"Altruism-driven research" (EA meets... plant pathology?)

post by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2019-12-18T02:35:58.886Z · score: 14 (7 votes) · EA · GW · 4 comments

This is a link post for https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31821114



I'm crossposting this paper because I thought the source was interesting, rather than because I think the work is especially relevant to top-priority cause areas.(Though ALLFED might disagree?)

It's also nice to see that researchers in a variety of fields may find EA's principles useful for the causes they work on.

While I'll stop short of including a full PDF of the paper (not sure what the relevant laws are), I will note that Sci-Hub exists. 


Effective altruism is an ethical framework for identifying the greatest potential benefits from investments. Here we apply effective altruism concepts to maximize research benefits, in terms of priority stakeholders, pathosystems, and research questions and technologies. 

Priority stakeholders for research benefits may include smallholder farmers who have not yet attained the minimal standards of the UN Sustainable Development Goals; these farmers would often have the most to gain from better crop disease management, if their management problems are tractable. 

In wildlands, prioritization has been based on the risk of extirpating keystone species. Pathosystems may be prioritized based on yield and quality loss, and also factors such as whether replacement of efforts is unlikely, such as for orphan crops and orphan pathosystems. Research products that help build sustainable and resilient systems can be particularly beneficial. The "value of information" from research can be evaluated in epidemic networks and landscapes, to identify priority locations for both benefits to individuals and benefits to constrain regional epidemics. 

As decision-making becomes more consolidated and data more networked in digital agricultural systems, the range of ethical considerations expands. Low likelihood but high damage scenarios, such as generalist doomsday pathogens, may be research priorities because of the extreme cost if they were to occur. Regional microbiomes constitute a commons, and avoiding the 'tragedy of the microbiome commons' may depend on shifting research products from 'common pool goods' to 'public goods' or other categories. 

We provide suggestions for how individual researchers and funders may make altruism-driven research more effective.


I'm not familiar with any of the co-authors, who include plant pathologists, geneticists, and one philosopher.

The citations in the early discussion of EA are solid choices. I liked this excerpt:

Discussions of research ethics often stop short at defining what should not be done: plagiarizing, harassment, falsifying data, taking advantage of research subjects, etc. Effective altruism offers a perspective on how to use evidence about likely impacts to make research investments as beneficial as possible.


Some may find the term ‘altruism’ misleading in the context of research priorities, since individuals and institutions have complex motivations for embarking on philanthropic projects, including access to resources, personal financial gain, publicity, and elevated standing or prestige in society. The point here is not a lack of benefit for the researcher, but to maximize the overall benefits to other people and other species. We acknowledge the peculiarity in our use of the term “altruism-driven research,” but the term is appropriate insofar as many of the concepts used to describe this form of research are borrowed directly from the effective altruism framework. Those who are squeamish about the term “altruism” in this context may consider altruism-driven research as “consequence-driven”. 


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by mike_mclaren · 2019-12-18T11:41:06.525Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for posting this! Very interesting to see effective altruism being directly discussed in this context. I was curious whether EA had been discussed in other academic biology journals. Entering "effective altruism" into the Pubmed search bar brings up four articles,

  1. Funding Conservation through an Emerging Social Movement. Freeling BS, Connell SD. Trends Ecol Evol. 2019 Oct 12. pii: S0169-5347(19)30276-9. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2019.09.002. [Epub ahead of print]

  2. Impediments to Effective Altruism: The Role of Subjective Preferences in Charitable Giving. Berman JZ, Barasch A, Levine EE, Small DA. Psychol Sci. 2018 May;29(5):834-844. doi: 10.1177/0956797617747648. Epub 2018 Apr 16.

  3. Effective altruists ought to be allowed to sell their kidneys. Tonkens R. Bioethics. 2018 Mar;32(3):147-154. doi: 10.1111/bioe.12427. Epub 2018 Jan 25.

  4. Framework for integrating animal welfare into life cycle sustainability assessment. Scherer L, Tomasik B, Rueda O, Pfister S. Int J Life Cycle Assess. 2018;23(7):1476-1490. doi: 10.1007/s11367-017-1420-x. Epub 2017 Nov 20.

The last three fall into categories I might have expected -- psychology, ethics, and animal welfare. But I find #1 particularly notable because it is going to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution (also known as TREE), which is a high impact review journal that is widely read within ecology and evolution. I suspect this TREE article will be more widely seen by scientists than the Phytopathology article in the OP, though perhaps the title of the article will only appeal to the subset of TREE readers working in conservation biology.

comment by Denkenberger · 2019-12-20T18:16:13.968Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Since ALLFED was mentioned… Yes, it is good to see more fields using the EA framework. The paper mentioned the green revolution, which many EAs have noted as being highly effective. There was not quantitative analysis about further interventions related to plant pathology to see if they might be competitive with GiveWell interventions for the present generation. As for the longterm future, they mentioned extreme risks, such as those that could affect the entire grass family (much of grazing fodder, wheat, rice, corn (maize), sugarcane, etc.) and we at ALLFED are concerned about that, especially if it were a coordinated global attack. But in terms of preventing a catastrophe like that (as opposed to the resilience work that ALLFED does), I have not seen any quantitative cost-effectiveness analyses.

comment by gavintaylor · 2019-12-19T11:52:45.420Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for posting this. I think that there is a lot more scope for the INT framework to be used by researchers outside of the top-priority EA areas. From personal experience, if you come into EA as an experienced researcher from a field outside the priority areas it's somewhat hard to connect with the existing resources unless you're willing to change fields.

But I think there would benefits from more general outreach to scientists/academic working in other areas. For instance, nudging researchers to think about the potential impacts/consequences of their work could encourage a norm of selecting impactful, not just interesting, projects (academic research already encourages working on neglected/original and tractable problems) and some may also pass this idea on to their students who may be better positioned to transition to work on a top-priority EA area.

comment by mike_mclaren · 2019-12-18T11:50:01.786Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Small suggestion to include the full citation at the top of the post along with the link; The article and journal titles in particular are useful context.

Garrett KA, Alcala-Briseno R, Andersen KF, Brawner J, Choudhury R, Delaquis E, Fayette J, Poudel R, Purves D, Rothschild J, Small I, Thomas-Sharma S, Xing Y. 2019. Effective altruism as an ethical lens on research priorities. Phytopathology PHYTO-05-19-0168-RVW. DOI: 10.1094/PHYTO-05-19-0168-RVW.

12 of 14 of authors (including first and last authors) are at the University of Florida and one is at Louisiana State University, both major universities in the US Southeast, and one author is at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Laos.