October 14, 2007
Tyler Cowen Speaking at Google On Prizes And Charity

Speaking at Google Marginal Revolutionary Tyler Cowen gave a recent talk about the trade-offs between the use of prizes and grants. It is about 50 minutes long and worth a listen.

The occasion for Tyler to speak about Prizes was Google's announcement of a prize to send a robotic vehicle to the Moon to cruise around. My own negative reaction to that Google moon rover prize was strengthened by listening to Tyler's talk. First off, note Tyler's comments about how advancing science is probably the most productive way to use prizes (and I concur). Well, Google's moon rover prize will not advance science in areas which provide large benefits to the public by much if at all. The prize motivates engineering work which will mostly involve integration and use of existing technologies. The prize won't spur developments into cheaper and more reliable launch vehicles. The prize won't push nuclear propulsion forward for interplanetary travel. The prize won't improve Earth monitoring technologies. But it does help Google's popular image.

Tyler refers to people who argue that prizes should set goals achievable in 4 to 8 years. Well, I think that longer term goal prizes have benefits that are less immediately apparent. For example, an undergraduate or high school student could be persuaded to go into a field of science to achieve some goal in their 30s and 40s and beyond. Also, a prize could offer a series of cash pay-outs for successive goals in a general direction. For example, imagine a prize for photovoltaics where scientists get $1 million or $2 million per additional 1 percent increase in efficiency of light conversion into electricity. I'd really like to see such a prize.

Tyler also observes that if you give to a charity but only do so rarely you will cause them to put you on their mailing list and that could end up costing them more from the repeat mailings than the amount you initially gave. This is an argument for either anonymous giving or at least donation via a method that doesn't give them a mailing address. Also, if you want to save a charity money then contact them and ask them to take you off their mailing list.

Tyler argues that prizes are underfunded because donors don't get as much satisfaction out of sponsoring prizes as from donating grants. So if you want to donate then probably you should donate to a prize rather than to a foundation that gives out grants. If you do not want to grow old and die then donate to the Methuselah Mouse Prize. That prize will accelerate advances that will eventually convince the general public that the defeat of aging is an achievable scientific and biotechnological goal. Pursuit of rejuvenation therapies and the defeat of aging is an area where prizes can make a big difference. If you are interested in both promoting these advances and learning more about this goal then donate $100 to the Methuselah Foundation and get an autographed copy of Aubrey de Grey's book Ending Aging.

Tyler expects donations for prizes to gain at the expense of giving to universities. I think that is a good development. In my view the $34.9 billion Harvard University endowment is a terrible waste of money. The donors are making bad decisions when they give to Harvard. Harvard's endowment keeps growing very rapidly each year due to both great investment managers and large donations. But the same money spent on prizes and grants for research could deliver much bigger benefits.

Tyler makes a great point about the mantra we hear about "caring".

Often the exhortation is to "Care more, care more, care more". But I think that this is often counterproductive. We're just not capable of caring more. We're self-focused. Its often more useful just to admit to yourself "I don't always care that much" and just say to yourself "hey, I don't always care". What happens then. Once yo make that admission charity then becomes an area you can think about again. Because if you're always telling yourself "I must care, I must care" and you don't then thinking about charity makes you feel bad. What you do is you decide not to think about charity very much and and then you don't give a whole lot. So wake up in the morning and say to yourself "I don't care that much". That's the first step toward giving more. That's counter-intuitive. But I think it works.

I've always found the "care, care, care" message obnoxious and somehow dishonest. Most people who tell us this aren't making the level of personal sacrifice I'd expect from people who really believe that caring about the rest of the world is the secret to huge differences in behavior. I do not see them giving all their money to charities. I do not see them deciding to live in a box only big enough for a bed and toilet while they use all their wealth to help others. I do not see them switching into jobs where they can work 80 to 90 hours a week trying to create scientific and technological solutions to all the problems that cause human suffering. Mostly I see them trying to manipulate the rest of us to achieve goals they want to see achieved. That doesn't suggest they think the problems of the poor are so important that they should pay a personal heavy price. So they don't seem so caring about the world's poor as they try to pretend.

More profoundly: I'm skeptical about the efficacy of caring. Sure, some caring helps some amount. But most of the progress that has lifted humans out of short nasty lives has come due to curiosity, desire for fame, desire for higher status, desire for wealth, and other basically quite selfish desires. A focus on encouraging caring seems wasteful because it amounts to trying to tap into the wrong emotion. If your goal is to encourage people to engage in activities that will alleviate human suffering then appealing to their selfish desires and the construction of incentives that will appeal to what really motivates them seems a much more productive approach.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 October 14 01:28 PM  Worthy Causes

HellKaiserRyo said at October 14, 2007 4:09 PM:

"More profoundly: I'm skeptical about the efficacy of caring. Sure, some caring helps some amount. But most of the progress that has lifted humans out of short nasty lives has come due to curiosity, desire for fame, desire for higher status, desire for wealth, and other basically quite selfish desires. A focus on encouraging caring seems wasteful because it amounts to trying to tap into the wrong emotion. If your goal is to encourage people to engage in activities that will alleviate human suffering then appealing to their selfish desires and the construction of incentives that will appeal to what really motivates them seems a much more productive approach."

