We can use science to end poverty faster. But how much do governments listen to it?

In both rich and poor countries, government policy is often based on no evidence at all and many programs don’t work. This has particularly harsh effects on the global poor – in some countries governments only spend $100 on each citizen a year so they can’t afford to waste a single dollar.

Enter MIT’s Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). Since 2003 they’ve conducted experiments to figure out what policies actually help recipients, and then try to get them implemented by governments and non-profits.

Claire Walsh leads J-PAL’s Government Partnership Initiative, which works to evaluate policies and programs in collaboration with developing world governments, scale policies that have been shown to work, and generally promote a culture of evidence-based policymaking.

We discussed (her views only, not J-PAL’s):

  • How can they get evidence backed policies adopted? Do politicians in the developing world even care whether their programs actually work? Is the norm evidence-based policy, or policy-based evidence?
  • Is evidence-based policy an evidence-based strategy itself?
  • Which policies does she think would have a particularly large impact on human welfare relative to their cost?
  • How did she come to lead one of J-PAL’s departments at 29?
  • How do you evaluate the effectiveness of energy and environment programs (Walsh’s area of expertise), and what are the standout approaches in that area?
  • 80,000 Hours has warned people about the downsides of starting your career in a non-profit. Walsh started her career in a non-profit and has thrived,

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Most people report believing it’s incredibly cheap to save lives in the developing world

One way that people can have a social impact with their career is to donate money to effective charities. We mention this path in our career guide, suggesting that people donate to evidence-backed charities such as the Against Malaria Foundation, which is estimated by GiveWell to save the lives of children in the developing world for around $7,500.

Alyssa Vance told me that many people may see this as highly ineffective relatively to their optimistic expectations about how much it costs to improve the lives of people in people. I thought the reverse would be true – folks would be skeptical that charities in the developing world were effective at all. Fortunately Amazon Mechanical Turk makes it straightforward to survey public opinion at a low cost, so there was no need for us to sit around speculating. I suggested a survey on this question to someone in the effective altruism community with a lot of experience using Mechanical Turk – Spencer Greenberg of Clearer Thinking – and he went ahead and conducted one in just a few hours.

You can work through the survey people took yourself here and we’ve put the data and some details about the method in a footnote. The results clearly vindicated Alyssa:

It turns out that most Americans believe a child can be prevented from dying of preventable diseases for very little –

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How accurately does anyone know the global distribution of income?

World income distributionHow much should you believe the numbers in figures like this?

People in the effective altruism community often refer to the global income distribution to make various points:

  • The richest people in the world are many times richer than the poor.
  • People earning professional salaries in countries like the US are usually in the top 5% of global earnings and fairly often in the top 1%. This gives them a disproportionate ability to improve the world.
  • Many people in the world live in serious absolute poverty, surviving on as little as one hundredth the income of the upper-middle class in the US.

Measuring the global income distribution is very difficult and experts who attempt to do so end up with different results. However, these core points are supported by every attempt to measure the global income distribution that we’ve seen so far.

The rest of this post will discuss the global income distribution data we’ve referred to, the uncertainty inherent in that data, and why we believe our bottom lines hold up anyway.

Will MacAskill had a striking illustration of global individual income distribution in his book Doing Good Better, that has ended up in many other articles online, including our own career guide:
 
 

 
The data in this graph was put together back in 2012 using an approach suggested by Branko Milanovic,

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The case for and against using your career to combat smoking

We’ve released a new problem profile on reducing tobacco use in the developing world.

Smoking takes an enormous toll on human health – accounting for about 6% of all ill-health globally according to the best estimates. This is more than HIV and malaria combined. Smoking continues to rise in many developing countries as people become richer and can afford to buy cigarettes.

There are ways to lower smoking rates that have been shown to work elsewhere, such as informing people who are unaware about how much smoking damages their health, as well as simply increasing the price of cigarettes through taxes. These are little used in developing countries, suggesting there is a major opportunity to improve human health by applying the World Health Organization’s recommended anti-tobacco programs.

In the profile we cover:

  • The main reasons for and against thinking that smoking in the developing world is a highly pressing problem to work on.
  • How to use your career to reduce the health damage caused by smoking.

Read our profile on tobacco control in the developing world.

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Is global health the most pressing problem to work on?

Every year around ten million people in poorer countries die of illnesses that can be very cheaply prevented or managed, including malaria, HIV, tuberculosis and diarrhoea.

In many cases these diseases or their impacts can be largely eliminated with cheap technologies that are known to work and have existed for decades. Over the last 60 years, death rates from several of these diseases have been more than halved, suggesting particularly clear ways to make progress.

