This post summarizes a conversation which was part of the Cause Prioritization Shallow, all parts of which are available here. Previously in this series, conversations with Owen Cotton-Barratt, Paul Christiano, Paul Penley, Gordon Irlam, and Alexander Berger.
Katja Grace: Research assistant, Machine Intelligence Research Institute
Robert Wiblin: Executive Director, Center for Effective Altruism
Robert talked extensively with the Copenhagen Consensus Center (CCC) while investigating them as a potential Giving What We Can recommendation for funding. This is Katja’s summary of relevant things Robert learned, from a conversation on the 16th of January 2014, supplemented with facts from the CCC website.
Activities and impact
At a high level, CCC’s main activity is prioritizing a broad variety of altruistic interventions based on cost-effectiveness. They do this by commissioning top economists to research and write about good spending opportunities, using a cost-benefit analysis framework. They do secondary research, assembling existing academic evidence into actionable priorities for governments and philanthropists. An important feature of this work is that they squeeze the analysis of a wide range of topics into the same framework, so one can make reasonable comparisons, given a lot of assumptions.
CCC also devotes substantial efforts to encouraging people to use this decision-support, and in general to prioritize based on good data analysis. In the Millenium Development Goals project for instance, money is probably divided between one third on research and two thirds on dissemination of that research.
CCC usually has around one main project at a time, and as one finishes they dovetail into another. They have around 4-5 core staff, and bring in extra contractors for a lot of the work. The annual budget is $1-2M, and the cost of core staff is probably only around a couple of hundred thousand dollars annually.
The value from CCC’s work does not usually come from finding unsuspected good interventions. It is rather from linking together evidence to make a strong cases for activities that are already believed to be good among experts, but which aren’t widely supported. CCC has for instance highlighted the high value of health interventions relating to nutrition and contagious disease. The notion that these are very good interventions is not unusual among development people, but most of the money is spent elsewhere, so there is a lot of value in making such cases. That CCC usually reaches such plausible conclusions suggests their research method is sensible. Their view on climate change is an exception to this trend; it is quite unusual.
CCC have provided a number of documents on the impact of their work. They have numerous examples of people listening to them and doing things. They can also point to media coverage and a modest number of cases where they said to do something, and talked about it and soon afterwards the person did something like that. It is hard to establish causation, but this is suggestive evidence.
Very few people do anything similar to CCC. Cause prioritization is rare. Doing comparison work at all is a somewhat unique selling point, as is asking for quantitative estimates on things that are not often quantified. Talking about why climate change is not the best cause is also a niche activity.
Contributing to CCC
When Robert spoke to them, CCC was looking for funding for their post-2015 (Millenium Development Goals) project. Their website suggests they still are, along with an American Prosperity Consensus 2014 project and a Global Consensus 2016 project. If the post-2015 is not completely funded there will be less outreach than hoped. They will engage less with the media, and won’t be able to afford some events with officials, where they intend to describe the research and try to persuade them.
Their other recent work includes a book on how much problems have cost the world. Much of the data in it had never been published before, since economic models are seldom run “backwards” – into history.
CCC is currently looking for two summer interns for their back-office in Budapest, Hungary. The desired profile for these positions includes graduate education in an area relevant to CCC’s work (in particular, relating to research project management and outreach) and an interest in and aptitude for digital media (including social media, search, video, web sites). Interns will be assigned tasks and mini-projects within the post-2015 project and the general outreach program, and report to the post-2015 engagement manager and/or the post-2015 project manager. Good mutual match could lead to a permanent position.