Our Research

Christiano

Participants

  • Paul Christiano: Computer science PhD student at UC Berkeley
  • Katja Grace: Research Assistant, Machine Intelligence Research Institute

Summary

This is a verbatim email conversation from the 26th of March 2014. Paul is a proponent of cause prioritization research. Here he explains his support of prioritization research, and makes some suggestions about how to do it.

Note: Paul is Katja’s boyfriend, so consider reading his inclusion as a relevant expert with a grain of salt.

Owen-cotton-barret1-370x370

Notes

This is a summary made by Katja of points made by Owen during a conversation on March 24 2014.

What the Global Priorities Project (GPP) does

The Global Priorities Project is new, and intends to experiment for a while with different types of projects and then work on those that appear highest value in the longer term. Their work will likely address questions about how to prioritize, improve arguments around different options, and will produce recommendations. It will probably be mostly research, but also include for instance some policy lobbying. They will likely do some work with concrete policy-relevant consequences and also some work on general high level arguments that apply to many things. Most features of the project are open to modification after early experimentation. There will be principally two audiences: policy makers and philanthropists, the latter including effective altruists and foundations. GPP has some access to moderately senior government and civil service policy people and are experimenting with the difficulty of pushing for high impact policies.

Research areas

Research topics will be driven by a combination of importance and comparative advantage. GPP is likely to focus on prioritizing broad areas rather than narrower interventions, though these things are closely linked. It is good to keep an eye on object level questions to ensure that you are thinking about things the right way. Owen is interested in developing frameworks for comparing things. This can produce value both in their own evaluations and through introducing metrics that others want to use, and so making proposals more comparable in general.

Kerry_vaughan_pic

Introduction

Kerry Vaughan was a member of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) - a major strategic foundation with over $1.5B in assets - for 3 years and served as the manager of the technology and innovation group. Kerry is also a PhD candidate in philosophy with a specialization in ethics. We spoke with Kerry as part of some compensated research he was doing for 80,000 Hours about the impact one can have working at a foundation.

Summary

  1. The typical annual budget per employee at major foundations is $2 million. Each program officer oversees a budget of about $10 million.
  2. The typical program officer is intelligent and well-educated, and many have graduate degrees.
  3. The board of the foundation typically picks the cause areas and must approve each project. It seems difficult for program officers to influence which causes are supported. However, program officers can influence which projects are funded by selecting which non-profits get presented.

Owenbarder_0

Introduction

We recently interviewed Owen Barder to find out about making a difference through careers in policy.

The interview was conducted in person. Below we summarize the key messages of the conversation, followed by some key excerpts which have been edited and reorganized for clarity.

In summary, Owen told us:

  • How influence over policies works in the UK political system. In his experience the partnership between ministers, back-bench MPs and civil servants is one in which they all have an important role to play and they all depend on each other to achieve success. In addition, there is a complex ecosystem of outsiders that influence policies, which requires a combination of proper research, smart political ideas, effective communication and political leadership to influence policy change.

  • That the most important types of international policies can be divided into three groups: zero-sum policies in which there is a short-run trade-off between the interests of rich countries and poor countries (eg aid transfers); win-win policies which would benefit rich countries and poor countries (eg trade liberalisation); and fostering global public goods (eg R&D and global institutions).

  • Students interested in any career field dealing with the developing world should strongly consider traveling to and living in the developing world for some period of time. For those particularly interested in getting involved in politics, becoming a special advisor is one clear pathway, but transitions to the civil service or politics later in life are possible.

Larrisa5

At the recent Good Done Right conference, I had the opportunity to speak with Larissa MacFarquhar about careers in journalism.

Larissa is a journalist at the New Yorker, and next year will release ‘Strangers Drowning’, which explores the lives of those who dedicate themselves to helping others, and features a chapter on effective altruism.

The following is a couple of notes on my key takeaways from our conversation, which were run past Larissa before publishing.

Good Done Right: audio recordings now online

This July saw the first academic conference on effective altruism. The three-day event took place at All Souls College, one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford. The conference featured a diverse range of speakers addressing issues related to effective altruism in a shared setting, including the CEO of JPAL, Derek Parfit, Nick Bostrom, Larissa MacFarquhar of the New Yorker, and many of our donors and supporters. It was a fantastic opportunity to share insights and ideas from some of the best minds working on these issues.

