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CEARCH ran our Cause Exploration Contest over the month of July, as part of our search for (a) potentially impactful causes as well as (b) useful methodologies to search for new causes going forward. We would like to thank everyone in the EA and broader philanthropic community for participating.


Winning Entries

We are pleased to announce the following winning entries:

  • In the category of promising cause areas: Bean soaking, submitted by Nick Laing of OneDay Health. In summary, persuading citizens in sub-Saharan Africa to soak before cooking them (and thus saving on fuel use) may have health, economic and environmental benefits; however, there are some outstanding uncertainties over tractability and why soaking is not already common practice.
  • In the category of useful search methodologies: Brainstorming for solutions that may not have the most impact in the context of solving a single problem, but which may have significant overall impact given the benefits it brings across multiple cause areas; this was submitted by Jeroen De Ryck.

The prizes are USD 300 and USD 700 for the cause and search methodology categories respectively. We will be getting in touch with the winners to send them their winnings, though we are of course happy to donate to the charities of their choice if they so prefer.


Honourable Mentions

We would also light to highlight the following entries that stood out. In the category of promising causes:

And in the category of useful search methodologies:

  • A list of seven methods generally focused on taking different moral, political, epistemic and metaphysical perspectives (e.g. consulting the perspective of preference satisfaction; prioritizing causes systematically overlooked by human biases; copying ethical pioneers; consulting non-standard cosmology; consulting different political values; considering ideas that have gone out of fashion; and researching utopia building); this was submitted by David Mears, with input from Amber Dawn Ace.
  • Consulting J-PAL's existing list of RCTed interventions, with the idea being that at lower levels of granularity, we can focus on very targeted interventions that may be very cost-effective but not generally applicable; this was submitted by Sophia Moss.




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I'll share the text that I submitted for useful search methodologies here:

I'll start by saying that I might get some of this stuff wrong, as I only found out about this contest two days before the deadline so I didn't have the time to do the proper research. However, it seems to me that currently, cause areas are identified by looking at neglected problems and finding the most cost-effective solutions for them. Sometimes, there are less neglected problems, such as traffic safety or US criminal reform, that still make it on the list. However, often the solutions presented are found within the context of a clearly defined problem and are very cost-effective at solving that (and only that) problem. I am certainly not the first to notice this, as I've often heard people say that GiveWell should focus more on systemic change or general economic growth. I think there might be another way, however. Instead of focusing on cost-effective solutions for a clearly defined given problem, there might be actions or interventions that only partially solve a very large variety of problems, such that everything taken into count, it is still the most cost-effective way to improve people's lives. An example of the top of my head: increasing cycling rates in cities (instead of car usage) is good for many things: less noise, less air pollution, more active people, more spatially efficient, in cities it's still relatively quick, etc... But in many of those things, there are solutions that are better: walking is quieter and more spatially efficient, going to the gym is more active and taking trains is quicker. But improving all those things to solve each problem separately is probably much more expensive than building bike lanes around the city, even though it makes relatively less progress on each problem individually. (There are also quite some costs to cycling as well and I'm not saying we should build bike lanes everywhere, but I hope it's clear what I'm trying to say). On occasion, this seems to happen already, but only when a cost-effective solution is already found for a given problem(e.g. bednets for malaria) and we're trying to get a better idea of the impact of it on society at large and we learn that it's even more cost effective when we take that into count. Figuring out how this intervention benefits society at large, hence is only an afterthought, if it happens at all. I haven't seen any information about those effects for most other charities recommended by GiveWell (but I'll probably have missed some). There are, of course, some problems with this approach as well. It requires much more research and there is much more uncertainty. Tractability will also be harder: measuring how much we're solving a not very clearly defined problem seems hard, but measuring it in QALYs should partially solve that (although there are many uncertainties there too).

Are these submissions available online to read?

Hey Michael, this post on soaking beans is more comprehensive than the submission itself, if you are interested.


Hi Nick,

I did see your forum post previously, and I'm hopeful that my team has the chance to look into that in greater depth in the future - the idea looks promising!

(Also, you should have gotten an official email about your win and about the logistics of sending you your prize money - do let me know if it hasn't arrived!)

Where can I find "significant overall impact given the benefits across multiple cause areas"?

Hi Sebastian,

While it's just a search methodology and we haven't had the chance to brainstorm thoroughly with it. However, off the top of my, here are some potential interventions that have benefits across multiple cause areas: (a) general vaccine immunization reminders, of course, since they increase uptake of multiple vaccines and help combat multiple diseases; (b) front-of-pack labelling, which tends to have positive impact on consumption of salt (and hence the hypertension burden), sugar (and hence the diabetes burden) and general calories (and hence the obesity burden); and (c) resilient food systems (which potentially helps both in normal famines, plus more extreme nuclear winter/abrupt sunlight reduction scenarios).

Maybe I misunderstood something but my understanding was that there was an entry that you rewarded related to significant overall impact given the benefits across multiple cause areas. So I was wondering if this is something you could share.

Ah, no - basically the award was for a method of searching for impactful causes.

Ok, I feel a bit confused as to why a method wouldn't have a more substantial entry or description but also don't want to keep bothering you. 

Maybe you were referencing this?

Yep, that's what Jeroen submitted, and he posted it to the forum after. I think it's a really useful perspective to have. In GHD, we already have various risk factors that we can address to solve multiple diseases (e.g. hypertension for coronary heart disease, stroke, kidney disease etc), and it makes sense to apply this perspective more broadly.

Thanks Joel, I think I agree.

I don't want to take up your time so feel free to not reply, just wondering out loud how Jeroen's method compares to the systematic cause mapping approach Michael Plant suggested in his thesis for generating new promising causes. I suppose the latter can be interpreted as a systematic way to implement Jeroen's method; for instance, starting from this table in Plant's thesis generating happiness intervention ideas... 

...Plant notes that many solutions apply to several primary causes (rows), inviting the idea of solution clustering (as illustrated below). I suppose Jeroen's "increasing cycling rates in cities instead of car usage" example would be what Plant calls a secondary cause, or whatever is more granular than secondary cause. Your longlist of causes seems relevant here too. 

(Aside: I'm not quite a fan of the 'primary vs secondary cause' naming, since the shared 'cause' name makes me think they're the same kind of thing when they're not – primary causes are problems, while secondary causes are solutions. 'Intervention area / cluster' would've been more illuminating I think.)

Hi Mo,

I don't think I read that part of Michael's thesis before, but it does look interesting!

In general, I think it's fairly arbitrary what a cause is - an intervention/solution can also be reframed as a problem (and hence a cause) through negation (e.g. physical activity is a preventative solution to various diseases like cardiovascular disease or diabetes, and in a real sense physical inactivity is a problem; having an ALLFED-style resilient food supply is a mitigatory solution to nuclear winter - even if we can't prevent nuclear exchange, we can perhaps stop billions from dying from famine - and in that sense lack of foods capable of growing in abrupt sunlight reduction scenarios is a problem).

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