Blog post

Our research goals for the next few months

5 min read
27 Dec 2012

Giving What We Can recently produced a strategic plan for the next six months, including for its research. This plan has been discussed and improved after meetings with an external advisory committee and our trustees.

We are blessed with a wide range of promising research questions, which means the challenge has been picking out the best ones. Those we considered properly are listed in full at the bottom of this post.

Some highlights for what we hope to achieve over the next two to four months are:

  • Start using an online discussion board to coordinate and build our growing research team, and encourage greater autonomy among participants. This will complement a new discussion board for members.
  • Produce and run several training sessions for volunteers to help them understand the approach we use, including its strengths and weaknesses.
  • Finish papers on:
  1. the strengths and weaknesses of existing analyses of climate change
  2. making estimates when you are uncertain about many things
  3. why we don't think we should have any 'pure time preference'
  4. the expected returns on financial investment, and others valuable additions to our advice on 'giving now vs giving later' (yet to be determined)
  5. the kinds of strategies that provide 'leverage', their likely strengths and weaknesses, and how they can be identified.
  • If we have time, I also hope to
  1. write on whether we should place less weight on the death of infants relative to older children
  2. finish, or at least start, a survey of the meta-charities, like GWWC, that exist including their methodologies and recommendations
  • Revise our education, TB, hygiene and sanitation, migration, climate change and maternal health pages, and upload new pages on biomedical research and meta-charity.
  • Update the data and method used in our 'how rich are you' calculator to accommodate the latest research.
  • Maintain the flow of at least 1 research focussed blog post each week.
  • Come to a conclusion on whether to recommend ACTION at this point.
  • Complete an initial analysis of Project Healthy Children, and Hilleman Laboratories, or another two organisations who are willing to participate.
  • Explore how we could help find funding for WHO-CHOICE, should they require it to complete a major piece of research, and also explore a possible collaboration with New Philanthropy Capital.

As this list suggests, GWWC has decided to experiment with fewer in-depth evaluations of charities over the next 3-6 months. There are several considerations behind this:

  • Such projects are highly time consuming and difficult to do 'part time';
  • We have identified a number of crucial methodological or theoretical questions which we expect will provide a higher return for each hour we invest in them, and which are more suited to our skills;
  • Thanks to the extensive work done by GiveWell in investigating two of our current recommendations, it will be challenging to find a charity that is reliably better with our current resources.

Nonetheless, a significant number of charities which use potentially high-leverage approaches have still never been analysed for cost effectiveness or room for more funding, so we intend to continue surveying these options. Having done so, we could either investigate further ourselves should a very compelling option showed up, or encourage another organisation to do so. Within four months we will reassess whether this reorientation is delivering the results we hope.

I hope this provides some insight into where we hope to go in the medium term. These plans remain flexible depending on what seems valuable and possible, so get in touch if you would like to offer feedback.

And with that, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a rambunctious New Year's celebration. I look forward to returning full of energy for further fascinating research and I hope you also look forward to either participating in or reading it!

Some extra details on the projects we considered

We talked through 11 different research areas, and rated them on the following criteria:

  • How valuable is the resulting information?
  • How difficult will it be to make progress?
  • How urgent is answering this question?
  • How much will working on this topic help to grow Giving What We Can, and other projects in the effective altruist movement?
  • How personally interested are we in this topic?
  • Is this a prerequisite for other research we want to do?
  • Given the above, do we think we should be working on this topic now?

The topics are below, with those we rated in bold.

1. Charity evaluation

  • Further detailed research into charities in neglected areas such as we have attempting with ACTION and others.
  • Doing simple analysis of previously unconsidered charities in order to see if they are worth us or someone else investigating in more detail (similar to Back of the Envelope Guide to Philanthropy)

2. Methodological questions

  • Meta: Economic growth issues
  1. What interventions cause GDP growth?
  2. What spillovers are there from policies in rich countries to poor countries?
  3. Long term impacts and the astronomical waste
  • Meta: Giving now versus giving later
  1. Requires thinking about the internal rate of return on time from various kinds of spending (social return, financial return, movement building return, information gathering return)
  2. Short paper: Discount rate issues - write a paper on this with a view to influencing DCP3
  • Meta: How valuable is meta-charity, or even meta-meta-charity, research? Do any such organisations have room for more funding (RFMF).
  1. Improve our existing DCP2 model
  2. Look around for evidence of whether this work is influential
  • Meta: What is good in life?
  1. How can we weigh e.g. getting a better education against health; or more money versus education; or having to move due to climate change to health; etc. What do we know about the utility impacts of these things?
  2. Short paper: How to value life at different ages, in particular around infancy?
  • Meta-meta: How to identify awesome projects
  1. Where should we expect to find groups with RFMF?
  2. Dealing with cumulative uncertainty and regression to the mean (with a view to influencing DCP3)
  3. Pascal's mugging, fat tails and 'weirdness theory'
  4. What forms of leverage exist and are they illusory?
  5. Any other issues associated with how to identify causes out on the far right tail of effectiveness that otherwise wouldn't get done
  • Meta-meta: Write a report into meta-charities, evaluating their methodology and quality of their recommendations

3. Other

  • Market research to increase recruitment of new volunteers/interns/members
  1. What do our members want?
  2. Why do people take the pledge?
  3. What could make the public more receptive to our message?