Your research career can change the world
Doing well-targeted, excellent research can not only result in you having a successful research career, but save lives and positively shape the future.
The theories and innovations of researchers have shaped almost every aspect of the ‘modern’ world – often dramatically for the better. Many major problems continue to impact the wellbeing of humans and nonhuman animals, as well as threatening the welfare of future beings..
Researchers can help create a world where – for example – we spend many more years of life in good health, have enough food during a major disruption to global food supply, never experience another pandemic, enjoy greater mental wellbeing, no longer factory-farm or slaughter animals, and experience the benefits of transformatively powerful technologies.
So further research could create immense value, and issues that seem inevitable today could cease to be a problem for our descendants. For that future to emerge, there needs to be more research focused on solving our biggest problems.
There are many types of research that can improve the world
Research can change the world, for example by:
- developing new solutions to problems.
- identifying the most effective existing interventions.
- improving our high-level strategies for doing good.
- identifying and prioritising between the biggest challenges humanity faces.
- answering fundamental uncertainties that have major implications for attempts to improve the world.
These categories are based on the categorisation in this report by Charity Entrepreneurship.
Developing new solutions
Throughout history, research has improved wellbeing by solving problems that have worsened people’s lives and cut them short. For example, in the 18th century the research of biologists led to the development of a vaccine against smallpox, a disease which killed 500 million people before its eradication. In the 19th century the development of the germ theory of disease led to improved sanitation and dramatically reduced infant mortality, and the development of anaesthesia meant patients no longer had to endure agonising operations.
In the mid-20th century, the agronomist Norman Borlaug led the introduction of high-yielding crops and modern agricultural techniques, improving food security and possibly preventing millions of people dying of starvation. Work by mathematicians and cryptographers during WWII – most famously Alan Turing – likely prevented many millions of people dying by bringing forward the end of the war.
More recently, economists have helped save 1000s of people each year by applying trading algorithms to match people who need kidneys with donors; psychologists and neuroscientists have found that psychedelic therapy may help alleviate previously untreatable depression and PTSD; and vaccinations against Covid-19 saved an estimated 20 million lives in 2021 alone.
Identifying the most effective existing interventions
Research isn’t only important as a way of developing new solutions to problems; researchers can help governments, charities and other decision-makers improve the world by identifying the most effective interventions that already exist.
For example, research has shown that some global health interventions appear to be thousands of times more effective at improving or saving lives than others. GiveWell, a charity focused on assessing the best interventions for improving global health, has in just over ten years influenced the way hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent by sharing its research on the most effective charities.
Research has also shown when interventions are failing to have an impact, or even making things worse (as in the case of Scared Straight, a programme for at-risk young people that made them more likely to commit crime, or the many medical procedures that research has shown to be ineffective).
Some examples of how further research of this type could improve the world include improving the evidence base for mental health interventions in low-income settings, and determining which interventions best encourage lower meat consumption and help to decrease poverty.
Improving our high-level strategies for doing good
As well as identifying existing interventions, researchers can help us understand the broader strategies that are likely to be useful in making the world a better place by analysing the past and forecasting the future. For example, research into the history of successful philanthropy has informed the funding decisions of Open Philanthropy, a charitable foundation which plans to grant billions of dollars to organisations trying to improve the world.
Given the many challenges humanity is facing, which include alleviating global poverty, preventing catastrophic risks to humanity’s future, and decreasing the suffering of non-human animals, we need to anticipate these challenges and understand how to implement positive change as effectively as possible. Further research could focus on forecasting future events, or explore the past to illuminate how we might be able to guide the development of artificial intelligence, increase humanity’s compassion, speed up beneficial scientific progress and decrease the risk of a war between the great powers, as well as addressing many other questions.
Identifying and prioritising between the biggest challenges humanity faces.
Some researchers have played a significant role in identifying important, large-scale problems that have previously been overlooked and advocating for their importance. For example, researchers have been key in increasing concern for animals – the philosopher Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation was a formative text for the animal rights movement, inspired in part by Ruth Harrison’s book Animal Machines, which first drew the conditions in factory farms to the public’s attention.
Some of the most promising ways of improving the world are still only just being widely recognised by researchers today, suggesting this is still an important role that researchers can play. For example, there are trillions of wild animals, but until recently, very few researchers had considered the possibility of improving their welfare. Welfare biology is now a small but rapidly growing field focused on improving the lives of wild animals, in part due to philosophers and scientists who advocated for the consideration of wild animals through their research.
In recent years, researchers have also advocated for and drawn attention to considerations such as the importance of the lives of people who will exist in the far future – pointing out that the majority of beings that ever exist may live in the future – and drawing attention to problems such as risks of advanced artificial intelligence. Take a look at our introduction to prioritisation research for a deeper exploration of how research can help guide our understanding of which problems require the most urgent attention.
Exploring fundamental uncertainties about the world
Any attempt to analyse the effectiveness of different interventions or strategies, or to compare the importance of working on two different, important problems, will involve making fundamental assumptions – for example about causality, consciousness or morality – that affect what it means to ‘do good’.
There are many fundamental uncertainties that research could help answer, which could have major implications for attempts to improve the world. Possible questions include how to measure the quality of other people’s experiences, how other species experience the world, whether we can predictably affect the future and how to navigate the differences between what various moral theories consider important.
Here are some further explorations of the importance of research:
- Research vs. non-research work to improve the world: In defense of more research and reflection by Magnus Vinding is an exploration of the value of research for reflecting deeply on our priorities.
- How does producing advocacy research affect the animal advocacy movement? – Animal Charity Evaluators
- Crucial Considerations and Wise Philanthropy is a talk from Nick Bostrom which highlights that discovering an additional fact can reverse our understanding of the actions that we expect to improve the world.