How can economics research help to solve global problems?

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How can economics research help to solve the world’s most pressing problems?


How can economic models, experiments and tests that inform major decisions be adjusted to reduce bias and more closely reflect reality? Which mechanisms should we design for more optimally allocating resources to make society more resilient and increase flourishing? How can we design economic incentives such that present economic agents’ activities improve the lives of those who will live many decades from now, without sacrificing the welfare of today’s beings?

There are many important questions like these which economists could help answer. More concretely, economics research can affect individual and collective decisions and inform policy-making processes and choices across a broad range of areas. It can help identify tractable and impactful interventions for alleviating poverty or improving institutional decision making; help decision-makers forecast and prepare for disruptive changes caused by global catastrophes, war, or rapid technological progress; and identify the incentive structures that promote continued investment in factory farms, or those that might hinder the adoption of alternative proteins.

The profiles below are on some of the research directions that could be particularly valuable to explore through an economic lens. Some of the most useful research in these directions will likely involve investigating potential structures for the governance of advanced technologies, identifying new global priorities, and testing existing economic metrics. For a thesis or dissertation you will likely need to focus on a narrow question, such as a case study of a particular industry, policy, or population. 

One way you could have an impact with your research is therefore by working on a topic that would be informative to other researchers who are trying to develop a better understanding of economic metrics or trends. Our coaches can connect you with researchers who can offer you guidance on choosing a topic.



Examples of work on some of the research directions we recommend

This post from 80,000 Hours explores why an economics PhD might be the best graduate degree. See also ‘Is an economics PhD still a great deal’ from Noah Smith. You could also join the Econ Grad School Advice Slack if you’re considering whether to do a masters or PhD.

If you’re interested in how economics research can identify valuable reforms and interventions, see the talks ‘From behavioural economics to public policy’ from Cass Sunstein, ‘Estimating long-term effects without long-term data’ from David Rhys Bernard, ‘Using evidence to right poverty’ from Christelle Dumas and the 80,000 Hours interview ‘Using institutional economics to predict effective government reforms’ with Mushtaq Khan.

If you’re interested in exploring how economics can contribute to global priorities research, this talk on ‘Prioritization and Economics’ from Max Dalton explores the potential for economics to provide helpful structure to prioritization research and, in turn, how adopting criteria from prioritization research could help make economics research more robust. You could also look at this post on becoming a global priorities researcher for considerations to take into account if you are interested in pursuing this path.

To explore ways that economists can help us understand the landscape of existential risks, see these posts on the EA Forum on the economics of artificial intelligence. The paper Economic growth under transformative AI is an example of work in this area. See also economists Chris Blattman and Noah Smith on China, Taiwan, and the likelihood of war.


Research agendas and potential sources for research questions

Here are sources from the Effective Altruism community and related organisations that feature questions an economics student could take inspiration from:



This profile was first published 5/12/2022. Thanks to Dan Muro for creating this introduction and Brian Jabarian for helpful feedback. All errors remain our own. Learn more about how we create our profiles.

Explore our recommended research directions relating to economics

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