I’m very pleased to announce that audio recordings from most of the talks are now available on the conference website, alongside speakers’ slides (where applicable). I’m very grateful to all of the participants for their fantastic presentations, and to All Souls College and the Centre for Effective Altruism for supporting the conference.

What does economics tell us about replaceability?

Introduction

‘Replaceability’ has become a core concept in discussions of career choice among Effective Altruists (EAs) - put simply, people should not simply consider the ‘direct impact’ from doing a job, but instead the difference in outcomes resulting from taking that job, relative to not taking it. Ben Todd and Seb Farquhar have both written blogs introducing this concept, and the importance of counterfactual reasoning in general (read these first if you’re not familiar with replaceability!); Paul Christiano and Ben Kuhn (among others) have written blogs further exploring the concept, and its various representations and applications. Some Effective Altruists (EAs) have noted that representations of replaceability have varied in their sophistication, and Will MacAskill summarises this nicely as the ‘simple view’, ‘simplistic replaceability’ and ‘correct replaceability’.

‘Correct replaceability’ is particularly nuanced and complicated, and comprises taking into account the full set of counterfactual outcomes not only in your (potential) job, but in any other jobs affected by the employment decision, through knock-on and labour market effects. Given this, and that ‘replaceability’ varies significantly across different industries and jobs, Will MacAskill and Ben Todd asked me to think about what Economics has to tell us about the concept. For clarity, rather than think about the ethical considerations of ‘replaceability’ as a whole, they asked me to answer a sub-question, namely: “according to mainstream economics, if I add myself to the labour pool for job type X (being a doctor, or an aid worker, or a banker), then how many more type X jobs come into being (on average)?”. Although these issues have been discussed before, this blog post is a first attempt at providing a thorough analysis of this question.

Summary

  • I set out the classical, Econ 101 supply and demand model and discuss the assumptions it makes. I argue that this is a useful framework for considering our question, then show how the answer depends crucially on the elasticities of labour supply and demand. Unfortunately, empirical economic research cannot tell us much about these elasticities for individual industries.

  • There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to our question - it will vary considerably across different industries and we must try to understand how each industry functions in order to make an informed estimate. I believe that the supply and demand framework, or some variant of it, is useful for analysing our question for most jobs and industries, particularly those that are not highly specialised.

  • I discuss how (and whether) this framework should be applied in a few industries, most of which are seen as viable EA career paths. This framework can lead us to some (tentative) conclusions:
    • Entrance into industries with a quantity restriction (e.g. through a limited number of occupational licences) is likely to have (close to) zero impact on the number of jobs in that industry. This may apply to medical school and licensed professional industries (e.g. becoming a barrister in the UK).
    • Entrance into (narrowly defined) industries which require relatively transferable skills is likely to result in less than 0.5 additional jobs in this industry, as (potential) workers can easily substitute into other industries (labour supply is elastic). This may apply to banking and consultancy.
    • Entrance into industries in which (potential) workers have a strong preference to work is likely to result in more additional jobs (perhaps between 0.5 and 1), as workers will not substitute into other industries at such a high rate (labour supply is inelastic). This may apply to jobs in the charity sector.
    • In highly specialised industries/jobs, applying this framework may not be appropriate, as the hiring process will not resemble a competitive market. This may apply, for example, to taking a job with Givewell, who likely follow a process more akin to ‘threshold hiring’.In this case, it seems likely that taking this job may increase the number of overall jobs by close to 1.
  • This post only discusses one aspect of replaceability, and does not consider other issues related to the (direct) impact of a job, effects on the quality of employees, or long term effects of a job, such as creating social value.

Introduction

We recently interviewed Caroline Fiennes to find out about her ideas on opportunities to make a difference promoting effective philanthropy, and more about her organisation, Giving Evidence. The aim was to both inform our strategy as an organisation, and find opportunities for people who are interested in leading a career in this area.

The interview was conducted via phone call. Below we summarise the key messages of the conversation, followed by some key excerpts, which have been edited and reorganised for clarity.

