human health and wellbeing.

Institut des Sciences et Techniques, Bobo-Dioulasso — Malaria Vaccine Clinical Trial (Jean Bosco Ouedraogo)

Open Philanthropy recommended a grant of $631,162 over three years to the Institut des Sciences et Techniques, Bobo-Dioulasso to participate in a phase III clinical trial of a malaria vaccine developed by the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford. Dr. Jean Bosco Ouedraogo will serve as the Institut’s principal investigator. The trial, funded by the Serum Institute of India, will be conducted in collaboration with the University Of Science Technical And Technologies De Bamako, the Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé, the KEMRI Wellcome Trust Research Programme, and the Ifakara Health Institute.

This falls within our focus area of scientific research, specifically within our interest in advancing human health and wellbeing.

Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé — Malaria Vaccine Clinical Trial (Halidou Tinto)

Open Philanthropy recommended a grant of $630,123 over three years to the Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé to participate in a phase III clinical trial of a malaria vaccine developed by the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford. Dr. Halidou Tinto will serve as the Institut’s principal investigator. The trial, funded by the Serum Institute of India, will be conducted in collaboration with the University Of Science Technical And Technologies De Bamako; the Institut des Sciences et Techniques, Bobo-Dioulasso; the KEMRI Wellcome Trust Research Programme; and the Ifakara Health Institute.

This falls within our focus area of scientific research, specifically within our interest in advancing human health and wellbeing.

KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme — Malaria Vaccine Clinical Trial (Philip Bejon)

Open Philanthropy recommended a grant of $472,016 over three years to The KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme to participate in a phase III clinical trial of a malaria vaccine developed by the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford.  Dr. Philip Bejon will serve as the Programme’s principal investigator. The trial, funded by the Serum Institute of India, will be conducted in collaboration with the University Of Science Technical And Technologies De Bamako; the Institut des Sciences et Techniques, Bobo-Dioulasso; the Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé; and the Ifakara Health Institute.

This falls within our focus area of scientific research, specifically within our interest in advancing human health and wellbeing.

Report on Social Returns to Productivity Growth

Historically, economic growth has had huge social benefits, lifting billions out of poverty and improving health outcomes around the world. This leads some to argue that accelerating economic growth, or at least productivity growth,[1]If environmental constraints require that we reduce our use of various natural resources, productivity growth can allow us to maintain our standards of living while using fewer of these scarce inputs. should be a major philanthropic and social priority going forward.[2]For example: in Stubborn Attachments, Tyler Cowen argues that the best way to improve the long-run future is to maximize the rate of sustainable economic growth. A similar view is held by many of those involved in the Progress Studies community.

I’ve written a report in which I evaluate this view in order to inform Open Philanthropy’s Global Health and Wellbeing (GHW) grantmaking. Specifically, I use a relatively simple model to estimate the social returns to directly funding research and development (R&D). I focus on R&D spending because it seems like a particularly promising way to accelerate productivity growth, but I think broadly similar conclusions would apply to other innovative activities.

My estimate, which draws heavily on the methodology of Jones and Summers (2020), asks two primary questions:

  1. How much would a little bit of extra R&D today increase people’s incomes into the future, holding fixed the amount of R&D conducted at later times?[3]An example of an intervention causing a temporary boost in R&D activity would be to fund some researchers for a limited period of time. Another example would be to bring forward in time a policy change that permanently increases the number of researchers.
  2. How much welfare is produced by this increase in income?

In brief, I find that:

  • The social returns to marginal R&D are high, but typically not as high as the returns in other areas we’re interested in. Measured in our units of impact (where “1x” is giving cash to someone earning $50k/year) I estimate that the cost-effectiveness of funding R&D is 45x. This is ~4% as impactful as the (roughly 1,000x) GHW bar for funding.
    • Put another way, I estimate that $20 billion to “average” R&D has the same welfare benefit as increasing the incomes of 180 million people by 10% each for one year.
    • That said, the best R&D projects might have much higher returns. So could projects aimed at increasing the amount of R&D (for example, improving science policy).
    • This estimate is very rough, and I could readily imagine it being off by a factor of 2-3 in either direction, even before accounting for the limitations below.
  • Returns to R&D were plausibly much higher in the past. This is because R&D was much more neglected, and because of feedback loops where R&D increased the amount of R&D occurring at later times.
  • My estimate has many important limitations. For example, it omits potential downsides to R&D (e.g. increasing global catastrophic risks), and it focuses on a specific scenario in which historical rates of return to R&D continue to apply even as population growth stagnates.
    • Alternative scenarios might change the bottom line. For instance, R&D today might speed up the development of some future technology that drastically accelerates R&D progress. This would significantly increase the returns to R&D, but in my view would also strengthen the case for Open Phil to focus on reducing risks from that technology rather than accelerating its development.

Overall, the model implies that the best R&D-related projects might be above our GHW bar, but it also leaves us relatively skeptical of arguments that accelerating innovation should be the primary social priority going forward. 

In the full report, I also discuss:

  • How alternative scenarios might affect social returns to R&D.
  • What these returns might have looked like in the year 1800.
  • How my estimates compare to those of economics papers that use statistical techniques to estimate returns to R&D growth.
  • The ways in which my current views differ from those of certain thinkers in the Progress Studies movement.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 If environmental constraints require that we reduce our use of various natural resources, productivity growth can allow us to maintain our standards of living while using fewer of these scarce inputs.
2 For example: in Stubborn Attachments, Tyler Cowen argues that the best way to improve the long-run future is to maximize the rate of sustainable economic growth. A similar view is held by many of those involved in the Progress Studies community.
3 An example of an intervention causing a temporary boost in R&D activity would be to fund some researchers for a limited period of time. Another example would be to bring forward in time a policy change that permanently increases the number of researchers.