Prioritisation research
Exploratory research on how to do the most good

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Why work on prioritisation research?

The reality of our limitations – of time, money and ability – means we can’t do everything we’d like to do to improve the world. Despite good intentions, there are vast differences in the impact we expect different actions to have in improving the world. There is a huge opportunity cost to just picking an endeavour (including your thesis topic!) just because it seems to be net-positive. These differences between the good and the better or best are so great, and our strategies for navigating them so underdeveloped, that improving our understanding of how to prioritise is hugely important. 

Applying techniques from economics, maths and social science, prioritisation researchers seek insights that will inform people and organisations on how best to direct their efforts in order to do the most good. There are a couple of different ways to approach this.

Foundational prioritisation research explores high-level issues such as whether we can predictably affect the long-term future, how to think about the indirect effects of our efforts to improve the world, what different value systems say about what it means to do good, and crucial considerations such as animal sentience. 

Cause prioritisation research looks more closely at which causes we should focus on given our foundational understanding of what it means to do good – for example, cause prioritisation research might involve evaluating whether it seems more pressing to work on climate change reduction or preventing great power conflict, or how promising mental health interventions seem.

We also include the category ‘understanding progress and change’ within prioritisation research. These research directions generally focus on understanding how change occurs so that we can better understand what strategies will effect change, which could be useful across a range of causes. This could involve understanding what makes social movements more effective, how to increase the progress of research and how changes in our values today may affect the future.

There is currently a dearth of prioritisation research. Such research has a lot of potential leverage: an insight gained could influence the allocation of billions of dollars and the areas to which many great minds are applied. 

Next steps

Some research agendas including questions relevant to prioritisation research are:

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Contributors

This introduction was last updated 13/06/2023. Thanks to Will Fenning for originally writing this introduction. Learn more about how we create our profiles.

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