Kat Woods recently wrote a Facebook post about Nonlinear's new funding program.

This led to a discussion (in the comments section) about funding norms, the current funding bar, concerns about lowering the bar, and concerns about the current (relatively centralized) funding situation. 

I'm posting a few of the comments below. I'm hoping this might promote more discussion about the funding landscape. Such discussion could be especially valuable right now, given that:

  • Many people are starting to get interested in AI safety (including people who are not from the EA/rationalist communities)
  • AGI timeline estimates have generally shortened 
  • Investment in overall AI development is increasing quickly
  • There may be opportunities to spend large amounts of money in the upcoming year (e.g., scalable career transition grant programs, regranting programs, 2024 US elections, AI governance/policy infrastructure, public campaigns for AI safety).
  • Many ideas with high potential upside also have noteworthy downside risks (phrased less vaguely, I think that among governance/policy/comms projects that have high potential upside, >50% also have non-trivial downside risks). 
  • We might see pretty big changes in the funding landscape over the next 6-24 months
    • New funders appear to be getting interested in AI safety
    • Governments are getting interested in AI safety
    • Major tech companies may decide to invest more resources into AI safety

Selected comments from FB thread

Note: I've made some editorial decisions to keep this post relatively short. Bolding is added by me. See the full thread here. Also, as usual, statements from individuals don't necessarily reflect the views of their employers.

Kat Woods (Nonlinear)

I often talk to dejected people who say they tried to get EA funding and were rejected

And what I want to do is to give them a rousing speech about how being rejected by one funder doesn't mean that their idea is bad or that their personal qualities are bad.

The evaluation process is noisy. Even the best funders make mistakes. They might just have a different world model or value system than you. They might have been hangry while reading your application.

That to succeed, you'll have to ask a ton of people, and get a ton of rejections, but that's OK, because you only need a handful of yeses.

(Kat then describes the new funding program from Nonlinear. TLDR: People submit an application that can then be reviewed by a network of 50+ funders.)

Claire Zabel (Program Officer at Open Philanthropy)

Claire's comment:

(Claire quoting Kat:) The evaluation process is noisy. Even the best funders make mistakes. They might just have a different world model or value system than you. They might have been hangry while reading your application.

(Claire's response): That's true. It's also possible the project they are applying for is harmful, but if they apply to enough funders, eventually someone will fund the harmful project (unilateralist's curse). In my experience as a grantmaker, a substantial fraction (though certainly very far from all) rejected applications in the longtermist space seem harmful in expectation, not just "not cost-effective enough"

Selected portions of Kat's response to Claire:

1. We’re probably going to be setting up channels where funders can discuss applicants. This way if there are concerns about net negativity, other funders considering it can see that. This might even lead to less unilateralist curse because if lots of funders think that the idea is net negative, others will be able to see that, instead of the status quo, where it’s hard to know what other funders think of an application.

2. All these donors were giving anyways, with all the possibilities of the unilateralist’s curse. This just gives them more / better options to choose from. From this alone, it actually might lead to less net-negative projects being funded because smaller funders have access to better options.

4. Big EA funders are also composed of fallible humans who might also miss large downside risk projects. This system could help unearth downside risks that they hadn’t thought of. There’s also the possibility of false alarms, where they thought something was net negative when it wasn’t.

Given how hard it is to evaluate ideas/talent in in AI safety, I think we get better outcomes if we treat it less like bridge-building and more like assessing startups. Except harder! At least YCombinator finds out years later if any of their bets worked. With AI safety, we can’t even agree if Eliezer or Paul are net positive!

Larissa's response to Claire:

Over time I've become somewhat skeptical of people who talk about the harm from other people's projects in this way. It seems like it is used as an argument to centralize decision making to a small group and one that at this point I'm not sure has a strong enough track record. In the EA movement building space, the people I heard this from the most are the people who've now themselves caused the most harm to the EA movement. I think it's plausible that a similar thing is true the in AI spaces.

Kerry's response to Claire:

Historically, this kind of argument has been weaponized to centralize funding in the hands of Open Phil and Open Phil-aligned groups. I think it's important that funding on AI-related topics not be centralized in this way as Open Phil is a major supporter of AGI danger labs via support for Open AI and more recently the strong connections to Anthropic.

Let's inform donors about the risk that grants could cause harm and trust them to make sensible decisions on that basis.

Caleb Parikh (Executive Director of EA Funds)

I’d be interested in hearing examples of good AI safety projects that failed to get funding in the last year. I think the current funders are able to fund things down to the point where a good amount of things being passed on are net negative by their lights or have pretty low upside.

