Modelling the Good Food Institute—Oxford Prioritisation Project

By Do­minik Peters

Cross-posted from the Oxford Pri­ori­ti­sa­tion Pro­ject blog.

Created 2017-04-18. Re­vised 2017-05-19. We’re cen­tral­is­ing all dis­cus­sion on the Effec­tive Altru­ism fo­rum. To dis­cuss this post, please com­ment here.

We have at­tempted to build a quan­ti­ta­tive model to es­ti­mate the im­pact of the Good Food In­sti­tute (GFI). We have found this ex­cep­tion­ally difficult due to the di­ver­sity of GFI’s ac­tivi­ties and the par­tic­u­larly un­clear coun­ter­fac­tu­als. In this post, I ex­plain some of the mod­el­ling ap­proaches we tried, and why we are not satis­fied with them. This post as­sumes good back­ground knowl­edge about GFI, you can read more at An­i­mal Char­ity Eval­u­a­tors.

Ap­proach 0: Direct estimation

Our first model of GFI in­volved di­rectly es­ti­mat­ing by how many years a fully funded GFI would ac­cel­er­ate the ar­rival of chicken product sub­sti­tutes. Our first in­tu­ition was to put this at 5 years, but we re­al­ised that we had next to no in­tu­itive grasp at all on this figure. So we at­tempted to find ap­proaches that in­volved es­ti­mat­ing quan­tities we have a bet­ter in­tu­itive grasp on.

Ap­proach 1: Mul­ti­plier on in­vest­ment into an­i­mal substitutes

A dona­tion of $1 to GFI in­creases the amount of in­vest­ments (by VCs, gov­ern­ment re­search coun­cils, other grant-mak­ing in­sti­tu­tions) by $X, through cre­at­ing new in­vest­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties (like start-ups) and by mak­ing the field more at­trac­tive in gen­eral.

For ex­am­ple, New Har­vest was in­stru­men­tal in start­ing com­pa­nies work­ing on yeast-based re­place­ments for dairy and egg prod­ucts, by in­tro­duc­ing fu­ture founders to each other and giv­ing them a small start-up grant (of about $30-50k each). Th­ese com­pa­nies sub­se­quently source ad­di­tional in­vest­ment of about $3m. How­ever, we do not be­lieve that this is very in­for­ma­tive for es­ti­mat­ing fu­ture mul­ti­pli­ers, since New Har­vest might have picked very low-hang­ing fruit in these in­stances.

Next, we would need some ac­count of how this in­creased in­vest­ment would have ac­cel­er­ated the de­vel­op­ment of meat al­ter­na­tives (so as to pro­duce value). For this, we would need to es­ti­mate when this in­vest­ment of $X would oth­er­wise have oc­curred, but it is un­clear how to figure this out.

We did not come up with good strate­gies for break­ing these difficul­ties down into smaller chunks that would be eas­ier to model.

Ap­proach 2: Direct Investment

A very sim­ple mod­el­ling strat­egy in­volves es­ti­mat­ing the rough amount of re­search effort (cap­i­tal in­vest­ments and re­search hours) that will be re­quired in to­tal and even­tu­ally to get to a “solu­tion”, i.e., availa­bil­ity of at­trac­tive sub­sti­tutes for an­i­mal prod­ucts. One could ob­tain such an es­ti­mate by enu­mer­at­ing the list of an­i­mal prod­ucts that need to be re­placed, and then look at how much effort was needed to de­velop prod­ucts such as the Im­pos­si­ble Burger. Next, one could as­sume that no-one else would ever in­vest in these op­por­tu­ni­ties. Then, by es­ti­mat­ing the value of hav­ing sub­sti­tutes and mul­ti­ply­ing by frac­tion of the to­tal effort re­quired that our dona­tion fi­nanced, we would get an es­ti­mate of the im­pact of our dona­tion.

How­ever, this ap­proach is a bit silly be­cause it does not model the ac­cel­er­a­tion of re­search: If there are no other donors in the field, then our dona­tion is fu­tile be­cause £10,000 will not fund the en­tire effort re­quired.

Ap­proach 3: Ac­cel­er­a­tion Dynamics

How are we go­ing to reach the stage at which at­trac­tive meat sub­sti­tutes are widely available? Well, com­pa­nies and other re­search groups will have to ex­pend some amount of effort into the prob­lem, and the more cu­mu­la­tive effort has been ex­pended the closer we are to a good solu­tion. Our dona­tion to GFI could be mod­el­led as an ex­ter­nal “shock” to the amount of effort in­vested into the field from that point in time on­wards. Graph­i­cally, this could look like this:

Whether the un­per­turbed curve is lin­ear is un­clear; it could be con­vex.

Now, with ad­di­tional effort in­vested into the prob­lem, we are get­ting closer to a solu­tion, and in par­tic­u­lar the qual­ity of meat sub­sti­tutes available in­creases. Again, it is not ob­vi­ous how the qual­ity of these prod­ucts is func­tion­ally re­lated to the amount of cu­mu­la­tive effort ex­pended; one pos­si­ble shape would be an S-curve (which in­creases rapidly af­ter some ini­tial break­throughs have been achieved, and flat­tens out when perfect­ing things), or it could be a curve in­di­cat­ing diminish­ing re­turns through­out (if we think that in­creas­ing qual­ity be­comes harder and harder), or many other pos­si­ble shapes (con­sist­ing of many sep­a­rate dis­cov­er­ies), or ex­po­nen­tial (like in Moore’s law). Differ­ent choices of shapes im­ply differ­ent mag­ni­tudes of im­pact, and we found no good way of figur­ing out which shape fits the par­tic­u­lar situ­a­tion.


We quickly be­came dis­satis­fied with each of the mod­el­ling ap­proaches we tried. They ei­ther had ma­jor flaws (like failing to model ac­cel­er­a­tion dy­nam­ics) or did not suc­ceed in ac­tu­ally break­ing down our un­cer­tainty into smaller, more man­age­able com­po­nents.