[Question] Should Grants Fund EA Projects Retrospectively?

Retrospective funding, i.e. funding a project after it is completed, is not a new idea. Some organisations already do it, such as the Future of Life Institute. I used to think that this way of funding was a mistake. Since we want to change future behaviour, I thought it made sense (from a consequentialist perspective) to only fund future projects: We can’t change the past, so rewarding past work has no effect on behaviour.

But this line of reasoning is incorrect: Providing grants for past projects encourages people to create work without having any funding secured. It also allows for grant funds to evaluate finished products, rather than speculate on the quality of a project before it has even started, thereby allowing funds to better estimate the benefits of a research project.

In terms of implementing retrospective funding, I have a few tentative thoughts.

  • New funding should account for the salary and level of funding a project has already received: If you would have paid $5000 for a project, but it has already received $4000, you’d only ever fund up to the 1000-dollar difference.

  • People who are not resource constrained should not receive any funding. Let’s say Mary is the best researcher in the world, she’s working full-time on EA projects, and she has a personal assistant to handle any distractions (emails, grocery shopping, and so on). Providing extra retrospective funding to her can’t really increase her research output, and it’s unlikely to incentivize other people to work on EA causes, since they know Mary is more likely to receive new funding than they are.

  • Funding should be done at the margin rather than be winner-takes-all. First, evaluate the value of a large number of projects, and retrospectively fund each project in proportion to project’s funding shortfall (i.e. the value of the project minus the amount it has already been funded). This reduces the variance of returns. And since rational people are risk-averse, you get a larger benefit (i.e. change in behaviour) for the same level of funding.

None of this is to say that upfront funding has no place. It does. Especially for projects that require such funding for upfront costs, such as equipment and so on. But aside from those cases, I think that retrospective funding is a better way to do things.

I’d like to hear everyone’s thoughts on the matter to see if I’m missing something. Should more grants be awarded to projects retrospectively, and why? Are there other circumstances for which upfront funding is superior?