The GiveWell Blog

Funding research

At some point we’d like to investigate the idea of donating to research projects. Non-profit-motivated research is credited with many large and meaningful successes, both in medical areas (most recently, the development of a rotavirus vaccine) and in other areas (most notably, the Green Revolution).

There are serious concerns when donating in this area. For example, a recent working paper by Austan Goolsbee (h/t Greg Mankiw) argues that the additional dollar of U.S. research funding doesn’t lead to more research – only to higher salaries for the people already in the area.

One of the big challenges, it seems to me, will be coming up with ways to make good/educated guesses at which areas of research are funded to the point of diminishing returns, and which aren’t.

Key resources will be surveys such as the relatively new public survey of research & development funding for “neglected diseases” (h/t Malaria Matters), defined as diseases that predominantly affect the developing world. Data like this could allow a “rough cut” at which areas are over vs. under-funded: look at the proportion of dollars to the death toll, or DALY burden, etc.

Of course such a heuristic can’t capture the whole picture – certain diseases may be costlier to investigate, there may be more promising paths on some than on others, etc. Is there a better way to get at this question?


  • Ian Turner on May 13, 2009 at 11:09 pm said:

    This is an interesting paper, but it’s very focused on funding changes in the short term. It takes at least a decade to produce a skilled and experienced researcher, so it’s no wonder that if you increase the amount of research money available today, the result is higher wages in the short term. A better question to ask would be, how does increased funding in the medium term affect the number of entrants into the field?

  • Nathan Fiala on May 14, 2009 at 11:41 am said:

    I must caution on mentioning the Goolsbee paper in this context.

    First, it is not a recent working paper, its from 1998. I can’t find much work on the subject since then.

    Second, he only looks at defense R&D spending, which could potentially be much different than non-defense. For instance, the high cost of getting security clearance could make those with it simply more economically powerful. It creates its own monopoly.

  • Aseem on May 14, 2009 at 4:09 pm said:

    I’d urge everyone to ponder and think about “fat tails” when it comes to research. That is because, in my opinion, the impacts of successful research lie in the realm of extremistan (where a single discovery/finding can have huge disproportionate impacts), and not mediocristan (which is more amenable to traditional sorts of value for your dollar averages).

    For research in general the a-priori estimates of potential use may have little value… in fact there is a rational argument for funding less promising lines of research, as more promising (or maybe the better word is “more intuitive”) lines of research may already have adequate funding, and the convexity of the payoff from a less intuitive path could be extraordinary.

  • Melissa Stevens on May 15, 2009 at 10:21 am said:

    I read with some interest your post on donating to research projects, and the difficulty determining which organizations are best-equipped to make the most use of contributions. Just last month, my organization, FasterCures, launched the Philanthropy Advisory Service (PAS) in an effort to fill the information vacuum caused by the lack of independent, reliable data on the productivity and efficiency of health-related nonprofits and charities.

    The goal of FasterCures is exactly what its name implies. We work to help foster a climate conducive to smart, productive medical research that doesn’t misdirect time or money. We try to advance the medical research debate beyond the usual inside-the-Beltway arguments over dollars and cents and instead fight on the field of practices and policies. It is a fact not often acknowledged that inadequate funding isn’t always to blame for stalled scientific progress. An organization can have limitless financial resources, and still be ineffectual. That’s where PAS comes in.

    Our aim was to create a one-stop information portal for philanthropists and their advisers, to enable them to make informed decisions on charitable giving. We used a singular set of focused criteria: how well – and how effectively – is the organization being run, and to what extent is it contributing to the research community?

    It’s a paradoxical truth that money alone isn’t a cure for poverty. It is our position at FasterCures that money alone isn’t a cure for disease, either. There are millions of people who owe their health and longevity to the generosity of philanthropists, and the medical research that they fund. That is undeniable. But what also is undeniable is that some charities and nonprofits are more effective than others. Now, through PAS, there are metrics to determine just which charities those are.

    — Melissa Stevens, Project Director, FasterCures/Philanthropy Advisory Service

  • Holden on May 15, 2009 at 10:55 am said:

    Nathan, I didn’t look at the paper carefully enough – I appreciate the corrections. I do think the general issue the paper raises is worth considering.

    Melissa, sounds great. Do you plan on publicly publishing charity recommendations & reasoning? How can we make sure to be alerted when this happens?

  • Toby Ord on May 25, 2009 at 5:17 am said:

    I agree that the Goolsbee paper is very interesting. One thing to bear in mind though, is that while it might be hard to increase ‘R&D’ in general, the main effect of funding for, say, malaria research is that it shifts research effort from other areas into malaria research. Thus, it may only increase the total R&D by a small amount, but still move people to the most social effective research. Of course, this way of thinking about it shows that the benefits of these donations are equal to the difference in social benefit of having people work on, say, malaria rather than would they would have been working on.

    I’d love to see some more analysis on the effectiveness of research funding here.

  • Holden on May 25, 2009 at 6:33 pm said:

    Toby – this may be true, but if so, it would increase the burden of evidence for investing in research. If you’re trying to pull resources from one area of research to another, you need to investigate not just whether the research you’re funding is worthwhile but whether it is more worthwhile than other research.

  • bordüren on June 4, 2009 at 3:55 pm said:

    ‘m in Ca. and just got this call. When I got the follow up call from a volunteer I was very disappointed that she confirmed three times that this legislation would allow anyone at anytime to get an abortion. So this group is spewing lies, and Huckabees name is attached.

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