Stir your inspiration and make your research useful

How to choose a research topic

As you arrive at this website, you’re probably thinking “What is the best way to choose my research topic? What I should be guided by when choosing?” Here are some suggestions and ideas:

When choosing a topic there are two sources of information you can draw from - internal (your own impressions and feelings) and external (what other people say and suggest). First, let’s discuss the internal.

Useful considerations for a topic choice

We think it is good to select a research topic based on your interests. This is because being genuinely interested in a topic will motivate you and will help you develop your research taste, which might be a powerful intellectual tool for orienting in complex and not yet defined waters. However, there are two other considerations we think are important.

First: How valuable would an answer to your research question be? What would the consequences be of having that question answered? Would it have any effect at all? Are there any questions that may elicit more valuable answers? Is there a question that could solve more important, larger, and more neglected problems? How much would answering this question improve the world? By “improving the world” here we don’t necessarily mean doing something applied - you can improve the world by testing interventions and finding answers to very applied questions, but you can also improve the world by improving the theoretical understanding of fundamental parts of some problem. Importantly, however, the extent to which this increased understanding is actually valuable may vary significantly depending on the topic. Gaining an internal sense of how valuable the answers to various questions would be is especially important when you want to make progress on open, not yet defined questions and in early-stage fields (which are often very interesting and provide opportunities for greater progress and discoveries).

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The second factor is your personal tractability - do you feel that you would be able to make progress on this topic? Even if it is in general possible to make progress on it, are you a good fit to do so? It’s often good to spend about 10 % of your time testing your fit with a project, rather than fully committing to something right away.

These factors are also important to keep in mind when assessing external sources of information. Look at what topics the most prominent researchers are interested in, and listen to what other people and communities think is valuable to work on—paying close attention to their reasoning behind it. Experienced researchers and other well-informed individuals can also be useful resources when determining tractability.

How to compare information from external vs internal sources

Generally, we think it’s good to start with and get inspired by external sources of information, but ultimately let the internal sources have the last word. For example, we think it might be good for you to choose a field/general topic that others have a good reason to say is valuable and that may improve the world more than other fields. Then you can let yourself be guided by your internal impressions on what specifically within this broader domain/general topic feels interesting and tractable.

To give you a head start, we have put together a list of general topics/domains that seem to be very valuable to make progress on from an impartial welfarist perspective (i.e., promoting wellbeing, with every entity’s wellbeing counting equally). Dive in and get inspired!

Explore and get interested

There are several research directions we think might be especially high impact in making the world a better place. If you get interested in any of these topics, we can connect you with researchers working in these fields or provide other types of support (scroll to the bottom for more info). If you would appreciate more tailored advice, you can try our thesis topic coaching. Our list of prioritised research directions is not exhaustive, so there may well be some other high impact research directions that we have not yet covered. However, we aim to select impactful topics, so that chances of any of the topics we covered being highly impactful are higher than chances of average/randomly selected topic that we have not covered. If you know about research directions that could be similarly impactful to those we have covered, please, let us know.

Alternative foods research

#chemical engineering #mechanical engineering #civil engineering #agricultural engineering #transport engineering #biological engineering

Why is this important:
How would we feed everyone if the sun was blocked or if there was a significant disruption to electricity/industry? Sun-blocking events, caused e.g. by a supervolcanic eruption or nuclear war with the burning of cities and the smoke rising to the upper atmosphere, could kill billions of people and jeopardize the long-term future of humanity. Similar applies for loss of industry events, caused e.g. by a solar storm, multiple high altitude detonations of nuclear weapons causing electromagnetic pulses, or a narrow artificial intelligence computer virus disrupting electricity globally. According to some, there is an ~80% chance of significant food production loss this century and ~10% chance of a total food production loss this century. Food storage doesn’t seem like a viable and cost-effective solution for such large events. More research into alternative food sources that can be scaled up quickly and that don’t require the sun seems important. Read more on this website, in this book or in this podcast.

How to tackle this:
Investigating ways to convert the residue from leaf protein extract into sugar at the household scale, including having bacteria grow on it and leaching the sugar out (bacteria excrete enzymes that break the cellulose into sugar outside the bacteria) for a few leaf types. One possible way to make this more practical is to engineer the bacteria to produce much excess sugar (ideally the edible 6 carbon type, and the bacteria use the human-inedible 5 carbon sugars for energy). Another option is figuring out how to pretreat biomass (typically with acid) and use enzymes (perhaps from fungus) at household scale.

Demonstration of natural gas eating bacteria at the household scale. See here and here for how these bacteria can be used as fish food (and in a catastrophe, perhaps human food).

Develop a prototype and open-source plans for people to be able to feed themselves without very much labor assuming they have a cow (1.5 billion cows are enough to be draft animals for all farmland). Even without industrial power (e.g. tractor), one person could feed 20 with wheat with machines pulled by cows (plow, planter, cultivator, harvester, mill, etc). This would help people in less-developed countries right now. This could be a thesis for each piece of equipment, and there should be a scale up calculation to see if it could be done in time before stored food runs out (a few months). May need some specialized equipment to cover the major staples of wheat, corn, rice and potatoes. Work with Open Source Ecology?