Excellent post Randall!

However, one can argue that some people are NOT caring about the right things. For example, the "pro-life" anti-abortion activists do not focus of the laudable goal of eliminating aging, and they seem rather insouciant regarding the welfare of those AFTER they are born. I wonder why they have a fetish for in vitro and in utero life. The answer is obvious: they are NOT pro-life, but rather pro-family in the sense that all children should be conceived as a product of love and welcomed. Moreover, another example also includes animal rights extremists (e.g. people who kidnapped a pet rabbit from a preschool: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20975943/) and I am saying this as a vegetarian who occasionally eats fish.

I like to insult pro-lifers by saying that Aubrey de Grey is a pro-life activist. Well, he is isn’t he? He does not want anyone to die from the scourge of aging!!!!

I do think that selfishness is rather counterproductive Randall in the long term. But I do hope this trait will be drastically reduced through genetic engineering. Curiosity, however, will remain to drive future ambitious projects. Singer was rather apt in a Darwinain Left: Humans do not have the proclivity for egalitarian behavior; unfortunately, we have a tendency to organize ourselves into hierarchical structures.

Randall Parker said at October 14, 2007 5:10 PM:


The anti-abortion activists are more interested in souls than bodies. They see the soul as already possessing eternal life. Given their assumptions they are not as unsensible as might seem.

Only occasional fish consumption: that is a mistake.

Pro-life activists: I want to keep alive those already live. I also want to maximize quality of life of those already alive. So I actually am opposed to large numbers of new births. Why create competing life forms? We have a limited amount of land and habitats.

Selfishness is very productive. Selfish motives drive a large fraction of everything that gets done. The desire for fame, status, money, sex, and other things drives most progress.

Hierarchical structures: But most people don't know what to do.

Bob said at October 14, 2007 6:13 PM:

Timely post, Randall. My wife and I are looking for worthy charitable contributions this time of year. Though we already own Dr. De Gray's book, I went to the site and made a contribution. I'm sure we can find someone who'll benefit from his book.

I encourage other readers of this blog to do join us in making a donation.

James Bowery said at October 14, 2007 11:39 PM:

As I pointed out over at philanthropy.com:

Prizes are really just rewarded objectives. Objectives are a natural outgrowth of competent strategic planning. The reason prizes must be objective is the same reason one establishes objectives within in business or military strategic planning.

Attempts to water-down prizes with more or less subjective “grand challenges” as has the Gates Foundation, is the wrong way to go and illustrates incompetence in the handling of that foundation’s money.

HellKaiserRyo said at October 15, 2007 1:31 AM:

Satan is pro-life! Those Christians are denying those embryos and fetuses an easy shot into heaven. Some Catholics do not believe this though as they might retort with the stain of original sin and limbo. But I do think the driving force behind anti-abortion activism (and opposition to embryonic stem cell research and the use of condoms in Africa) is family values. Family values trumps the notion of social justice, thus explaining the Catholic Church’s idée fixe on condom use and little (or no) concern with the distribution of protease and reverse transciptase inhibitors on the African continent.

The bioconversion of ALA to EPA and subsequently to DHA is rather small. And I do not have access to algae oil with EPA and DHA. In addition, ALA is rather vulnerable to beta-oxidation pathway producing a C-16 fatty acid and acetyl-CoA (http://jn.nutrition.org/cgi/content/full/134/1/183) compared to its C-20 and C-22 sisters. First, ALA must be desaturated by delta-6-desaturase (which is the rate limiting step: http://www.jbc.org/cgi/content/full/274/1/471) to stearidonic acid, then elongated to eicosatetraenoic acid by the reversal of beta-oxidation in the mitochondria or elongation using malonyl-CoA in the endoplasmic reticulum (http://www.rpi.edu/dept/bcbp/molbiochem/MBWeb/mb2/part1/fasynthesis.htm).

Also this study shows that little DHA was produced from ALA within males(n=6):

Do fish suffer? I do not know, they probably feel pain, but not in the magnitude the cattle, poultry, and swine experience. Apologetics for vegetarianism often assiduously explore those cases, but they do not put that much attention on fish. (For example, see the “ethics of eating meat” on Wikipedia, no mention of fish). I think you would agree that the consumption of fish oil trumps any vegan concerns regarding expectant mothers.

