[Question] [Atlas Fellowship] Why do 100 high-schoolers need $50k each from Open Philanthropy?

Note this is a sincere question. Not intended to cause controversy. It was inspired by this post questioning another OP Grant.

Full Disclosure

I applied to the Atlas Fellowship but was rejected. However, I attended SPARC, a free in-person program that teaches rationality tools to high schoolers (and follows a similar structure to Atlas Fellowship’s summer program). I’m friends with many Atlas Fellows.

What is the Atlas Fellowship?

For those newer to the EA Community, the Atlas Fellowship is a competitive program for high schoolers. If you are awarded it, you receive,

  • A $50k scholarship (or $12,000 for Atlas India).

    • Atlas Fellows can spend this money on anything considered an “academic expense”. This includes travel expenses if justification can be provided.

  • A fully-funded 11-day summer program in the Bay Area in a large former fraternity on UC Berkley’s campus.

  • College admissions preparation for top universities. (The admissions tutors are paid $200-300/​hr).

  • Access to the $1m Atlas Fund to learn, experiment, and build impactful projects.

For 500 finalists, they receive $1,000 and 5 free books.

Total Cost of Prizes

$50k x 100 + $12k x 20 + $1k x 500 + $1m fund = $6.74m

This does not include the instructors, venue, or travel costs.

What made me write this post?

  • This came to my attention after reading EA London’s monthly newsletter. It highlighted new grants that Open Philanthropy made. I learnt that OP made an additional $1.8m grant to the Atlas Fellowship in December 2022

  • There is much discussion (even amongst Atlas Fellows) that it is not a good use of money and that high schoolers don’t need $50k scholarships; therefore, I felt raising this question is worthwhile and of interest to the wider community.

Questions I have for Open Philanthropy and the Atlas Fellowship

  1. Why do high schoolers need $50k scholarships? If the reason is to attract talent, why is this required when programs such as SPARC and ESPR do an excellent job of attracting talented high schoolers?

    1. Note that SPARC and ESPR have been running for close to a decade. Many alumni go to top universities worldwide (MIT, Stanford, Oxford, etc.)

    2. I estimate each Atlas Fellow costs $80-90k, given you need to divide the total costs by the number of fellows (i.e., instructor and venue costs should be considered).

    3. If the answer is to attract better talent, is there a significant difference in talent between Atlas Fellows and those attending SPARC and ESPR that makes this $80-90k money worthwhile? (Note that this would be over 20 lives saved through the Against Malaria Foundation).

  2. Why was a $50k scholarship offered if a $25k scholarship would attract, say, 80-90% of the same applicants?

    1. I suspect that a $5k unconditional grant that they can spend on whatever would attract just as many quality applications and be much cheaper.

  3. What is the breakdown of the socioeconomic background of Atlas Fellows? What countries are all Atlas Fellows from? What about the finalists?

    1. Atlas says they’re doing “talent search”. This connotes finding talent from under-resourced communities or poor students. Do the statistics match this?

    2. From friends who are Atlas Fellows, they said many Atlas Fellows do not require the scholarship as their parents earn a lot and can already pay for college. This makes me question why some people are accepted as $50k to the Against Malaria Foundation, which would save over ten lives. (Even more, if you consider the cost per participant is $80-90k). What are the Atlas Fellows spending the money on if their parents have more than enough to pay for college?

  4. What measures do they have to identify talent that otherwise would not have been identified? The Atlas Fellowship claims to do research, but many fellows seem to be identified through traditional methods (i.e., reaching out to Olympiad communities worldwide).

  5. Atlas is planning on running a school called Atlas Academy Beta, as outlined in this document. Why does this make sense?

Rumours I would like addressed

Many rumours circulate amongst Atlas Fellows that I would like addressed and would also be of public interest,

  1. Atlas reportedly spent $10,000 on a coffee table. Is this true? Why was the table so expensive?

  2. There is a claim that “Atlas has no inventory stock. They overspend, buy more than they need, and if they lose an item, they buy another.” Is this true?

    1. Clarification: added to this comment.

  3. A contractor for Atlas reported Sydney Von Arex (one of the co-founders) saying, “I do not believe in budgets”. Is this true?

    1. I suspect this to be true as it would match my model of Bay Area EA’s lack of planning and overspending on events. I can go into further detail on this.

  4. [Encrypted in rot13 by the moderation team] Gurer ner ehzbhef gung Flqarl Iba Nek (bar bs Ngynf’ pb-sbhaqref) vf qngvat/​qngrq Pynver Mnory’f (gur tenag vairfgvtngbe sbe Ngynf nf yvfgrq ba gur cntr sbe gur svefg Ngynf tenag yvfgrq ba Bcra Cuvynaguebcl’f jrofvgr) uhfonaq, Ohpx Fuyrtrevf. Vf guvf gehr? Jul jnf gur tenag vairfgvtngbe sbe Ngynf Sryybjfuvc gur pb-sbhaqre’f oblsevraq’f jvsr? Abgr gung nyy guerr ner xabja gb or cbylnzbebhf va Onl Nern pbzzhavgvrf.

    1. I suspect this may be true and coincides with comments on the EA Forums about EA funding being intermingled with personal relationships.

Edit 1: Corrected a typo in the encrypted text (‘husband’ to ‘wife’). This is a mistake that someone pointed out.

Edit 2: After seeing this post, someone DM’d me on the EA Forums with this screenshot. From it, I suspect that some Atlas money is not being used for Atlas purposes, given that Sydney encouraged someone to put “Fellow” to be reimbursed as one despite them never having applied and attending an another event (seemingly associated with LessWrong). On the announcement post for the LessWrong Lurkshop it does say at the bottom that the workshop is funded by the Atlas Fellowship. But, all this makes me question how Atlas are writing their grant requests (i.e., do they just ask for a fixed amount of money that they can spend on whatever or did they explicitly say to OP in their grant request they’re running this).

Edit 3: Someone also DM’d me this. To add to my point of too much money to teenangers, there is an 18-year-old Atlas Fellow who has both the Open Philanthropy Undergraduate Scholarship (which covers all tuition and living expenses) and the Atlas Fellowship (which is a $50k scholarship). [Two links removed by moderators; see comment.]

The disturbing part is that on the OP Undergraduate Scholarship website, it says, “and who do not qualify as domestic students at these institutions for the purposes of admission and financial aid.” But it is clear, upon investigation into their background, that this Atlas Fellow DOES qualify as a domestic student as they have grown up in the UK which means either OP doesn’t care about their own policies or this Atlas Fellow lied and it went unnoticed.

Edit 4: Updated total cost of prizes from $5.74m to $6.74m as someone pointed out I forgot to include the $1m Atlas Fund.

Edit 5: Added clarification to the claim on “no inventory stock”.

Edit 6: After this post came out, the Atlas Fellowship website was updated to remove Sydney from the cofounders. See now vs earlier (on archive.org). Why was she removed? Was this only publicly to prevent further controversy regarding grantor-grantee relationships and she will still be helping out behind-the-scenes or was she actually removed?