Scott Aaronson Speculation Grant WINNERS!

Two weeks ago, I announced on this blog that, thanks to the remarkable generosity of Jaan Tallinn, and the Speculation Grants program of the Survival and Flourishing Fund that Jaan founded, I had $200,000 to give away to charitable organizations of my choice. So, inspired by what Scott Alexander had done, I invited the readers of Shtetl-Optimized to pitch their charities, mentioning only some general areas of interest to me (e.g., advanced math education at the precollege level, climate change mitigation, pandemic preparedness, endangered species conservation, and any good causes that would enrage the people who attack me on Twitter).

I’m grateful to have gotten more than twenty well-thought-out pitches; you can read a subset of them in the comment thread. Now, having studied them all, I’ve decided—as I hadn’t at the start—to use my entire allotment to make as strong a statement as I can about a single cause: namely, subject-matter passion and excellence in precollege STEM education.

I’ll be directing funds to some shockingly cash-starved math camps, math circles, coding outreach programs, magnet schools, and enrichment programs, in Maine and Oregon and England and Ghana and Ethiopia and Jamaica. The programs I’ve chosen target a variety of ability levels, not merely the “mathematical elite.” Several explicitly focus on minority and other underserved populations. But they share a goal of raising every student they work with as high as possible, rather than pushing the students down to fit some standardized curriculum.

Language like that ought to be meaningless boilerplate, but alas, it no longer is. We live in a time when the state of California, in a misguided pursuit of “modernization” and “equity,” is poised to eliminate 8th-grade algebra, make it nearly impossible for high-school seniors to take AP Calculus, and shunt as many students as possible from serious mathematical engagement into a “data science pathway” that in practice might teach little more than how to fill in spreadsheets. (This watering-down effort now itself looks liable to be watered down—but only because of a furious pushback from parents and STEM professionals, pushback in which I’m proud that this blog played a small role.) We live in a time when elite universities are racing to eliminate the SAT—thus, for all their highminded rhetoric, effectively slamming the door on thousands of nerdy kids from poor or immigrant backgrounds who know how to think, but not how to shine in a college admissions popularity pageant. We live in a time when America’s legendary STEM magnet high schools, from Thomas Jefferson in Virginia to Bronx Science to Lowell in San Francisco, rather than being celebrated as the national treasures that they are, or better yet replicated, are bitterly attacked as “elitist” (even while competitive sports and music programs are not similarly attacked)—and are now being forcibly “demagnetized” by bureaucrats, made all but indistinguishable from other high schools, over the desperate pleas of their students, parents, and alumni.

And—alright, fine, on a global scale, arresting climate change is surely a higher-priority issue than protecting the intellectual horizons of a few teenage STEM nerds. The survival of liberal democracy is a higher-priority issue. Pandemic preparedness, poverty, malnutrition are higher-priority issues. Some of my friends strongly believe that the danger of AI becoming super-powerful and taking over the world is the highest-priority issue … and truthfully, with this week’s announcements of AlphaCode and OpenAI’s theorem prover, which achieve human-competitive performance in elite programming and math competitions respectively, I can’t confidently declare that they’re wrong.

On the other hand, when you think about the astronomical returns on every penny that was invested in setting a teenage Ramanujan or Einstein or Turing or Sofya Kovalevskaya or Norman Borlaug or Mario Molina onto their trajectories in life … and the comically tiny budgets of the world-leading programs that aim to nurture the next Ramanujans, to the point where $10,000 often seems like a windfall to those programs … well, you might come to the conclusion that the “protecting nerds” thing actually isn’t that far down the global priority list! Like, it probably cracks the top ten.

And there’s more to it than that. There’s a reason beyond parochialism, it dawned on me, why individual charities tend to specialize in wildlife conservation in Ecuador or deworming in Swaziland or some other little domain, rather than simply casting around for the highest-priority cause on earth. Expertise matters—since one wants to make, not only good judgments about which stuff to support, but good judgments that most others can’t or haven’t made. In my case, it would seem sensible to leverage the fact that I’m Scott Aaronson. I’ve spent much of my career in math/CS education and outreach—mostly, of course, at the university level, but by god did I personally experience the good and the bad in nearly every form of precollege STEM education! I’m pretty confident in my ability to distinguish the two, and for whatever I don’t know, I have close friends in the area who I trust.

There’s also a practical issue: in order for me to fund something, the recipient has to fill out a somewhat time-consuming application to SFF. If I’d added, say, another $20,000 drop into the bucket of global health or sustainability or whatever, there’s no guarantee that the intended recipients of my largesse would even notice, or care enough to go through the application process if they did. With STEM education, by contrast, holy crap! I’ve got an inbox full of Shtetl-Optimized readers explaining how their little math program is an intellectual oasis that’s changed the lives of hundreds of middle-schoolers in their region, and how $20,000 would mean the difference between their program continuing or not. That’s someone who I trust to fill out the form.