In summary, Caroline told us:

  • Billions of pounds are donated to charity in the UK each year, but there’s little evidence which can inform donors’ decisions about where to donate. Hence, this money probably doesn’t have as much impact as it could.
  • One intervention would be to set up something like Charity Navigator for the UK, ideally rating charities both on organisation quality (as Charity Navigator does) and on the strength of the evidence behind the interventions they implement. There are many people interested in taking this project forward, but it’s difficult to raise money for it.
  • Another intervention is creating a platform to publicly collect and share the monitoring and evaluation data that charities already produce. Over a billion pounds is spent on monitoring and evaluation each year, but it seems that only about two percent of the studies get shared. Giving Evidence recently raised funding to explore how to create a system for sharing evidence in the UK criminal justice sector.

Venture capital has facilitated the growth of many companies including Apple, Google and Facebook. But is venture capital a key to success for most startups? In this post, we answer three component questions:

  1. What are the likely outcomes for companies backed by venture capital?

  2. What fraction of companies attract venture capital?

    a) How many startups and venture capital deals are there?

    b) What proportion of applicants to venture capitalists say they accept?

  3. How much work is it to apply for venture capital?

We found that:

  • According to the data of Professors Hall and Woodward, the average venture capital-backed founder exits with $5.8 million of equity.

  • Roughly 1% of companies that aspire to obtain venture capital obtain it.

  • Finding out whether you will receive venture capital can take months to years of work.

Which university has better entrepreneurs?

Some of the most successful companies in recent years have been founded by students of America’s most prestigious universities. The founders of Google and Facebook, from Stanford and Harvard respectively, are prime examples. So which universities have the most successful entrepreneurs? To answer this question, we’ve assessed how many students from each top US university have obtained investment in their startup, how many are worth over $30 million, and how many are worth over $1 billion. This builds upon Jonah Sinick’s work on the wealth of Harvard alumni.

How to quantify research quality?

Introduction

You may have recently noticed a number appearing under our blog posts, in a little green square. That’s an attempt to better track the quality of our research, which is, as far we know, the first system of its kind.

This post explains why we added it, how it works, who does the ratings, and its benefits so far.

Image_0

In this post we estimate the mean net worth of Stanford alumni who made their wealth primarily through founding startups.

Our estimate is that the mean net-worth of a Stanford alumnus who founded a corporation $10.8 million as of 2013.

The reason we are interested in making this estimate is because it fits in with a larger research project to into entrepreneurship, and within that project, into the wealth that can be gained by becoming an entrepreneur.

In this post, we estimate the total net worth of Stanford alumni who have founded corporations then we estimate the total number of Stanford alumni who have founded corporations. We then arrive at our estimate by dividing the total net worth of Stanford alumni founders by the total number of Stanford alumni founders. We close with some caveats and qualifications to our estimate.

Increasing your earnings as a doctor

Making a difference to patient’s lives is a gratifying part of medical work. However, an investigation by Dr Gregory Lewis suggests that doctors may be able to make a greater improvement to people’s lives through their donations than through their practice. In part, this is because the potentially large impact of charitable donations. For instance, research by GiveWell has shown that it’s likely to be possible to save a life for less than $10,000. This raises the question ‘how can doctors increase their earnings?’.

In this post, we explore whether doctors can improve their earnings by:

  1. Moving to a different country.
  2. Choosing a highly-paid specialty.
  3. Pursuing locum (contract) shifts.

Advisory board report June 2014

As part of our annual review, we held an advisory board meeting. Our advisory board consists of: James Norris, Alex Flint and Jeff Kaufman. The members are chosen as supporters of our mission and effective altruism, who are not otherwise involved in running the organisation. We encourage them to act as impartial critics of our approach. One is a major donor to 80,000 Hours, two are highly active in building the effective altruism community and two have entrepreneurial experience.

After the meeting, James Norris issued the following statement on behalf of the board:

The advisory board met on May 9, 2014 to review the performance of 80,000 Hours over the past year. Alex Flint, Jeff Kaufman, James Norris, and Ben Todd were present. The members are in agreement that 80,000 Hours is executing well on its strategic plan and making strong progress overall.

Fundraising and website metrics are both encouraging. William MacAskill’s commissioned book on effective altruism appears to be a big win for 80,000 Hours and the community at large. However, some members cautioned it might not ultimately yield as large of a benefit as anticipated.

One ongoing concern is staffing. Salaries are slightly uncompetitive and senior leadership may be overly critical to 80,000 Hours’ success. Some members also voiced concern around maintaining a healthy public image in light of growing media attention.

Overall, 80,000 Hours appears to be intelligently and thoughtfully run by a very capable team. The advisory board is confident 80,000 Hours will continue to execute well in the foreseeable future.

