Rethink Priorities Plans for 2019

post by Peter_Hurford · 2018-12-18T00:18:31.987Z · EA · GW · 4 comments


    we did this year
      Peter Hurford - Lead Researcher
      David Moss - Senior Research Analyst
      Kim Cuddington - Research Analyst
      Derek Foster - Research Analyst
      Luisa Rodriguez - Research Analyst
      Saulius Šimčikas - Research Analyst
      Neil Dullaghan - Junior Research Analyst
      Jason Schukraft - Junior Research Analyst
      Daniela R. Waldhorn - Junior Research Analyst
    Research Agenda
  2019 Goals and Measuring Progress

This post was co-authored by Peter Hurford and Marcus A. Davis, with editing help from the rest of the Rethink Priorities and Rethink Charity team.

The effective altruism movement is allocating hundreds of millions of dollars and millions of person hours per year to improve the world. Rethink Priorities is a research organization aimed at uncovering actionable insights across different EA causes, improving the effectiveness of this time and money. We’re guided by our founding values – we care about transparency, tractability, short feedback loops, actionability, and impact assessment.

Rethink Priorities is an independent project of Rethink Charity, founded in January 2018 by Peter Hurford and Marcus A. Davis to figure out how to better allocate our time and money toward doing more good. We recently expanded to a team of ten and have an exciting research agenda for 2019. Our 2019 budget is $447K (see table below for details) and we are looking to raise $294K more. If you’re interested in funding Rethink Priorities, or for more information, email Marcus A. Davis (

What we did this year

In 2018, our priority was our own capacity building and learning about how to do good research. We completed a deep dive into the cost-effectiveness of vaccines and learned some lessons about applying cost-effectiveness estimations to domains with high uncertainty. We launched the PriorityWiki (and got some press) to help summarize existing prioritization research. We also finished a large hiring round, hiring seven researchers and creating our research agenda for 2019.

We also spent some time analyzing movement building strategy in cooperation with other projects of Rethink Charity. We ran the EA Survey and published some of our findings across five posts (e.g., see this one on donation data [EA · GW]) and expect to finish publishing one more post by the end of the year.

Our 2018 research was mostly (though not exclusively) focused on farmed and wild animal welfare. We commissioned a site visit of farming practices in rural Zambia, we re-analyzed veg outreach studies, and we collaborated with Animal Charity Evaluators on a detailed report on farmed fish welfare (publication forthcoming).

Finally, we spent a significant amount of time doing thorough research into the invertebrate sentience (following Muehlhauser, 2017, Section 3.2), summarizing the academic literature across 15+ kinds of animals and 40+ potentially conscious indicating features, with publications expected in early 2019.

2019 Team

At the start of the year and of the project, the staff of Rethink Priorities consisted only of Peter and Marcus. We made an internal hire with David Moss and then decided to start a hiring round to expand the team to include more researchers. Our current team is:

Marcus A. Davis - Lead Researcher

Marcus works on Rethink Priorities strategy and oversees research. He previously co-founded Charity Science Health, where he systematically analyzed global poverty interventions, led cost-effectiveness analyses, and oversaw all technical aspects of the project. Before joining the Charity Science Health team, he ran Effective Altruism Chicago and worked with Rethink Charity coordinating outreach to local EA groups around the globe.

Peter Hurford - Lead Researcher

Peter works on Rethink Priorities strategy and oversees research. He also is a Data Scientist at DataRobot. He co-founded Rethink Charity, and is on the board of Charity Science Health and Animal Charity Evaluators. He has reviewed and produced research on cause prioritization and effective altruism since 2013.

David Moss - Senior Research Analyst

David Moss is Director of Research for all of Rethink Charity, focusing on measurement and evaluation. He also works as a Research Analyst at Charity Entrepreneurship. David studied Philosophy at Cambridge and is an academic researcher of moral psychology.

Kim Cuddington - Research Analyst

Kim Cuddington is a Research Analyst at Rethink Priorities. She has a PhD in ecology with a background in mathematical modeling. She is an academic researcher of population ecology at the University of Waterloo.

