Should Grants Fund EA Projects Retrospectively?

post by FCCC · 2021-09-08T02:58:00.053Z · EA · GW · 8 comments

This is a question post.

Retrospective funding, i.e. funding a project after it is completed, is not a new idea. Some organisations already do it, such as the Future of Life Institute. I used to think that this way of funding was a mistake. Since we want to change future behaviour, I thought it made sense (from a consequentialist perspective) to only fund future projects: We can’t change the past, so rewarding past work has no effect on behaviour.

But this line of reasoning is incorrect: Providing grants for past projects encourages people to create work without having any funding secured. It also allows for grant funds to evaluate finished products, rather than speculate on the quality of a project before it has even started, thereby allowing funds to better estimate the benefits of a research project.

In terms of implementing retrospective funding, I have a few tentative thoughts.

None of this is to say that upfront funding has no place. It does. Especially for projects that require such funding for upfront costs, such as equipment and so on. But aside from those cases, I think that retrospective funding is a better way to do things.

I’d like to hear everyone’s thoughts on the matter to see if I’m missing something. Should more grants be awarded to projects retrospectively, and why? Are there other circumstances for which upfront funding is superior?


answer by avshah · 2021-09-09T14:58:11.043Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

[very quick technical-ish thoughts on a necessary condition] I would guess funding retrospectively today is only useful if you think you're going to increase funding in the future. 

The purpose of funding is to enable people to complete projects -- more people are willing to do a project with more funding, and only really rare, super-duper value-aligned people will do a project with very little funding. 

Retrospectively funding people that are already doing the project ignores they've already signaled they're the type that is happy to do the project for low funding. But, like you said, such funding also signals to future researchers on the margin that their expected funding is higher than whatever it is right now. 

So, it's a way for orgs like OpenPhil to smooth researcher consumption over time if they expect they themselves will be getting richer in the future (and thus be able to increase funding for their projects). Retrospective funding should be set at the transfer required in expectation for the marginal researcher who brings in extra value equal to the cost of retrospective funding (MB = MC)? This argument is in expectation and is likely less effective for more risk-averse people -- if OpenPhil has the money now they should probably just increase upfront funding. 

This also relies on other things, like OpenPhil being seen as trustworthy enough to keep up the scheme of retrospective funding, of the signal of retrospective funding being sufficiently public, etc. 

(On the run now, but I see people linked some stuff in the comments i'll check out soon. If all of what I said is common knowledge already, sorry!!)

answer by Kerry_Vaughan · 2021-09-08T21:33:24.978Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Lots of funding is implicitly retrospective in the sense that what you've done historically is a big input into whether individuals and groups get funding. Yet, because most funding mixes several factors including past work, anticipated future work, reputation, etc. I think there may be an open opportunity here.

I'd be particularly excited to see funding for projects that have already occurred where it is clear that the success or failure of the past project is all that is being considered. This might encourage more unconventional or initially hard-to-assess projects and would provide a more concrete signal about which projects actually succeeded historically.

answer by ChloeRutherford · 2021-09-10T13:05:16.591Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Good article, it was interesting to read) 


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comment by JanBrauner · 2021-09-08T09:00:25.718Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I just quickly wanted to say that this seems related to impact certificates: [? · GW]


There have been a few forum posts on this topic, you can just search the forum (or google) for "impact certificate" and will probably find some interesting arguments.

Replies from: ESRogs, Kerry_Vaughan
comment by ESRogs · 2021-09-09T00:44:21.619Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Note that Vitalik Buterin has also recently started promoting related ideas: Retroactive Public Goods Funding

Replies from: Pablo_Stafforini
comment by Pablo (Pablo_Stafforini) · 2021-09-12T01:49:52.190Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for linking to that article, which I hadn't seen. I updated the 'certificates of impact' entry with a brief summary of the proposal.

comment by Kerry_Vaughan · 2021-09-08T21:34:09.196Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think the consensus around impact certificates was that they seemed like a good idea and yet the idea never really took off.

comment by FCCC · 2021-09-09T03:42:17.752Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Well now I'm definitely glad I wrote "is not a new idea". I didn't know so many people had discussed similar proposals. Thank you all for the reading material. It'll be interesting to hear some downsides to funding retrospectively.

I mentioned the Future of Life Institute which, for those who haven't checked it out yet, does the "Future of Life" award. (Although, now that I think about it, all awards are retrospective.) They also do a podcast, which I haven't listened to in a while but, when I was listening, they had some really interesting discussions.