See the previous report here.

Software engineering is a lucrative career with an unusually low barrier to entry. Due to its appeal, some people in our community have switched into programming via many different routes. To help guide other individuals who are considering making this transition, we’ve gathered the five people in our community’s experiences learning to code and getting employed as a programmer.

  • Some programmers say that they enjoy their work because of the puzzles and problems involved in programming. They also say that they enjoy being drawn into a flow state.

  • One undesirable characteristic of software engineering is its white male monoculture.

  • Other common peeves are the need to understand large existing codebases and engaging in the boring aspects of fixing broken software.

  • People learn to program in a variety of ways including App Academy, computer science degrees, and teaching themselves while doing another job.

  • It’s easier to get hired if you’ve done an internship. Applying widely also helps. One App Academy graduate applied to 30-40 companies, out of which he got 5 phone screenings / code challenges, 2 in person interviews, and one offer.

How much do Y Combinator founders earn?

Paul Graham

Introduction

We’re interested in estimating how much tech entrepreneurs earn, since it’s one of our top recommended careers, and this is in part because it seems particularly high earning (enabling high donations, and potentially indicating the creation of a lot economic value). As part of this, we wanted to find out: if you can get into Y Combinator, how much will you earn? We’re particularly interested in Y Combinator because it’s the best known seed accelerator, and the data is available. In summary, here’s what we found:

  • The total value of Y Combinator companies is $26 billion, of which the founders own $8 billion.
  • Most of the returns have gone to a tiny minority of super-successes. The founders of AirBnB, Dropbox and Stripe are worth about US$7 billion, about 80% of all founders’ equity, although they account for 0.5% of the companies.
  • Outside of the most successful companies, it was still possible to earn significant returns. 12% of companies from the first five years of Y Combinator are now worth US$40 million or more, and a further 10% have sold for US$5-40 million. The remainder probably earned little more than their (low) salaries.
  • On average, founders from the first five years of Y Combinator are now worth US$18 million after 5-9 years, giving past average earnings of US$2.5 million per year
  • When it invests in its companies, Y Combinator values them at US$1.7 million, of which each founding team owns $1.6 million. This implies that founders must earn (in cash or equity) substantially more than $100,000 per year on average.
  • We expect the average earnings going forward to be less than $2.5 million per founder per year because of competitors to Y Combinator and regression to the mean.
  • Y Combinator accept 2.5% of applications.
  • Your personal expected earnings from applying to Y Combinator depend on your chance of being accepted and your chance of creating the next AirBnB or Dropbox.

Summary of the annual review May 2014

Tinted_images_and_options-02

Introduction

In this document, we present some concluding comments about our annual review and provide a guide to the rest of the documents. The summary of our previous review is here.

Overview comments

With the end of this annual review, 80,000 Hours has reached an important milestone. Over the last year we performed a major impact evaluation. We found that as of December 2013 we’ve caused 107 ‘significant plan changes’ - a metric we developed to track our impact. You can see some examples here. Given this, we think we’ve achieved initial proof of concept that our prototype online content, coaching and community can change careers. We presented an overview of the evaluation here and an in-depth analysis of the plan changes here. We think this proof of concept is sufficiently compelling to move our focus on to improving the quality of our programs.

On this basis, we’ve focused our strategy. To complete our ‘discovery phase’, for the rest of 2014 we’ll deepen our knowledge of social impact careers through research. We’ll also improve our online content. We’ll do this through successive rounds of coaching people and writing answers to their most pressing questions. We’ll summarise our findings on a series of six research pages, which we’ll submit for external evaluation.

In 2015, we intend to move into our ‘execution phase’, in which we’ll aim to take the model we’ve discovered to its full potential. We envisage initially focusing on further improving the quality of our programs, in particular by writing a careers guide. We aim to finish this in time for the press campaign surrounding the launch of Will MacAskill’s book on effective altruism in August 2015. Securing this book deal with Gotham Books (Penguin US) and Guardian-Faber was another major success of 2013. As part of CEA’s effective altruism outreach project, it may become a major source of new users.

After that, we may move our focus to outreach to ensure our programs connect with our entire target market. Or we may develop further programs, such as training a social impact career coach for every top university.

Ultimately, we want to become the best source of advice in the world for the most talented, young graduates who want to make a positive impact, enabling them to best use their 80,000 hours to solve the world’s most pressing problems.

