Along with my co-founder, Marcus A. Davis, I run Rethink Priorities. Previously, I was a professional data scientist.
Congrats Aaron. Is there a plan for replacing you as the singular and dedicated face of the EA Forum? You will be missed here, but unlocking more OP content into the public sphere sounds well worth it.
My advice here is not going to be about listing a ton of places to widely post your job ad—while we do that, I really think it only accounts for maybe ~10% of our hiring success. I think ~90% of our strongest applicants come from either the 80K jobs board or from us deliberately reaching out to people and inviting them to apply.
Since you can’t really do anything about the 80K jobs board (they don’t accept solicitations), the single best thing IMO that you can do is proactively identify high-potential candidates and invite them to apply. Also, reach out to a group of diverse other people you respect and whom you think are good judges of talent and ask them who they think are the high-potential candidates and then invite those candidates to apply.
Another important factor: Hiring remotely gives us (Rethink Priorities) access to a much bigger talent pool than organizations that don’t, but of course there’s trade-offs there. That might explain another large portion of how we can get so many applicants.
Lastly, I think it’s also worth investing a lot of time in creating a genuinely good workplace and then telling people about it so they know you have one. You can advertise all you want but people still have to choose to apply and they’ll only apply to good places.
These three things matter much more than just posting everywhere.
I definitely think that we are very lucky to have Abraham working with us. I think another thing is that there are at least three people (Abraham, Marcus, me, and probably other people too if given the chance) each capable of founding and running an organization all focused instead on making just one organization really great and big.
I definitely think having Abraham be able to fully handle operations allows Marcus and me to focus nearly entirely on driving our research quality, which is a good thing. Marcus and I also have clear subfocuses (Marcus does animals and global health / development, whereas I focus on longtermism, surveys, and EA movement building) which allow us to further focus our time specifically on making things great.
I think donating to the EA Funds is a very good thing to do, but I don’t think every donor should do this. I think for donors who have the time and personal fit, it would be good to do some direct donations on your own and support organizations to help those organizations hedge against idiosyncratic risk from particular funders and help give them more individual support (which matters for showing proof to other funders and also matters for some IRS stuff).
I don’t think any one funder likes to fund the entirety of an organization’s budget, especially when that budget is large. But between the different institutional funders (EA Funds, Survival and Flourishing Fund, OpenPhil, etc.), I still think there is a strong (but not guaranteed) chance we will be funded (at least enough to meet somewhere between our “Low” and “High” budget amounts). Though if everyone assumed we were not funding constrained, than we definitely would be.
My other pitch is that I’d like RP, as an organization, to have some direct financial incentive and accountability to the EA community as a whole, above and beyond our specific institutional funders who have specific desires and fund us for specific reasons that don’t always match what the community as a whole wants or needs.
Lastly, if you trust us, we also value unrestricted funds highly (probably 1.5x-2x per dollar) because this allows us to start new research areas and programs that have less pre-existing proof/traction and get them to a point where they are ready to show bigger funders.
Yes, it is still our approach, broadly speaking, to focus on empirical research, though certainly not to the exclusion of philosophy research. And we’ve now done a lot of research that combines both, such as our published work on invertebrate sentience and our forthcoming work on the relative moral weight of different animals.
The first part I answered here.
I think a major success for us would look like having achieved a large and sustainably productive research organization tackling research in a variety of disciplines and cause areas. I think we will have made a major contribution to unlocking funding in effective altruism by figuring out to fund with more confidence as well as increasing our influence across a larger variety of stakeholders, including important stakeholders outside of the effective altruism movement..
One thing we know for certain is that we are definitely doing AI Governance and Strategy work. We have not decided these other avenues yet—I think we will decide them in large part based on who we hire for our roles and in consulting with the people we hire once they are hired and come to agreements as a team. I definitely think that there is a lot to contribute in every field, but we will weigh neglectedness and our comparative advantage in figuring out what to work on.
A note on why climate change is currently in our global health and development work rather than longtermism—the main reasons for this is that while we could consider longtermist work on climate change we do not think marginal longtermist climate change work makes sense for us relative to the importance and tractability of other longtermist work we could do. However, global health and development funders and actors are also interested in climate change in a way that does not funge much against longtermist money or talent, and the burden of climate change is felt heavily on lower and middle income countries. Therefore we think climate change work makes sense to explore relative to other global health and development opportunities.
We at Rethink Priorities definitely have made an increasingly large effort to include forecasting in our work. In particular, we just recently have been running a large Nuclear Risks Tournament on Metaculus. My guess is that the reasons we don’t have even more forecasting relates to not all of our researchers being experienced forecasters and it hasn’t been a sufficient priority to generate sufficiently useful and decision-relevant forecasting questions for every research piece.
I don’t think it is actually possible to 10x our impact with the same staff, funding, and other resources—hence our desire to hire and fundraise more. If it was possible, we’d certainly try to do that!
The best answer I can think of is Goodharting—we certainly could influence more total dollars if we cared less about the quality of our influence and the quality of those dollars. We also could exaggerate our claims about what “influence” means, taking credit for decisions that likely would’ve been made the same anyway.
One recent experiment has been trying to get better at project management, especially at a larger scale. We’ve rolled out Asana for the entire organization and have hired a project manager.
Another recent experiment has been whether we can directly hire for “Senior Research Managers” (SRMs), instead of having to develop all our senior research talent in-house. We’ve hired two external SRMs and it has been going well so far, but it is too early to tell. We may try to hire another external SRM in our current hiring process.
If both these two experiments go well, it will unlock a lot of future scalability for our organization and for other organizations that can follow suit.