Derek Foster - Research Analyst

Derek is a Research Analyst at Rethink Priorities. He studied philosophy and politics as an undergraduate, followed by public health and health economics at master’s level. Before joining RP, Derek worked on the Global Happiness Policy Report and various other projects related to global health, education, and subjective well-being.

Luisa Rodriguez - Research Analyst

Luisa Rodriguez is a Research Analyst at Rethink Priorities. Previously, she conducted cost-effectiveness evaluations of nonprofit and government programs at ImpactMatters, Innovations for Poverty Action, and GiveWell.

Saulius Šimčikas - Research Analyst

Saulius is a Research Analyst at Rethink Priorities. Previously, he was a research intern at Animal Charity Evaluators, organized Effective Altruism events in the UK and Lithuania, and worked as a programmer.

Neil Dullaghan - Junior Research Analyst

Neil is a Junior Research Analyst at Rethink Priorities. He also volunteers for Charity Entrepreneurship and Animal Charity Evaluators. Before joining RP, Neil worked as a data manager for an online voter platform and has an academic background in Political Science.

Jason Schukraft - Junior Research Analyst

Jason is a Junior Research Analyst at Rethink Priorities. Before joining the RP team, Jason earned his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin. Jason specializes in questions at the intersection of epistemology and applied ethics.

Daniela R. Waldhorn - Junior Research Analyst

Daniela is a Junior Research Analyst at Rethink Priorities. She is a PhD candidate in Social Psychology, and has a background in management and operations. Before joining RP, Daniela worked for Animal Ethics and for Animal Equality.

2019 Research Agenda

With our team, we are well positioned for 2019 to produce substantial amount of high-quality research on a number of topics.

We intend to continue our focus on farmed and wild animal welfare for 2019, as we still see animal welfare as an important, neglected, and uniquely tractable issue that our team is well-poised to address. However, in 2019, we’d also like to allocate some amount of time to working outside animal welfare, such as improving mental health, strengthening the effective altruism movement, reducing catastrophic risks to the survival of humanity (e.g., nuclear weapons, bio-terror, artificial intelligence), and improving the quality of the long-term future.

Projects we may take on in 2019 potentially include:

While this list is not meant to be a definitive look at which projects we will actually complete in 2019, it represents our broad priorities. As such, our work will span multiple domains, but we intend to focus the majority of our time on animal welfare.

2019 Goals and Measuring Progress

We see our primary means of impact as influencing and informing the effective altruism movement. Our 2019 goal is to establish ourselves as an effective altruism research organization with a path toward influencing key donors and decision-makers, especially in the animal advocacy space. While the hope is that research we do may uncover important interventions that could absorb millions of dollars in funding, we’d like to start in 2019 simply by ensuring that at least four people or institutions granting at least $50,000 in 2019 each cite our research as a factor in their decision-making. We also intend to annually run a formal survey to discover if our target audience of large-scale donors has read our work and if it has influenced their decision-making.


Of course, we can’t do this without money! Our 2019 budget is ~$447K:

But thanks to generous funders, so far we’ve already raised ~$153K, thus making our funding needs ~$294K for 2019:


While we are a project of Rethink Charity, we maintain an entirely separate budget and fundraise separately. All funding specifically earmarked to Rethink Priorities will be used for Rethink Priorities research only and will not be used for other Rethink Charity projects.

Furthermore, we’re able to accept funding earmarked to a particular project area (for example, if you only want to fund work into wild animal welfare). We’ve done careful accounting to create budgets for each project and to minimize risk of fungibility between projects. However, unrestricted funding would be most valuable to us to allow us to pursue our highest priority research agendas or change our research plans if we find more important projects.


We’re excited by our new team and our ambitious research agenda for 2019. To fund this, we’re looking to raise $294K and we hope that you will consider supporting us. Cause prioritization research is valuable and widely neglected. Rethink Priorities is uniquely-placed to make a tractable impact on difficult problems.