In our full ‘problem profile on health in poor countries’ we cover:

  • The main reasons for and against thinking that this is the most pressing problem to work on.
  • How to use your career to combat diseases of poverty.

Read our profile on health in poor countries.

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What do leaders of effective non-profits say about working in non-profits?

Rob Mather – founder and CEO of GiveWell’s top rated charity, Against Malaria Foundation. Photo credit:
Andrew Testa.

I reached out to leaders at GiveDirectly, Against Malaria Foundation, Deworm the World Initiative (part of Evidence Action), Schistosomiasis Control Initiative and Development Media International to ask for their views. Here are their responses.

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The four big challenges

The 80,000 Hours community is involved with many different causes – from scientific research to social justice – but there are four big (rather ambitious!) causes that have, so far, gathered the most support.

These are the four big challenges our community has set itself. They are all huge, but they also seem especially solvable, or especially neglected, and this means working within them offers the opportunity to make huge difference over the coming decades…

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Opportunity to work at JPAL as a Research Associate – just hours left to apply!

The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) is the world leader in conducting evidence-based research in developing countries. Their mission is to reduce poverty by ensuring that policy is informed by scientific evidence.

They are currently running a winter recruitment drive (96 total positions) which ends on at 6am EST January 8th. Applications submitted during the drive will be reviewed and short-listed candidates will be contacted. During the rest of the year, applications are reviewed on a rolling basis.

What is the position?

Research Associate (RA) positions last 1-2 years, and come in two types. Field RAs (38 positions available) are based around the world, managing field implementation of specific research projects. University-based RAs (8 positions) are primarily based in North America, focusing on data analysis of research projects.

What are the benefits of the position?

  • Work directly on J-PAL research programs, which are used by Givewell and other organizations to determine the most effective global poverty interventions (a top cause).
  • Cultivate high-quality research skills. Other organizations pay J-PAL to teach them these program evaluation techniques.
  • Work in a developing country, which can be very useful if you want to work in international development.
  • Build a network and career capital for evidence-based development work. Many NGOs now have full time positions for Monitoring and Evaluation.1 Some RAs go on to top PhD programs or start their own impact evaluation NGOs.2
  • It’s paid!

Overall, if you’ve already got a graduate degree, this looks like a good way to start a career in evidence-based international development. However, we have not performed an in-depth investigation of the pros and cons of this job – this assessment is based on our background knowledge and what we’ve read about the positions online.

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Interested in working in international development? Consider 2Seeds.

Many people have told us that if you want to work in international development, it’s very useful to spend time working in a developing country (e.g. see our interview with Owen Barder), and living abroad is probably useful for exploration value too. It’s also very useful to get project management experience early on in this space, because it opens up jobs in non-profits and foundations. But management positions in the developing world are rare early in your career.

This made me interested to hear about 2Seeds, which gives graduates the opportunity to volunteer as a project manager in rural Tanazania for a year.

I met the co-founder of 2Seeds, Sam Bonsey, at a conference, and then followed up by doing the following interview with their Outreach Manager, Abby Love. Based on what I’ve seen, it looks well worth considering as an early career step, especially if you’re interested in working within international development.

Read on to see the full interview, which was conducted by email.

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The Undercover Economist speaks to 80,000 Hours

Tim2

Tim Harford recently spoke to us at Oxford. He’s a journalist for the Financial Times and the best-selling author of the Undercover Economist, which we’d recommend as a popular introduction to Economics. He also wrote Adapt, which argues that trial and error is the best strategy for solving important global problems. The arguments he makes fit with some of the arguments we have made for trial and error being a good way to plan your career.

Tim gave a talk on innovation, similar to this. The talk introduced a distinction between two types of innovation, and asks, which one is more important?

  1. Marginal improvements – incremental improvements to existing systems.

  2. Revolutionary improvements – transformations of existing systems to create new ones.

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Case study: earning to give compared to medical research

Introduction

Ramit came to us with a simple question: should I try to train as a medic with the aim of doing biomedical research, or should I seek a high earning job in finance and pursue Earning to Give?

He’s currently doing both – working as a quantitative financial analyst giving away more than a third of his salary (he was an early stage funder of Give Directly) and taking pre-med courses part time, as well as other projects!

Ramit’s initial thought was that the biomedical research path would be better. Read on to find out how he came to change his mind, and came up with a new set of next steps.

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Interview with leading HIV vaccine researcher – Prof. Sir Andrew McMichael

Introduction

Andrew McMichael

Continuing our investigation into medical research careers, we interviewed Prof. Andrew McMichael. Andrew is Director of the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine in Oxford, and focuses especially on two areas of special interest to us: HIV and flu vaccines.