Without further ado, then, here are the first-ever Scott Aaronson Speculation Grants:

  • $57,000 for Canada/USA Mathcamp, which changed my life when I attended it as a 15-year-old in 1996, and which I returned to as a lecturer in 2008. The funds will be used for COVID testing to allow Mathcamp to resume in-person this summer, and perhaps scholarships and off-season events as well.
  • $30,000 for AddisCoder, which has had spectacular success teaching computer science to high-school students in Ethiopia, placing some of its alumni at elite universities in the US, to help them expand to a new “JamCoders” program in Jamaica. These programs were founded by UC Berkeley’s amazing Jelani Nelson, also with involvement from friend and Shtetl-Optimized semi-regular Boaz Barak.
  • $30,000 for the Maine School of Science and Mathematics, which seems to offer a curriculum comparable to those of Thomas Jefferson, Bronx Science, or the nation’s other elite magnet high schools, but (1) on a shoestring budget and (2) in rural Maine. I hadn’t even heard of MSSM before Alex Altair, an alum and Shtetl-Optimized reader, told me about it, but now I couldn’t be prouder to support it.
  • $30,000 for the Eugene Math Circle, which provides a math enrichment lifeline to kids in Oregon, and whose funding was just cut. This donation will keep the program alive for another year.
  • $13,000 for the Summer Science Program, which this summer will offer research experiences to high-school juniors in astrophysics, biochemistry, and genomics.
  • $10,000 for the MISE Foundation, which provides math enrichment for the top middle- and high-school students in Ghana.
  • $10,000 for Number Champions, which provides one-on-one coaching to kids in the UK who struggle with math.
  • $10,000 for Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM), which runs math summer programs in New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere for underserved populations.
  • $10,000 for Powderhouse, an innovative lab school being founded in Somerville, MA.

While working on this, it crossed my mind that, on my deathbed, I might be at least as happy about having directed funds to efforts like these as about any of my research or teaching.

To the applicants who weren’t chosen: I’m sorry, as many of you had wonderful projects too! As I said in the earlier post, you remain warmly invited to apply to SFF, and to make your pitch to the other Speculators and/or the main SFF committee.

Needless to say, anyone who feels inspired should add to my (or rather, SFF’s) modest contributions to these STEM programs. My sense is that, while $200k can go eye-poppingly far in this area, it still hasn’t come close to exhausting even the lowest-hanging fruit.

Also needless to say, the opinions in this post are my own and are not necessarily shared by SFF or by the organizations I’m supporting. The latter are welcome to disagree with me as long as they keep up their great work!

Huge thanks again to Jaan, to SFF, to my SFF contact Andrew Critch, to everyone (whether chosen or not) who participated in this contest, and to everyone who’s putting in work to broaden kids’ intellectual horizons or otherwise make the world a little less horrible.

26 Responses to “Scott Aaronson Speculation Grant WINNERS!”

  1. Jelani Nelson Says:

    Thanks Scott! Thanks Jaan! I look forward to making you happy with your investment in our program.

  2. Scott Says:

    Thanks Jelani! I have not the slightest doubt that you will.

  3. Sam Critchlow Says:

    Thank you Scott and Jann (and Alex)! I deeply appreciate the thought and rationale behind these grants. The Maine School of Science and Mathematics is full of creative, intelligent, and deeply empathetic students. Investing in education is a fantastic and effective way to leverage these funds into the future–our young people will soon be leaders tackling the large-scale issues facing the world. This investment is a good one, and one that resonates with the fund’s history of supporting effective altruism and other positive-feedback efforts. – Sam (MSSM Executive Director and alumnus ’01)

  4. Richard Bowdon Says:

    Scott, we’re grateful to you and Jaan for this spotlight on our program and support of our inaugural Genomics project, where teens will stimulate evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria then analyze the resulting mutations. Consider this your invitation to visit us at Purdue this summer and give a guest lecture. (Seriously … email me if that might be possible.)

    I see on your Wikipedia page that we’re both Cornellians. Suggestion: add the part about going to Mathcamp as a 15-year-old.

  5. Lilac Says:

    Fantastic! Thanks to SFF, Jaan, and Critch. Great opportunity to improve the future of humanity. Effects are tricky to measure and estimate. One might aspire to de bias, and maybe not give to friends or places whence one came. But they can be good! Thank you for sharing this writeup!

  6. Kerem Says:

    Is there a like button on this blog without the Facebook option? Because we need it! Congratulations! What a wonderful selection!