While our key goals in the discovery phase are clarifying our strategy and testing our programs, we think our impact evaluation showed we’re justifying our costs through the value of the plan changes our users have adopted. Since we think the value of the plan changes we have caused is only a small portion of our total impact, this implies we’ve used resources highly effectively.

Besides proof of concept and focusing our strategy, we had other important achievements, including good progress building the team, fundraising and continued growth in reach and impact.

Overall, we’re very excited about the next year.

Team plan May 2014

In this document, which is part of our annual review, we outline our priorities over the rest of 2014. We also list the organisational metrics we intend to track and some of the challenges we anticipate facing.

To see how this plan fits into our overall strategy, see the strategic review. To see what we did over the last year, see our review of progress.

In summary, over the rest of 2014 we intend to focus on deepening our knowledge of social impact careers and improving the prototype of our online content. We’ll do this by expanding our research pages into a series of six separate pages, then completing several rounds of coaching and writing up research, with the aim of coaching at least 40 people, writing five reports on their most pressing questions, and writing five career profiles on the most asked about careers. At the end of the year, we’ll update the research pages based on what we’ve found, and perform a research evaluation to measure our progress.

In addition, it’s highly important to build the capacity of our research team. Our main goal in this area is to find an outstanding candidate who can start working at 80,000 Hours as a staff member within the next 18 months, specialising in research.

Other priorities include maintaining six months of reserves and building team capacity, through training the team and hiring new staff.

Review of progress July 2013 to April 2014

Introduction and summary

The purpose of this document is to review what 80,000 Hours has achieved from July 2013 to February 2014 since our last review of progress. We also review how we performed relative to our targets, and our mistakes over the period. This document is part of our annual review.

In summary:

  • We went through three stages during the period: website redesign, testing our content, and finally conducting our impact evaluation and strategic review. Other significant priorities included writing a book proposal on effective altruism, fundraising and staff recruitment.
  • Our main achievements were establishing proof of concept that our programs (research and online content, supported by coaching) can change career plans, and creating a clearer strategy.
  • While doing this, we continued to faciliate significant plan changes, which we think justify our costs.
  • Other achievements included: Will landed a major book deal to write about effective altruism, we continued to build the team and CEA, we increased our financial security by reaching our target of 12 months’ cash reserves, we implemented more professional branding, we had a meeting at the UK Prime Minister’s office on careers advice policy, we helped to foster the Global Priorities Project, we published over 40 research blog posts, the Cambridge student group had a strong first year, and we increased our organisational transparency.
  • We made progress on all of our key priorities and completed most of what we set out to achieve in our last review, but ended up several months behind schedule for a variety of reasons.
  • Our main mistake over the period was not keeping the team sufficiently focused on fundamental strategic progress. We think we’ve already corrected this mistake.

You can find more detail on our key metrics in our review of program performance.

80,000 Hours finance report

Summary

(N.B figures are rounded)

Current financial situation

As of April 2014, 80,000 Hours had £148,000 in reserves. This would represent 16 months of reserves at current rates of spending or 12.5 months of reserves if we follow our target budget, which would have us spend £130,000 over 2014. This £130,000 would be primarily spent on staff salaries (£68,000), intern support expenses and accommodation (£24,000) and office rent (£10,000).

Historical spending

In 2013, 80,000 Hours spent £124,000, or around £10,000 per month. From January through March 2014 80,000 Hours spent £28,000, or around £9,000 per month, slightly under the £31,000 budgeted. Since its founding in 2012 until April 2014 80,000 Hours has spent £176,000.

Historical income

In 2013 80,000 Hours received £175,000 in donations, of which £150,000 were specifically restricted to 80,000 Hours by donors and the remainder was given without restriction to our parent organisation, the Centre for Effective Altruism. From January through March 2014 80,000 Hours has received a further £92,000, of which £73,000 was restricted to 80,000 Hours by donors. Since its founding in 2012 until April 2014 80,000 Hours has received a total of £301,000.

Fundraising targets

We are currently looking to raise an additional £40,000. This would cover our remaining shortfall for 2014, and give us the option to hire an additional staff member to focus on research and coaching. Making this goal would mean we could end fundraising for the rest of 2014, and fully focus on developing our programs.

Ben-7

Survey

Popular Posts