Kat's response to Caleb:

The most common examples are people who get funding but aren't fully funded. This happens all the time. This alone means that the Nonlinear Network can add value.

I think for the ones where the funders feel like there isn’t a ton of upside, that pretty straightforwardly should still have other people considering funding them. The big funders will often be wrong. Not because they aren’t amazing at their jobs (which I think they are), but because of the nature of the field. Successful investors miss opportunities all the time, and we should expect the nonprofit world to be worse at this because of even worse feedback loops, different goals, and a very inefficient market.

And even for the people who do think that an idea is net negative - how confident are they in that? You’d have to be quite confident that something is bad to think that other people shouldn’t even be able to think for themselves about the idea. That level of confidence in a field like AI safety seems unwarranted.

Especially given that if you asked 100 informed, smart, and value aligned EAs, you’d rarely get over 50% of people thinking it’s net negative. It’s really hard to get EAs to agree on anything! And for most of the ideas that some people think are net negative, you’d have a huge percentage of EAs thinking it’s net positive.

Because evaluating impact is *hard*. We should expect to be wrong most of the time. And if that’s the case, it’s better to harness the collective wisdom of a larger number of EAs, to have a ton of uncorrelated minds trying different strategies and debating and trying to seek truth. To not be overly confident in our own ability to evaluate talent/ideas, and to encourage a thriving marketplace of EA ideas.

Thomas Larsen's response to Caleb 

(note: Thomas is a grant evaluator at EA funds):

Ways to turn $$$ into impact that aren't happening:

1. Funding CAIS more (to pay their people more, to hire more people, etc)

2. Funding another evals org

3. Creating a new regranting program

4. Increasing independent alignment researcher salary to like 150k/year (depending on location) to enable better time money tradeoffs.

5. Just decreasing the funding bar for passive applications -- a year ago the funding bar was lower, and there are grants that would have been funded (and are confidently net positive EV) yet are below the current bar

Seems to me that if EA has 10B in the bank, and timelines are 10 years, it's not unreasonable to spend 1B / year right now, and my guess is we currently spend ~100-200M / year.

Akash (that's me)

Lots of the comments so far seem to be about the funding bar; I think there's also a lot to be said about barriers to applying, missed opportunities, and the role of active grantmaking.

For instance, I got the sense that many of the valuable FTX regrants were grants that major funders would have funded. So sometimes people would say things like "this isn't counterfactual because LTFF would've just funded it."

But in many cases, the grants *were* counterfactual, because the grantee would've never thought to apply. The regranting program did lower the bar for funding, but it also created a culture of active grantmaking, proactively finding opportunities, and having people feel like it was their responsibility to find ways to turn money into impact.

My impression is that LTFF/OP spends a rather small fraction of time on active grantmaking. I don't have enough context to be confident that this is a mistake, but I wouldn't be surprised if most of the value being "left on the table" was actually due to lack of active grantmaking (as opposed to EG the funding bar being too high).

Things LTFF/OP could do about this:

1. Have more programs/applications that appeal to particular audiences (e.g., "mech interp fund", "career transition fund", "AIS Hub Travel Grant"

2. Regranting program

3. More public statements around what kind of things they are interested in funding, especially stuff that lots of people might not know about. I think there's a lot of Curse of Knowledge going on, where many grantees don't know that they're allowed to apply for X.

4. Hiring someone friendly/social/positive-vibesy to lead active grantmaking. Their role would be to go around talking to people and helping them brainstorm ways they could turn money into impact.

5. Have shorter forms where people can express interest. People find applying to LTFF/OP burdensome, no matter how much people try to say it's supposed to be unburdensome. Luke's recent "interest form for AI governance" seems like a good template IMO.

Note: Since Kat's post is public, I didn't ask for permission to post peoples' comments on LessWrong. I think this is the right policy, but feel free to DM me if you disagree.


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Ways to turn $$$ into impact that aren't happening:
4. Increasing independent alignment researcher salary to like 150k/year (depending on location) to enable better time money tradeoffs.

This is a bit surprising to me!

If we're talking about reasonably proven high-skill researchers, 150,000 USD/year in a reasonable cost of living area (e.g. DFW area) is... still sufficiently uncompetitive that some people that could have contributed will definitely follow the money instead. With the implied skills and background, it's not too hard to make a lot more money with less effort.

The implication that current funding tends to target even lower salaries than this is concerning.

