Importance, tractability, and neglectedness

Importance, tractability, and neglectedness have become standard metrics for assessing causes. See for instance 80,000 Hours’ post and this comment on the EA Forum.

Note that sometimes “importance” is referred to as how “valuable” a cause is or how much “impact” it can have, and “neglectedness” is described as “uncrowdedness”.

GiveWell’s Open Philanthropy Project also looks at these three metrics. In their “In a nutshell” box for each cause, they look at:

  • “What is the problem?” = importance
  • “What are possible interventions?” = tractability
  • “Who else is working on it?” = neglectedness

See also e.g. Key questions about philanthropy, part 2: choosing focus areas and hiring program staff:

We believe it’s possible for additional philanthropy to accomplish more in some areas than others, depending on factors such as how much impact an issue has on people’s lives [importance], what can be done about it [tractability], and how many funders are already working on it neglectedness.

[…]

Our process involves investigating many causes at relatively low depth, then some causes at higher depth, before finally choosing focus areas based on the criteria of importance, tractability and uncrowdedness.

EA Ventures:

EA Ventures practices radical cause-neutrality: we are open to any project that addresses the following factors:

  1. Importance. If we made more progress on this problem, by how much would the world become a better place? We take on large-scale problems.

  2. Neglectedness. The best solutions are often not obvious. We concentrate on causes where directing additional resources achieves substantial impact.

  3. Tractability. We work on problems where progress has reasonable, measurable prospects.

Implicit consideration

Sometimes the importance, tractability, and neglectedness of causes isn’t described explicitly. However, even in these cases, one can often find the ideas applied implicitly. For instance, in the Copenhagen Consensus Center’s assessment of the Reduction of conflict and violence as a cause, Hoeffler and Fearson write:

In the broad area of building stable and peaceful societies, the UN HLP has identified several areas where the benefit/cost ratio may be very high, and that have been relatively neglected by the development community to date. There are areas where the current economic and social costs are plausibly quite large, and where the amount of attention is very small in comparison to other areas such as health, education, and governance reform.

Above, neglectedness is mentioned explicitly, whereas importance is only mentioned through the phrase “benefit/cost ratio”, and tractability is assumed.

Neglectedness

Holden says:

What I no longer believe is that there’s any easy way to tell which areas are under-funded. All it takes is one or two idiosyncratic major funders to turn a cause area from under-funded to over-funded or appropriately funded. Thus, the mere fact that a cause is “wonky” (strong from an analytical perspective, but not from a storytelling perspective) or “wacky” (controversial, farfetched or otherwise unappealing to conventionally minded people) doesn’t guarantee that it will be neglected. When it comes to assessing what areas are neglected, there’s no substitute for doing the legwork of figuring out who’s working on them.

See also “Systematically under explored project areas?” for some reasons various causes can be neglected. Extremely neglected causes also contains information about neglectedness.