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Center for Applied Rationality — SPARC

Students at the Summer Program on Applied Rationality and Cognition in 2014. (Photo courtesy of SPARC)
Organization Name 
Award Date 
Grant Amount 
To support SPARC
Topic (focus area) 

Published: July 2016

SPARC staff reviewed this page prior to publication.

The Open Philanthropy Project recommended a grant of $304,000 over two years ($137,000 in 2016 and $167,000 in 2017) to the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR) to support the Summer Program on Applied Rationality and Cognition (SPARC).

SPARC is a two-week summer program for high school students. Students selected to participate in the program typically show exceptional ability in mathematics, with many scoring highly among US participants in national or international math competitions.

Our decision to recommend this grant is based in large part on our positive opinions of several SPARC instructors, and on our positive impression of the program as a whole. We expect that this program will expand the horizons of some students with extremely high potential and, hopefully, increase their positive impact on the world. We are especially interested in the possibility that participation in SPARC leads to greater awareness of effective altruism and issues important to the effective altruism community, including potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence. We also expect that this grant will allow the people who currently attend to SPARC’s logistical needs - several of whom we believe do important other work - to spend more time on other projects.


The cause

This is one of a small number of grants that we expect to make in 2016 to support organizations within the effective altruism (EA) community, as we wrote in our plan for 2016.

The organization

The Summer Program in Applied Rationality and Cognition (SPARC) is fiscally sponsored by the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR). SPARC has existed for three years and currently has no full-time dedicated staff. Key people involved in running the program include:

  • Paul Christiano – SPARC Program Manager and PhD candidate in computer science at UC Berkeley
  • Andrew Critch – Curriculum Consultant and Cofounder, CFAR; Research Fellow, Machine Intelligence Research Institute
  • Anna Salamon – Executive Director and Cofounder, CFAR
  • Jacob Steinhardt – Graduate student in artificial intelligence at Stanford University
  • Yan Zhang – Curriculum Consultant, CFAR; Morrey Visiting Assistant Professor of Mathematics at UC Berkeley

With the exception of Anna Salamon, none of these individuals are compensated for their work on SPARC. Ms. Salamon’s primary responsibility is CFAR rather than SPARC in particular, and our understanding is that she does not spend much more time on SPARC than the other instructors, who serve on a volunteer basis.

About the grant

Budget and room for more funding

SPARC’s total budget was approximately $90,000 in 2015.1 This grant will allow it to cover alumni events, travel reimbursement, unexpected contingencies, and some of the expenses associated with hiring a full-time logistics manager, as well as half of the salary and benefits for the new logistics manager, with the other half paid out of CFAR’s general budget. Our understanding is that the two years of support provided by this grant will be sufficient to enable SPARC to hire the new logistics manager and that a third year of support would not materially affect SPARC’s planning.

SPARC currently does not have a reserve fund of any kind. It is our understanding that this level of support will enable SPARC to hold in reserve donations from corporate sponsors, which it estimates will be in the low tens of thousands of dollars per year. It will also receive approximately $30,000 in both 2016 and 2017 from the Future of Life Institute (FLI) as part of a three-year grant FLI made to SPARC in 2015.2

SPARC has received some limited corporate funding in the past. Jacob Steinhardt leads SPARC’s corporate fundraising efforts. Mr. Steinhardt told us that, without our support, SPARC would not be able to pay for 50% of the expenses associated with a full-time logistics manager and that he would need to spend additional time fundraising to secure funding from other corporate sponsors to cover other costs, and would potentially not succeed in raising sufficient funding.

Case for the grant

SPARC has only existed for three years, and the students who participate are in high school, which makes it difficult for us to assess its impact to date. Nonetheless, based on our positive impressions of the instructors and on conversations with contacts of ours who are familiar with the camp, we believe the program is strong, with the potential to have a substantial impact. It is clear to us, based on the background of students accepted to the program in previous years, that SPARC attracts unusually talented students. In addition, we think very highly of several of the instructors who work at SPARC, some of whom also show strong interest in effective altruism. For these reasons, we think it is reasonable to expect that helping SPARC grow into a stronger program could lead to increased interest in effective altruism, and therefore in causes we are likely to support, among some of the most mathematically talented young people in the US.

Risks and reservations about this grant

Our primary reservation about this grant is that the new logistics staff member will work for and be managed by CFAR. We have some reservations about CFAR’s management capabilities, and therefore are somewhat concerned about how effective this staff member will be able to be.

Plans for learning and follow-up

Goals for the grant

We have several goals for this grant:

  1. Reducing the amount of time spent handling SPARC’s logistics by Mr. Steinhardt, Mr. Christiano, and other SPARC staff, allowing them to focus on other work.

  2. Helping SPARC to become better-organized.
  3. Allowing SPARC to hold additional events for its alumni, which we believe could increase the impact the program has on participants.
  4. Helping SPARC to become a more flexible organization by providing it with cash reserves.
  5. Building the capacity for future expansions of SPARC.
  6. Making SPARC less dependent on the current principal SPARC volunteers in the future.

Key questions for follow-up

We intend to follow up with SPARC about a number of key questions after the grant is made:

  1. Who was hired to fill the logistics manager role and how is this person performing?

  2. Who is managing the new staff member and is that management effective?
  3. What has SPARC been able to accomplish, that it might not have been able to before, due to the new logistics manager?
  4. How much time has the logistics manager saved the SPARC principals?
  5. What were the results of SPARC’s corporate fundraising efforts?

Our process

Nick Beckstead, our Program Officer for Scientific Research, spoke with members of SPARC’s staff regarding its program, finances, and future plans.


FLI, 2015 Project Grants Recommended for FundingSource (archive)
SPARC, Statement of FinancesSource
  • 1. SPARC, Statement of Finances
  • 2. “Project Summary: The impact of AI on society depends not only on the technical state of AI research, but also its sociological state. Thus, in addition to current AI safety research, we must also ensure that the next generation of AI researchers is composed of thoughtful, intelligent, safety-conscious individuals. The more the AI community as a whole consists of such skilled, broad-minded reasoners, the more likely AI is to be developed in a safe and beneficial manner.
    Therefore, we propose running a summer program for extraordinarily gifted high school students (such as competitors from the International Mathematics Olympiad), with an emphasis on artificial intelligence, cognitive debiasing, and choosing a high-positive-impact career path, including AI safety research as a primary consideration. Many of our classes will be about AI and related technical areas, with two classes specifically about the impacts of AI on society.” FLI, 2015 Project Grants Recommended for Funding