  7. David Savitt Says:

    Thank you, Scott! This is wonderful, and deeply appreciated at Mathcamp.

  8. Scott Says:

    Richard Bowdon #4:

      I see on your Wikipedia page that we’re both Cornellians. Suggestion: add the part about going to Mathcamp as a 15-year-old.

    One isn’t supposed to edit one’s own Wikipedia page! 🙂 I’m OK with someone else adding it though.

  9. Scott Says:

    Lilac #5:

      One might aspire to de bias, and maybe not give to friends or places whence one came. But they can be good!

    Yeah, I thought about that. On the one hand, one doesn’t want an “old boys’ network.” On the other hand, a central reason why one might know better than the rest of the world that some particular program is good and deserving of support, is that it involves “friends or places whence one came”! And also, as I said, the world of precollege advanced math programs is an incredibly small one; anyone who knows anything about that world is liable to have conflicts. In the end, I resolved this simply by donating 43.5% of the allotment to programs I’d known about (either from being an alumnus or from friends volunteering with it), and the remaining 56.5% to programs I hadn’t known about—in both cases, only after the leaders read my post and applied.

  10. bertie Says:

    Nice result and well explained.
    Also, just a little shout out that I absolutely love your tags!! Can’t imagine anyone ever using them but
    hey, you are the guy that quotes some disrespectful twitter dolt in your professional profile, so Respect🙏

    Also too, fantastic work on the recent QM thread, can’t wait to read your formal response. If you can surprise us with new insights then that will be a miracle, but then I’m ready to believe in miracles, god knows we need some😃

  11. LK2 Says:

    Scott, it is an amazing choice. For what is worth, you have all my respect and admiration. Well done.

  12. Fast typist Says:

    Can RSA or Discrete Log be in classical P? Is there evidence against?

  13. Scott Says:

    Fast typist #12: The only real evidence against is that people have tried for half a century and not succeeded (at least, that we know about publicly).

    Please, no more off-topic questions from outer space!

  14. Sam Zhang Says:

    Mathcamp 2021 alum here! I deeply appreciate your efforts in supporting teenage nerds just like me, via these programs. Mathcamp really changed the way I think about challenging problems and convinced me of how fun advanced math can be. I’m sure all the other programs here are greatly impactful to their participants as well. Thank you!

    (I learned about this blog through the “Who Can Name the Bigger Number” essay, and later on, also met Scott virtually at a quantum computing talk at the USA Computing Olympiad training camp in 2021 – it sounded very cool, though I was unable to understand most of it. But that’s okay!)

  15. Sean Carroll Says:

    This is great stuff, Scott!

  16. Raghu Parthasarathy Says:

    This is wonderful! Thanks so much for doing this, Scott — it’s worthwhile, amazingly generous, and beautifully efficient! As someone who brought the “speculation grant” to the attention of one of the winners, I’m delighted at a personal level, too!

  17. Anon93 Says:

    Congrats to all! Isn’t polygenic embryo selection for intelligence an even higher priority than climate change mitigation though?

  18. Erik Says:

    I’d just like to add that while I agree many of the other causes you list are more important in themselves, from what I hear from many projects they are more talent constrained than money constrained and increasing the pipeline of brilliant young people they can recruit from definitely works to help them out.

  19. Keith McLaren Says:

    Hi Scott,

    So lovely to see this sort of thing going on in the world. Thumbs up to you sir.
    And what a very good point about the potential rewards of investing in education at this level. In proper education.
    Would that people like Donald Trump had been able to get their one-dimensional brains around it.
    But I’m not sure guys like them ever attended math camp!?

  20. bystander Says:

    @Scott Excellent choice!

    @Richard Bowdon Do you really induce antibiotic resistance? We have already a lot of issues with that. Would not e.g. overcoming a deficiency in a substrate use work alike? Or if you wanna work on antibiotics, what about searching for new ones? The common dirt tends to contain antibiotics, even those not yet known to us. Well, that would be more about monitoring than a real search due to the short time frame.

  21. Miguel Says:

    Mathcamp!!!! Awesome!! And congratulations to everyone else!!!

  22. alyosha Says:

    I was gearing up to write a substantive comment supporting Scott/people doing the good works that they feel called to do without being overly concerned about whether they’re “objectively” addressing the biggest problems or achieving the highest cost/benefit, etc…but the community seems to have moved on to the next post (which is indeed exciting). So i’ll offer this stub, knowing that the issue has come up before and will again. Secular blessings on you/all and your good works 🙏🙂

  23. Ellen Says:

    This is great! Inspired by you, I wanted to make a donation to a few of these, but I could not find by searching a way to donate to MISE. Thank you Scott for leading by example and finding some excellent causes for us.