If you’d like to fund important research into farmed animal welfare, wild animal welfare, EA movement building, mental health, reducing catastrophic risks, or something else, please contact Marcus A. Davis (


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by scottweathers · 2018-12-19T21:27:22.928Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Great to see such a strong focus on farmed animal welfare from a research organization! This list of prioritized questions looks strong to me. A few others worth considering:

  • Developing a stronger method of estimation for the number of broiler chickens and layer hens in corporate supply chains. I'd also like to see this done for fish. There is already a working group at animal groups focusing on this and I'm happy to put you in touch.
  • Estimating the rate of displacement of animal products from plant-based startups, e.g. Just (formerly Hampton Creek), Impossible Foods, MorningStar Farms, etc. This could have large implications on the degree to which EAs should focus on for-profit entrepreneurship.
  • Developing a prioritized list of states (or other countries) that would be most open to ballot initiatives to improve the lives of farmed animals, based on the wordings you test in surveys. I would particularly be interested in ballot initiatives that expand the Overton Window for what is possible in farmed animal welfare.
  • Identification of new tactics and strategies that mainstream advocacy organizations could implement beyond corporate campaigns (or variations thereof).
  • Estimation of the impact of "whole carcass utilization" by animal protein source. Theoretically, encouraging food companies to use the entire body of an animal (e.g. a chicken back or neck, as opposed to breast) could reduce their harm without changing the overall amount of meat they purchase. However, it could also be the case that the industry is so efficient at using the entire body of an animal that this would have no impact. I wouldn't prioritize this question high on your list, but the answer would be useful for my current work.

I hope this is useful! Let me know if you have any questions - happy to discuss further.

comment by MichaelPlant · 2018-12-22T11:41:22.971Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Very pleased to see this write up and hear the many valuable things Rethink Priorities is working on. I'll just comment one part. Seeing as you said you wanted to look into mental health and metrics for well-being, I should mention previous and current work done in this area.

Last month I put up a (lengthy) post, Happiness Manifesto: Why and How Effective Altruism Should Rethink its Approach to Maximsing Human Welfare [EA · GW], which discusses such issues in some detail. I'm now in the process of, with some others, starting an organisation to look into this, and would be very pleased to work with Rethink on this (particularly to avoid an unnecessary duplication of effort!). Sindy Li discussed issues with DALYs [EA · GW] back on March 2017. I raised those same concerns, claiming EA was overlooking mental health and happiness [EA · GW] (indeed referening the same study, Dolan and Metcalfe 2012), in June 2016.

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2019-04-15T21:15:19.706Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Understanding mental health interventions - We’d like to understand if we can rely on $/DALY or $/QALY metrics to capture mental health benefits or, if not, if there is a better cost-effectiveness metric that better captures mental health benefits. Once we have a good framework for prioritizing mental health, we’d like to see if we can identify any mental health opportunities that are competitive with other EA opportunities.

Recommend chatting with Natalia Mendoça about this. She's done a lot of good, independent work on these questions.

Summary of a recent presentation she gave:

Natalia Mendoça presented about "Using smartphones to improve well-being measures in order to aid cause prioritization research" (link to presentation). She argued that the experience sampling paradigms that made waves in the 2000s and early 2010s happened at a time when relatively few people had smartphones. Since today smartphone adoption in developing countries has exploded we could use an experience sampling app to determine the major causes of suffering throughout the world in a way that wasn't possible before. She specifically mentioned "comparing how bad different illnesses feel" in order to help us guide policy decision for cause prioritization.

tl;dr experience sampling seems methodologically superior to QALY surveying, and could be done at large scale cheaply given the massive growth of smartphone use over the last decade.

Replies from: Milan_Griffes
comment by Milan_Griffes · 2019-04-15T21:18:00.292Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

One of the takeaways was that mental health appears as a much bigger problem under the experience-sampling framework than it does under the QALY framework.

e.g. QALY framework considers one year with "some problems walking about" to be about as bad as one year with "moderate anxiety or depression."

Which seems obviously wrong.

Here's the presentation deck.