Work out logistics for collection and delivery of killed leaves, leaf litter, partially decomposed logs, and peat for growing food/feed assuming industry is not functioning.

Cost and scaling of seaweed without industry and reduced sunlight

...and many more topics here.

Who are some of the people already working on this:
David Denkenberger and Joshua Pearce are professors who could potentially co-advise or advise some of these theses if a suitable local advisor cannot be found. David also co-founded and runs ALLFED.


Products to alleviate very negative valence states and enable very positive states

Why is it important:
The way in which positive and negative valence is distributed may have far-reaching implications for establishing the best course of action for how to reduce suffering. From the results of the work on Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain, we realized two important things. The first is that prioritarian reasoning on how to minimize suffering tends to neglect negative extremes, and when it values them, it does so on a more qualitative basis. Consider how measures such as QALYs and the happiness index do not admit differences by orders of magnitude. And while suffering-focused ethics is an emerging field in Effective Altruism, it does not usually aim to assign a precise value to how bad extreme suffering is. The kinds of paradigms explored in Logarithmic Scales may allow us to formalize this scale and bring it into consideration in ethics and medicine.

The second thing we found out was that the heuristic for looking at the negative extreme of the distribution is surprisingly generative for identifying promising interventions. The significance of doing this is baked into the fact that we are looking at the negative extreme (assuming a long-tail). The neglectedness comes from the fact that a long-tail distribution lens is very rarely used explicitly in utilitarian calculus. And the tractability comes from the fact that many extremely negative experiences have surprisingly simple treatments. For example, although not usually thought of as painkillers in the standard way, psychedelics have a surprisingly powerful capacity for tackling specific extremely negative states, such as cluster headaches, migraines, and anecdotally, intense pain associated with premenstrual syndrome and shingles. The research on these applications is scant, and in particular there hasn’t been any formal research on the latter two. We are not confident about these research leads, but because they meet the criteria of significance, neglected, and tractable if true, under this heuristic they would seem very worthwhile to investigate. Likewise, we expect this approach to generate a lot of worthwhile research leads with potentially huge benefits to human welfare.

How to tackle this:
There are a number of ways to alleviate very negative valence states and enable very positive states that have not yet been harnessed. Some examples include:

Cost-effective prevention of very negative valence states:
Rapid prototyping and iteration on the use of frequency-specific microcurrents, ultrasound, and other stimulation techniques for treating acute kidney stone pain.

Reach out to people who’ve had experiences of the top 20 most painful conditions to ask if they stumbled upon unusual methods for pain relief. Doing preliminary research of this kind (interviews, surveys, basic biometrics, etc.) may pay off in big ways and further our efforts to provide cost-effective prevention of very negative valence states.

Interview people who suffer from migraines and cluster headaches to gather evidence about the effectiveness of sub-hallucinogenic doses of DMT (e.g. ~3mg) to abort these intensely painful states.

Improving the baseline:
While people can do all kinds of things to temporarily increase their sense of wellbeing, long-term substantial improvements are rarely achieved. We want to find ways to sustainably increase the baseline of hedonic tone:

Research the genetic basis of hedonic set point, e.g. develop a model to predict hedonic set point using SNPs available on 23andme. Some promising candidates for such a study include the SCN9A and FAAH and FAAH-OUT genes. See Triple S Genetic Counseling: Predicting Hedonic-Set Point with Commercial-Grade DNA Testing as an Effective Altruist Project;

It appears plausible that some of the neurotoxicity of MDMA is caused by overheating of the brain. Development of portable rapid-cooling technologies to be deployed at places with high incidence of MDMA use could be a significant step in harm-reduction.

Applications of states of consciousness:
Create a software tool to practice identifying wallpaper symmetry groups, an activity which may be useful for corroborating the relationship between symmetry and bliss on altered states of consciousness. See here for inspiration;

Implement a Psychedelic Turk prototype. That is, a tool similar to Mechanical Turk, but where the people who do tasks can announce their current state of consciousness so that researchers can more easily do rapid-prototyping of experiments for studying altered states of consciousness.

Find a way to measure progress in meditation. Once done, explore whether is a way to accelerate this progress via other methods/technologies.

Who are some of the people already working on this:
Qualia Research Institute



Other potential directions:

  • Clean meat (cause report) (podcasts 1, 2) - relevant for chemical/bioprocess engineering and tissue engineering

  • Climate change ( blog post) - e.g. working on low carbon technology (e.g. Net Power- read more) or improving storage of energy rather than working on renewable sources of energy directly (since this kind of work seems to be not so neglected)

If you get interested in any of these topics, let us know. We can:

  • Connect you with researchers working in these fields who can provide feedback on your ideas
  • Help you develop more specific topic ideas
  • Connect you with other students working on the same questions
  • Help you with publishing your thesis

This service is free and paid for by grants from charitable foundations. There are no terms and conditions connected with this service. We only want to help talented students have more impact with their research and support research on the most important problems.