Our next experiment will likely involve hiring research and/or executive assistants to see if they can help our existing researchers achieve more productivity in a more sustainable way.
We’re working right now on a values and culture setting exercise where we are figuring out intentionally what we like about our culture and what we want to specifically keep. I appreciate Dominika’s comment but I want to add a bit more of what is coming out of this (though it isn’t finished yet).
Four things I think are important about our culture that I like and try to intentionally cultivate:
Work-life balance and sustainability in our work. Lots of our problems are important and very pressing and it is easy to burn yourself out working hard on it. We have deliberately tried to design our culture for sustainability. Sure, you might get some more hours of work this year if you work harder but it isn’t worth burning out just a few years later. We want our researchers here for the long haul. We’re invested in their long-term productivity.
Rigor and calibration. It’s very easy to do research poorly and unfortunately easy to do bad research that misleads people because it is hard to see how the research is bad. Thus a lot of work must be done by our researchers to ensure that our work is accurate and useful.
Ownership. In a lot of organizations, managers want their employees to do exactly what they are told and follow processes to the letter. At Rethink Priorities, we think the ideal employee instead seeks to understand the motivation behind the assignment and how it fits into our goals and notices if there is a better way to achieve the same goals or even if the project shouldn’t be done.
Working on the right things. There are a lot of problems that we need to solve, so we must prioritize them. Selecting the right research question can often be more impactful than answering it.
We’ll have something more finished at a later date!
Research, especially EA-aligned research done based on an explicit theory of change.
I think to better expand Rethink Priorities, we need Rethink Priorities to be bigger and more efficient.
I think the relevant constraints for “why aren’t we bigger?” are:
(1): sufficient number of talented researchers that we can hire
(2): sufficient number of useful research questions we can tackle
(3): ability to ensure each employee has a positive and productive experience (basically, people management constraints and project management constraints)
(4): ops capacity—ensuring our ops team is large enough to support the team
(5): Ops and culture throughput—giving the ops enough time to onboard people (regardless of ops team size), giving people enough time to adapt to the org growth …that is, even if we were otherwise unconstrained I still think we can’t just 10x in one year because that would just feel too ludicrous
(6): proof/traction (to both ourselves and to our external stakeholders/funders) that we are on the right path and “deserve” to scale (this also just takes time)
(7): money to pay for all of the above
It doesn’t look like (1) or (2) will constrain us anytime soon.
My guess is that (3) is our current most important constraint but that we are working by experimenting with directly hiring managers and by promoting people into management internally. We rolled out management training this summer and also used our internship program, in part, to train management capacity. From a project management perspective, we recently hired a manager and have rolled out Asana across the team and we will continue to focus on the Asana processes we’ve built and make sure they are working before scaling more.
For (4), this will occasionally become a constraint from time-to-time but we solve this by proactively identifying ops bottlenecks and hiring for them well in advance. So far this has gone well.
For (5), I think this will be our next biggest constraint once we solve (3). I think this is best solved just with time to let the current level of growth become normal as well as listening to staff and their concerns. We just launched our biannual staff survey and we are awaiting important staff feedback before hiring more.
For (6), I think also comes with time and probably can be seen in combination with (5).
For (7), I do think we are funding constrained right now—we have room for more funding and definitely need to get money from somewhere in order to continue our work. I’m optimistic that we can get money from our current institutional sources because we haven’t tried too recently to ask them for money and I think they still like us and want us to continue to succeed. But I think, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, we’d still like other people to support our work to enable us to diversify our funding sources, give us more flexible unrestricted funding that is 1.5x-2x as valuable per dollar to us, and to build us more sustainability / flexibility in the face of idiosyncratic risk.
Sorry that was seven things instead of 2-3, but I think it helps to communicate the full picture.
I think we cover this in our 2021 Impact and 2022 Strategy update!
It’s been hard for me to make five year plans, given that we’re currently only a little less than four years old and the growth between 2018 when we started and now has already been very hard to anticipate in advance!
I do think that RP could be 2x as large in five years. I’m actually optimistic that we could double in 2-3 years!
I’m less sure about how much funded work we’d do—actually I’m not sure what you mean by funded work, do you mean work directly commissioned by stakeholders as opposed to us doing work we proactively identify?
I’m also less sure about impact per dollar. We’ve found this to be very difficult to track and quantify precisely. Perhaps as 80,000 Hours talks about “impact-adjusted career changes”, we might want to talk about “impact-adjusted decision changes”—and I’d be keen to generate more of those, even after adjusting for our growth in staff and funding. I think we’ve learned a lot more about how to unlock impact from our work and I think also there will have been more time for our past work to bear fruit.
Answered here and here and here.
Thanks! We’ll make sure to get this changed going forward.
We have not yet decided whether we will have internships / fellowships this summer—assuming you are referring to the Northern Hemisphere here. If we launch these internships, I imagine they will open in 2022 March. We are continuing to consider launching internships / fellowships for summer in each Hemisphere (as we launched an AI Governance and Fellowship for 2022 Jan-March for summer in the Southern Hemisphere).
Another thing we are considering in addition to, or in replacement of, internships this year is Research/Executive Assistant positions that focus more on supporting and learning the work of a particular researcher on the RP team. These roles would likely be permanent/indefinite in length rather than a few months like our internships have been.
We’d expect to find new funding opportunities in each cause area we work in. Our work is aspirational and inherently about exploring the unknown though, so it’s very difficult to know in advance how large the funding gaps we uncover will be. But hopefully our work will contribute to a part of work that overall shifts EA from not having a funding overhang but instead having substantial room for more funding in all cause areas. This will be a multi-year journey.