Key points made

  • Andrew would recommend starting in medicine for the increased security, better earnings, broader perspective and greater set of opportunities at the end. The main cost is that it takes about 5 years longer.
  • In the medicine career track, you qualify as a doctor in 5-6 years, then you work as a junior doctor for 3-5 years, while starting a PhD. During this time, you start to move towards a promising speciality, where you build your career.
  • In the biology career track, get a good undergraduate degree, then do a PhD. It’s very important to join a top lab and publish early in your career. Then you can start to move towards an interesting area.
  • After you finish your PhD is a good time to reassess. It’s a competitive career, and if you’re not headed towards the top, be prepared to do something else. Public health is a common backup option, which can make a significant contribution. If you’ve studied medicine, you can do that. People sometimes get stranded mid-career, and that can be tough.
  • An outstanding post-doc applicant has a great reference from their PhD supervisor, is good at statistics/maths/programming, and has published in a top journal.
  • If you qualify in medicine in the UK, you can earn as much as ordinary doctors while doing your research, though you’ll miss out on private practice. In the US, you’ll earn less.
  • Some exciting areas right now include stem cell research, neuroscience, psychiatry and the HIV vaccine.
  • To increase your impact, work on good quality basic science, but keep an eye out for applications.
  • Programming, mathematics and statistics are all valuable skills. Other skills shortages develop from the introduction of new technologies.
  • Good researchers can normally get funded, and Andrew would probably prefer a good researcher to a half million pound grant, though he wasn’t sure.
  • He doesn’t think that bad methodology or publication bias is a significant problem in basic science, though it might be in clinical trials.

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Which cause is most effective?

In previous posts, we explained what causes are and presented a method for assessing them in terms of expected effectiveness.

In this post, we apply this method to identify a list of causes that we think represent some particularly promising opportunities for having a social impact in your career (though there are many others we don’t cover!).

We’d like to emphasise that these are just informed guesses over which there’s disagreement. We don’t expect the results to be highly robust. However, you have to choose something to work on, so we think it’ll be useful to share our guesses to give you ideas and so we can get feedback on our reasoning – we’ve certainly had lots of requests to do so. In the future, we’d like more people to independently apply the methodology to a wider range of causes and do more research into the biggest uncertainties.

The following is intended to be a list of some of the most effective causes in general to work on, based on broad human values. Which cause is most effective for an individual to work on also depends on what resources they have (money, skills, experience), their comparative advantages and how motivated they are. This list is just intended as a starting point, which needs to be combined with individual considerations. An individual’s list may differ due also to differences in values. After we present the list, we go over some of the key assumptions we made and how these assumptions affect the rankings.

We intend to update the list significantly over time as more research is done into these issues. Fortunately, more and more cause prioritisation research is being done, so we’re optimistic our answers will become more solid over the next couple of years. This also means we think it’s highly important to stay flexible, build career capital, and keep your options open.

In the rest of this post we:
1. Provide a summary list of high priority causes
2. Explain what each cause is and overview our reasons for including it
3. Explain how key judgement calls alter the ranking
4. Overview how we came up with the list and how we’ll take it forward
5. Answer other common questions

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A comparison of medical research and earning to give

Introduction and Summary

We recently did a case study with Ramit (see the full case study write up here). He was wondering whether to start a medicine degree, with the aim of going into research, or to continue in finance doing earning to give, where he already has a job as a quant researcher earning in the range of $150,000 per year.

We did an in-depth comparison of the expected impact of the two paths to help him decide. The rest of this post contains our case study research notes on the comparison.

If forced to guess now, we lean in favor of earning to give, though we think it’s very high priority to gain more information. Ramit is going to try to better assess his degree of fit with medical research, perhaps by working as a researcher during the summer, and learn more about his earnings prospects in finance by making applications and speaking to a headhunter. We’ll review our decision when we find out more.

In the rest of the post, we explain our reasoning:

  1. We outline our general approach
  2. We define a number of factors to compare the two options
  3. We evaluate the two paths based on the factors
  4. We make our overall conclusions

Note that there were several potentially important issues we didn’t address, including job satisfaction and which path is best for career capital in careers besides finance and research.

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An attempt to create a new AMF

There are several health interventions that have been found in academic papers to have a cost-effectiveness that’s similar or better than distributing insecticide treated bed-nets, but which lack a high quality charity to implement them. For someone with the right entrepreneurial skills, it could be extremely effective to create such a charity.

One example of a promising intervention is using mass media to promote positive health behaviours. Development Media International is attempting to become a highly effective, transparent, scalable charity that implements this intervention.

Clara Marquardt, a member of Giving What We Can, recently interviewed Will Snell, a member of 80,000 Hours and the Director of Public Engagement & Development at DMI.