But I promise I will stop eating fish if Monsanto creates genetically modified crops that yield DHA in profuse amounts. :)

Well, Aubrey de Grey did float the idea that once we are immortal, children might be no fun according to this rather deprecating report on a transhumanist conference that de Grey attended.http://www.slate.com/id/2142987

Well, curiosity is a form of selfishness, but it does not require the dominance of others to achieve its ends. It is the virtuous form of selfishness! Maybe you are right; drastically diminishing selfishness might not be a panacea, after all, the Nazis were rather altruistic and loathed libertarian (i.e. Ayn Randian) selfishness for the benefit of the state.

As for hierarchical structures, I do agree a sense of order is rather necessary, but I do not find feudalism or the hierarchy in the United States (working poor, working class, lower middle class, upper middle class, the wealthy, and the super wealthy) palatable as it is evocative of invidious hatred. The hierarchy in a research lab (undergrads, graduate students, post-docs, and principal investigator) is indicative of experience, not "innate" worth as one can advance upward. Hierarchies in the former sense convey a message of despondency as one cannot do likewise. The Bell Curve is a disquisition on the nature of one kind of hierarchy where one cannot advance because it is an atavism of a hereditary aristocracy. I emphasized hereditary. Maybe this would be rendered unnecessary due to potent nootropics as the source for stratification in society wouldn't be indelible as the nootropics would render it malleable. Maybe nootropics might solve overpopulation as Richard Lynn states that intelligence and education are inversely correlated with fecundity.

Besides, you are correct, people do not know what to do! But if we are able to augment the behavioral tendencies of offspring, I am also sure we would also have the capacity to augment intelligence thus solving that problem. We do not want to create Khan Noonien Singhs.

Ivan said at October 15, 2007 5:57 AM:

It's interesting looking at the 3rd DARPA Grand Challenge, the urban challenge in automated driving.

It's a mix. Top teams get money, and winners get more money.

David Gobel said at October 15, 2007 11:30 AM:

Excellent post Randall - When we founded the Methuselah Mouse Prize, we went with a populist and open ended prize funding strategy so it could continue growing until it was won. By this method, we avoided an upper limit on the prize amount (now nearing $5,000,000). This was also necessary as there was no billionaire who would have funded the prize given the controversial nature of the prize at the time it was announced.

My personal belief is that prizes are best used to produce results never before achieved, and especially where the method to achieve the result is simply not known. The Longitude Prize and the "Food Preservation" prize (won by Nicholas Appert) are the best examples of this IMO. I believe these two prizes almost by themselves lead to the exponential rise of technological civilization in the last 150 years. The longitude prize offered advanced metallurgy, precision tools, precision bearings, coordiated/synchronized trade and many other advances used directly by the "machine age". Food preservation destroyed famine in advanced countries...which lead directly to advances in lifespan, innovation and numbers of nodes (human brains) available to solve problems and contribute to markets - ie vastly increased populations which most people seem to decry, and has created the substrate upon which the exponential progress of the last 160 years.

Imagine what increases we can achieve in human capital - the ONLY REAL CAPITAL - by reversing and preventing the damage caused by aging.

Ferris Valyn said at October 16, 2007 12:24 AM:

I think its worth noting that advancing science, and advancing technology are not the same thing. Science is inherently just about knowledge - I make this point because you say "

The prize motivates engineering work which will mostly involve integration and use of existing technologies.

If you can't appricate the difficulty of operations, and integration, and instead focus solely on develop the next coolest technology, you can end up with something rather unweily - like the space shuttle. We largely focused on the reusablity aspect of it, without appricating that you had to deal with intergration and operations,

To look at it a different way - did the Ansari X Prize really produce new technology? I can't say for certain, since I am in the peanut gallery, but from what I can see, it largely was about integrating already existing technology - Rutan's vaulted feather concept has been around for a while (it just was never used with spacecraft). And hybrids have been around for awhile.

What X Prize did, and what the Google lunar prized will do, is advance the soft sciences, if you will. It will develop the economic theroy that to do major things in space, you don't necassarily need huge amounts of money. Its been so developed now, to the point, that some serious money is being invested in private manned spaceflight, and even major Aerospace companies, like EADS, feel they have to at least act like they are involved and care (although I remain unconvinced that they do)

You cite the idea of a 1 percent increase in efficency of light conversion into electricity - lets say you achieve that, but the required costs for deployment of that extra efficency is close $500,000 - thats not going to necassarily be practical for wide spread use.

Prizes I would argue are best used when we are looking at expanding the role of something in society, that has a fair amount of technology already developed, but that needs good integration to make it acessable to the average person.

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