Random thoughts:

  • If this number is a rough average that includes junior researchers (e.g. just out of school), there might be no issue.
  • I know funding at or above 150k/year is possible based on the public reports, so there isn't a hard threshold, which is good.
  • I could see an argument for preferring funding those who are already sufficiently deep that they are willing to take significant paycuts relative to industry because of risk/timelines/charitability/autonomy. That subset of people might have higher impact per dollar spent (and have lower rates of fraud), but I doubt that this is a survival maximizing strategy unless you have enough talent in that pool that you become funding constrained.
  • I'm worried that the rate of funding across the field is lower than it should be (given my timelines, at least). Seems like the game's going to end with a lot of unspent resources.

I think a lot of people applying to do independent alignment research do live in expensive areas like SFBay but are on the younger side and don’t have kids and are willing to share a cramped apartment with roommates etc. Basically, the same kind of people who might alternatively choose to go to grad school despite equally pathetically low stipends.

When I was applying for my first independent alignment research grant in 2020, by contrast, I had daycare expenses and a mortgage and so on. I made a massive spreadsheet and calculated that I needed $150k/yr to make it work, so that’s what I asked for. This was a substantial pay cut from my industry job, and I still felt weird / guilty / something-or-other because I had the strong impression that I was asking for like 3-5× more money than were most people applying for the same kind of grant. But whenever I brought that up explicitly to the people in the field who were helping me with grant-applications etc., they all took great pains to assure me that it was fine—I should ask for an amount that would work for my situation, and funders can always say no, but anyway they’re probably paying more attention to the project quality than the cost at these scales. (And anyway, those same funders are also probably donating to nonprofits with comparable or higher cost-per-employee.) Anyway, I did find a funder!  :)  :)

I still felt weird / guilty / something-or-other because I had the strong impression that I was asking for like 3-5× more money than were most people applying for the same kind of grant. But whenever I brought that up explicitly to the people in the field who were helping me with grant-applications etc., they all took great pains to assure me that it was fine

Good to hear you got funding at that rate, and that this is explicitly considered good-and-normal! That was the vibe I got (including from my own grant getting funded), and was part of why I was surprised in the first place.

Perhaps not all of them are in the Bay Area/London? 150k per year can buy you three top professors from Eastern European Universities to work for you full time, and be happy about it. Sure, other jobs pay more, but when unconstrained from living in an expensive city, these grants actually go quite far. (We're toying with ideas of opening research hubs outside of most expensive hubs in the world, exactly for that reason)

Fwiw I'm pretty confident that if a top professor wanted funding at 50k/year to do AI Safety stuff they would get immediately funded, and that the bottleneck is that people in this reference class aren't applying to do this. 

There's also relevant mentorship/management bottlenecks in this, so funding them to do their own research is generally a lot less overall costly than if it also required oversight. 

(written quickly, sorry if unclear)

It can indeed go far in lower cost of living areas- if the average salary is brought down by a bunch of willing and highly effective cheap talent, that would be perfectly fine and good. (And I endorse hubs in cheaper areas! I might have moved to SF, if not for it being... SF.)

I do still worry about practical competitiveness in this case, though. For reference, housing in the DFW area is 3-5x cheaper than the bay area, so 150k/year buys you quite a bit of luxury... but you can find work for even more than that. A lot more, depending on specialty and experience. If we model researchers as simple economic agents, offers need to compete with other offers, not just the cost of living.

Those top professors might have reasons to not take higher paying (in terms of real pay vs. cost of living) industry jobs. Maybe they don't want to move internationally, maybe they've got family, maybe they like the autonomy their current position has, maybe they believe in the cause sufficiently that they view the pay cut as a form of charity, and so on. In terms of funding strategy, though, I wouldn't want to rely on people accepting dramatically lower rates than they can demand.

I agree, but AIS jobs are usually fairly remote-friendly (unlike many corporate jobs) and the culture is better than in most universities that I've worked with, so it has many non-wage perks. Question is, can people in cheap cost-of-living places find such high paid work? In Eastern Europe, usually no - there are other people willing/able to work for less so all wages are low, cost of living correlates with wages in that sense too. So giving generous salaries to experts that are in/are willing to relocate to lower cost of living places is cost-effective, insofar as they are currently an underutilized group. I know in EE there are people who would make for good researchers, but are unaware of the problems, salary landscape and such, which is something we're trying to fix (and global awareness of AI is helping a lot).

The content may be public but does copyright law allow these sorts of quotes?

Which venue controls Facebook posts' copyright? I assume that Lesswrong.com's liability is also affected by the law that applies to the location of Lightcone's office.

I do not know the answer but desired to mention them in case they are relevant.