The Vultures Are Circling

It might not have shown up on your radar but the funding situation for EA is currently insane. Like bananas, jumping off the wall, insane. Especially with regards to young people. I personally know of 16 year olds getting more money than the median American salary, and of 21 year olds getting six to seven figure grants. And this isn’t to knock either of those things. There’s really well thought out reasons why this makes sense. And generally I’d even advocate for more of this crazy risk taking. Normal institutions are extremely risk averse and it’s nice to see EA buck the trend.

But here’s the thing. The message is out. There’s easy money to be had. And the vultures are coming. On many internet circles, there’s been a worrying tone. “You should apply for [insert EA grant], all I had to do was pretend to care about x, and I got $$!” Or, “I’m not even an EA, but I can pretend, as getting a 10k grant is a good instrumental goal towards [insert-poor-life-goals-here]” Or, “Did you hear that a 16 year old got x amount of money? That’s ridiculous! I thought EA’s were supposed to be effective!” Or, “All you have to do is mouth the words community building and you get thrown bags of money.” Basically, the sharp increase in rewards has led the number of people who are optimizing for the wrong thing to go up. Hello Goodhart. Instead of the intrinsically motivated EA, we’re beginning to get the resume padders, the career optimizers, and the type of person that cheats on the entry test for preschool in the hopes of getting their child into a better college. I’ve already heard of discord servers springing up centered around gaming the admission process for grants. And it’s not without reason. The Atlas Fellowship is offering a 50k, no strings attached scholarship. If you want people to throw out any hesitation around cheating the system, having a carrot that’s larger than most adult’s yearly income will do that. TLDR: People are going to begin to optimize really hard around showing [EA grants] what they are thought they want to see. This will lead to just less impactful grants for helping people, and generally less chance of right handed tail successes.

So what to do? I’d like to note that some of the knee jerk reactions when hearing of the problem are examples of things not to do.

  • Tightening up and becoming more stringent on what is funded. This is a failure mode. The rationale for giving out high risk grants stands and hasn’t changed. So decreasing the riskiness of the grants just means we backslide into becoming like any other risk averse institution.

  • Increasing purity tests. Are you an EA, or are you an EA. Making people jump through more hoops to prove their alignment with core EA values is a terrible idea. Not only would you get evaporate cooling, you’d get a worse community. As a community that values good epistemics, having a purity test on whether or not this person agrees with the EA consensus on [insert topic here] is a death blow to the current very good MO.

  • Fund less young people. Giving 16 year olds huge chunks of money with no oversight is a bad PR story waiting to happen. So people will argue that we should stop doing that. First, I’d like to point to the first bullet point. Second, Alexander Hamilton ran a business when he was 16, sailed on a ship from the Caribbean when he was 17 and founded the country that most reading this post live in when he was 20. So not funding young people means this type of talent and potential is wasted. Let’s not do that.

Finally, I’d like to note that this problem has yet to become an actual problem. It’s just a whisper of what’s to (maybe) come. It still happens to be the case that the intrinsically motivated EA’s far, far out number the resume builders. But this might change if we’re not careful. And this will begin to make a difference, as no matter how good our interview filters, the false positive rate will continue to increase. Furthermore, it seems that there are currently plans to massively scale up grant giving. So it would be nice if we could somehow solve this now when it’s a small problem, instead of later. Money saved is lives saved!