  24. Fedja Says:

    “to the point where $10,000 often seems like a windfall to those programs”. Am I to understand that literally? If so, each of us (tenured professors with minimally decent salary) can easily make a difference occasionally. I can certainly do it though I have no idea what program like the ones you described can really benefit noticeably from puny $10,000. Can you name a few? Or I can just send you a check later this year (after the tax filing, which usually disbalances my accounts somewhat one way or the other 🙂 ) and you can apply it where it is most needed yourself. Just shoot me an e-mail with your address 😉

  25. Christine Says:

    What beautiful news. I’m an international development worker, and I want to offer you a perspective that I hope you’ll take to heart: the mitigation of direct threats to health and safety is a powerful force for good. But it is not, can not, and never will be enough to call forth human flourishing: for that we also need to underwrite creativity and collaboration and play and learning the human expertises for the sheer delight of it, to support conditions that amplify joy.

    I’m a white lady from the US, and I spent a decade living and working in Nepal, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Tanzania. I got a job based in the US, but continued to do intensive in-country trips to Uganda, Liberia, North Macedonia. I’ve had the great fortune to travel with both expat and local friends in India, Egypt, Rwanda, South Africa.

    My great joy in these experiences has been sharing space and conversation and conflict and connection with humans in all of these places (and valuing the dangerous and interpersonally painful parts, or the ones where I was being petty or angry as much as the heartbreakingly happy ones). Kids make toys and tools that you would not BELIEVE – grass whips for shooting gobs of mud to scare birds off of ripening sorghum (and their AIM!), little people and animals and buildings engineered out of leaves and sticks and scrap fabric and bottle caps, trucks with working wheels (on axles!) and windscreens and steering wheels, songs and complex clapping-games and lightning-fast rounds of jacks and mankala (I spent the most time in East Africa, so this is a biased sample of examples ^_^).

    I appreciate the intention of EA, but some of its most impassioned supporters are deeply misguided, in my opinion. There is very little actual international development work experience in the EA communities and firms I’ve looked at since moving to California, and I haven’t seen a single post or CV that speaks to actually working in the field, with communities, or even with host-country colleagues in a regional hub or capital city. This is not to shame them! Even among people whose *career* is international development, very few people have spent more than an internship’s worth of time in the countries they are trying to help, and most of them get their start volunteering with foreign NGOs, rather than by bringing expertise to bear on actual problems that communities need solved. Apropos of your own opinions about math education, it is not an unmitigated good for well-intentioned outsiders, even those with significant expertise and good intentions, to propose universal standards for What Is Best To Do For Everyone. Sometimes those proposals are closer to unmitigated goods, like supporting clean drinking water. (Many are farther away, but I am already talking your ear off!).

    Supporting people who delight in doing math… to do math! is DEFINITELY heading toward an unmitigated good, especially when done with an eye to supporting students or programs who haven’t been able to get support or access in the past. The gift you had to give would not have been enough to help any of the amazing kids I met in the field. But those kids will keep playing and delighting in their skills until the world gets its shit together to address structural issues that are our collective and *collaborative* job as global citizens to solve, issues not fixable from one point of view and certainly not with the budgets even the wealthiest private donors are capable of giving.

    You are not an outsider to anyone who loves math – you are family. Your gift IS going to be enough to bring joy and expand horizons and opportunities for some far-flung members of your family. Their joy, and whatever work or relationships or knowledge that comes along with it, may inspire others, lead to other connections, make differences we don’t even know how to count.

    I have been thinking a lot lately about what Thich Nhat Hahn, who recently died and fought war with poetry and compassion, said was his most-important teaching: I have arrived, I am home. When trying to decide or defend which way of helping is best, I think sometimes what gets lost is delight in real connection with other human beings, made through the help that you are able to give. Who you are and what you value is enough. Bringing joy to people who love what you love is enough. Your gift has arrived, your gift is home.

  26. Douglas Knight Says:

    What put Norman Borlaug on his path? What was his path?

    Did he have greater technical skill than his hypothetical replacement? No one ever told him that his goals were difficult. They said that he shouldn’t pursue them because they were immoral. The Mexican government and the Rockefeller Foundation brought him in to reduce rust blight and produce maybe a 100% increase in yield. When he said that he could change the world, they told him not to, because it would consolidate farms. The Indian government rejected new varieties in the middle of a famine for the same reason. Borlaug’s main contribution was the courage to fight his employer, secondarily vision and perseverance.

    You could argue that if you produce lots of scientists some of them will be nonconformist. That might be useful, but it wasn’t Borlaug’s path. He wasn’t a lone tinkerer changing the world in his garage. Rather, he was one of the few brought to Mexico. In contrast, Molina’s famous work was largely theoretical and could have been done without institutional support.

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