Before scaling up, DMI decided to gather more evidence about the effectiveness of using mass media to promote health, since the existing evidence is patchy. In the interview, Will explains how DMI overcame numerous challenges to design, fund and carry out a $12mn randomised control trial into the effectiveness of their program. He also explains the story and mission of DMI, giving an insight into the advantages and challenges of running an impact-focused charity.

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Interview with malaria vaccine researcher Katie Ewer

Introduction

A recent case study candidate asked us whether he should enter vaccine research. As part of our research for that study, we contacted the Jenner Institute, an international centre based in Oxford that develops vaccines for infectious diseases . Our aim was to interview one of the scientists to better understand how careers in this sector tend to go, and to get their thoughts on a variety of important questions (especially those concerning vaccines) for our case study candidate to cross-check against other interviews we have done with medical researchers.

Katie Ewer, a cellular immunologist based at the Institute, agreed to talk to us. We sent her a list of questions by email (see the appendix), and discussed them on Skype. Below, we present a summary of her responses and key quotes from the Skype call.

Key updates for us

  • Katie was less keen on starting your career by studying medicine than our previous interview, because she didn’t think the benefits are worth the lost time, which made us less certain about this question.
  • We updated slightly in favor of the idea that most of the benefits of doing vaccine research on a specific disease are flow through effects i.e. advances in one vaccine have many benefits for other vaccines, reducing pandemic risk, and medical research more generally. This suggests that ability at research is relatively more important than the priority of the research question than we previously thought.
  • Katie suggested without prompting that research into neglected tropical diseases might be particularly neglected, which fits with previous research done by Giving What We Can into the Sabin Vaccine Institute.
  • Katie, as with everyone else we’ve spoken to, said that strong motivation by the subject is very important, because the work is tough and the pay is low.
  • Katie thought that the vast majority of people would be better off supporting research through earning to give than by becoming researchers, though talented people should do research, which fits with our view.
  • A useful way to test out a medical research career is to take a research assistant job over the summer.
  • We found that careers in medical research might be more flexible than we had first thought.

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Interview with a Cambridge Professor of Medical Genetics on research careers

Introduction

I recently interviewed John Todd, a Professor of Medical Genetics at Cambridge, as part of a series of interviews we’re carrying out for a case study. The aim of the series is to find out what key people in the field think about:

  1. What opportunities are best in the medical research field?
  2. What’s the balance between talent constraints and funding constraints?
  3. Who’s a good fit for medical research?
  4. Would our case study candidate be a good fit?
  5. How to go about this kind of career

Summary

The main points made in this interview were:

  1. John would prefer a good person in his lab to an extra £0.5mn in annual funding. Generally, there are enough grants, so finding good people is a bigger constraint than money.
  2. People with both medical knowledge with statistical and programming skills are highly sought after.
  3. Within medical research, it’s not straightforward to try to “pick” an area to work on and it changes quickly, though there are some broad strategies to use (e.g. pick diseases neglected by pharma, take a longer term perspective, avoid bandwagons)
  4. If you want to fund medical research, it would be difficult to beat going with the Wellcome Trust or Gates Foundation. Likewise, if you want to find the best areas to work on, these foundations are a good start.
  5. Getting an MD, then doing a PhD as a registrar is a good way in. If you have programming and statistics, you don’t need the PhD.
  6. He prefers Academia to Pharma.

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What should you do with a very large amount of money?

A philanthropist who will remain anonymous recently asked Nick Beckstead, a trustee of 80,000 Hours, what he would do with a very large amount of money.

Nick, with support from Carl Shulman (a research advisor to 80,000 Hours), wrote a detailed answer: A long-run perspective on strategic cause selection and philanthropy.

If you’re looking to spend or influence large budgets with the aim of improving the world (or happen to be extremely wealthy!) we recommend taking a look. It also contains brief arguments in favor of five causes.

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Is most research a waste?

Worldwide, over US$100 billion is invested every year in supporting biomedical research, which results in an estimated 1 million research publications per year

A recently updated systematic review of 79 follow-up studies of research reported in abstracts estimated the rate of publication of full reports after 9 years to be only 53%.

An e?cient system of research should address health problems of importance to populations and the interventions and outcomes considered important by patients and clinicians. However, public funding of research is correlated only modestly with disease burden, if at all.

Research_waste

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Is microcredit mostly hype?

Microcredit has become one of the most popular ideas in charity. 2005 was named the Year of Microcredit.The microcredit charity Kiva has over 800,000 lenders, the highest possible rating from Charity Navigator, and was endorsed by Oprah… The 2006 Nobel Committee boldly claimed that microcredit “must play a major part” in ending global poverty.

Recently, however, criticism of microfinance has been growing. And that’s a good thing, because it’s far from proven that microfinance, on average, has any positive effects at all.

Lize

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