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How can biological science research help to solve the world’s most pressing problems?
Biological research aims to understand the mechanisms that govern life, from how cells function and how organisms develop and adapt, to how populations of organisms interact. The field encompasses a wide array of subfields and involves using a variety of techniques and tools, including microscopes, genomics, and mathematical modelling, to study living systems at all levels of organisation, from individual molecules to ecosystems.
The research of biologists is vital for many endeavours to improve the lives of human and non-human animals. Research in the biological sciences has already helped improve the world through the development of lifesaving discoveries such as vaccines, antibiotics and diagnostic tools. Plant biologists have also improved human health by making crops more resistant to pests, more nutritious and better able to tolerate environmental stresses.
It’s not difficult to find unsolved research questions within biology which could contribute to improving a huge number of lives. However, you could aim to do more good with your research career by searching specifically for a research area that seems comparatively neglected – in other words, one that seems under-explored by other researchers given its potential to improve lives.
Working on a neglected research area could involve working to reduce the burden of chronic and severe pain caused by medical conditions; preventing or preparing humanity for the next pandemic; developing cultivated proteins as an alternative to animal products or resilient foods to make humanity less likely to face starvation in a global catastrophe; working to understand and improve the lives of wild animals (a category of beings whose wellbeing has until recently been almost entirely overlooked); or treating ageing as a way of tackling the underlying cause of most human disease and frailty. Choosing what to work on carefully is also important because there are ways research within biology can have a negative impact; for example, some gain of function research poses serious risks because it involves increasing the transmissibility of viruses or the range of hosts they can infect.
The profiles at the end of this introduction are deeper dives into some research directions that could be particularly valuable to explore.
Research agendas and potential sources for research questions
Here are sources from the Effective Altruism community and related organisations that feature questions you could take inspiration from:
- Preventing Catastrophic Pandemics: 80,000 Hours
- Biology and Genetics Research ideas: 80,000 Hours
- The appendix of the Precipice, which lists policy and research ideas for reducing existential risks, including from Global Catastrophic Biological Risks.
- Happier Lives Institute: Research Agenda
- Wild Animal Initiative: Research Agenda
- Advancing Solutions for Alternative Proteins: The Good Food Institute
- Chapters 3 and 5 of Toby Ord’s book The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, which discuss the threat of engineered pandemics and other biological threats.
- Reducing Global Catastrophic Biological Risks: 80,000 Hours
- Promoting Welfare Biology as the Study of Wild Animal Suffering (conference talk)
- Marc Lipsitch on choosing a graduate programme or postdoctoral fellowship
- Open Philanthropy’s cause prioritisation related to scientific research
This profile was last updated 13/06/2023. Thanks to Hana McMahon Cole for creating this introduction and Sophie Bergmann for feedback. All errors remain our own. Learn more about how we create our profiles.