Find inspiration and discover a research topic that makes a difference.

How to choose a research topic

Below are research directions that we think have high potential to improve the world by helping to solve pressing global problems that would particularly benefit from further research.

Several factors we suggest you consider when choosing a topic are:

If you're studying for an undergraduate or master's degree we often recommend focusing on developing your skills and knowledge in an area in order to contribute to solving a pressing problem later in your career.

If you're a PhD student you may be more able to contribute to solving a problem through your research already. You may also need to give consideration to building your reputation in academia and to whether your topic will 'lock you in' to an area long-term. The more likely this is, the more important it is that you choose an impactful topic which is a good fit for you! 

Check out our key ideas for more detail on how to choose a research topic. If you find a topic that you're interested in pursuing further, get in touch — we can help you make progress.

Explore and get interested

Check out all our recommended research directions here or click the disciplines below to see our profiles for your field of study.

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 the chances of any of the topics we cover being highly impactful is higher than that of an 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.

Decreasing risks from engineered pathogens

#biotechnology #immunology #biomedical research

Why is this important?

Pandemic outbreaks (like the recent COVID-19) have historically caused enormous loss of life (e.g. the Spanish flu is estimated to have killed between almost 1% and as much as 5.4% of the global population). More severe natural pandemics, or even anthropogenic pandemics caused by engineered pathogens, could cause irrecoverable damage to global civilisation and humanity's potential for flourishing. Risks from engineered pathogens seem especially pressing, as the potential severity of these risks may increase. Advances in gene-editing technologies (such as CRISPR), decreasing costs of DNA and RNA synthesis, increasingly accessible biotech capabilities, and the outpacing of appropriate regulations and norms by these technological advances could all increase the risks of anthropogenic pandemics. Working on preventing risks from these scenarios and mitigating them if they happen might therefore be very valuable. Learn more about the general case for working on biosecurity and global catastrophic biological risks in this problem profile, in this podcast, this podcast and by watching the conference talk below.

How to tackle this

Ways to help reduce risks from engineered pathogens include creating broad-spectrum tests, therapeutics and vaccines.

Developing broad-spectrum pathogen-agnostic diagnostics could be helpful in all the above scenarios. Current PCR testing requires that virus genomes have already been identified, and is calibrated to recognise only specific pathogens. This slows testing in the early stages of a pandemic outbreak. However, when using broad-spectrum pathogen-agnostic diagnostics based on metagenomic techniques, you don’t need to know anything about the pathogen beforehand, which can significantly increase the speed of testing and diagnostics.

The development of broad-spectrum vaccine platforms that are effective against a wide range of viral species would also give humanity a head start when outbreaks occur, instead of requiring pathogen-specific vaccines to be developed over multiple months, as is currently the case. A real world example is the work to develop a universal flu vaccine (although to prevent the most damaging pandemics, we should probably aim at more dangerous diseases).

The development of broad-spectrum antivirals and therapeutics effective against a wide range of viruses would also allow us to have drugs immediately available to treat people in the case of a novel viral pathogen outbreak. An example could be host-directed antiviral compounds that target relevant parts of the hosts’ cellular machinery, rather than directly targeting the virus.

You can also see the Open Philanthropy's report for more details and other suggestions on how to help reduce risks from engineered pathogens.

Who are some of the people already working on this?

Dr Dave Relman, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, the Biosecurity Research group at FHI; Center for Security and Emerging Technology; The Centre for Long-term Resilience; altLabs and many more - see here

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Alternative meat research and development

#stem cell biology #plant biology #cell agriculture #molecular biology #food science #bioengineering #biotechnology

Why is this important?

Environmental Degradation: United Nations scientists state that raising animals for food is “one of the major causes of the world's most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.” The animal agricultural sector is responsible for about 15 % of global greenhouse gas emissions and 75 % of recent Amazon deforestation.

Global Poverty and Food Security: Growing crops to feed them to farm animals is vastly inefficient, driving up the price of grains and legumes, and entrenching global poverty. Also, more than three-quarters of agricultural land is used to support cows, pigs, and chickens, but animal products provide only 18% of global food calories and 25% of protein (Mottet et al. 2017). By 2050, there will be nearly 10 billion people in the world to feed, and global meat demand is expected to grow by 70%. To produce enough food for 9 billion people by 2050, we will need a more efficient system.

Animal Welfare: Each year, the current production of animal products subjects over 70 billion of thinking, feeling animals (9 times more than the population of humans) to lives of extreme confinement, painful mutilations, and inhumane slaughter. Most farm animals experience serious levels of suffering evaluated as "better dead than alive".

Human Health and Antibiotic Resistance: About 80 per cent of antibiotics produced in the U.S. are given to farm animals. Overusing antibiotics leads to a faster spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which is according to the World Health Organization one of the biggest threats to global health. Also, red meat consumption is shown to correlate with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, stroke, and higher cancer mortality rates. According to the Centers for Disease Control, tens of millions of Americans get sick every year from eating contaminated meat, and thousands die.

Cultivated and plant-based meat alternatives might be able to mitigate all these problems without compromising on taste, nutrients and in the future perhaps even price. More research aimed at enabling these products to come into light or get better can be very impactful.

See Bruce Friedrich's brief introduction to the importance of this research below, and check out this student guide from the Good Food Institute for an introduction to how to enter this field. Other resources from GFI include this free online course on the science of alternative protein development.

How to tackle this

Cultivated Meat: Research and development of the three stages in the production of cultivated meat to become a scalable process - a selection of cell lines, growth medium formulation, and scaffolding. Some bottlenecks are the growth media costs, optimisation and isolation of cell lines from each animal, optimisation of cell differentiation and co-culture of the relevant cell types (skeletal muscle, fat tissue, connective tissue). Biotechnologists and chemical engineers can also help with designing bioreactors to allow for large scale cellular growth.

Plant-Based Meat: Further research and development of taste and structure factors in plant-based products, as well as research of new alternative plant protein sources.

The Good Food Institute have identified many existing and future bottlenecks in the field that researchers can work on.

Who are some of the people already working on this?

Mark Post at Maastricht University; David Kaplan at Tufts University; Marianne Ellis at Bath University; Iftach Nachman Lab at Tel Aviv University; Shulamit Levenberg Lab at the Technion; George Church Lab at Harvard Medical School; The Good Food Institute, New Harvest

This document from Manja Gärtner provides a monthly collation of empirical research related to this research direction.

*the thanks for building this profile go to Michelle Hauser and Marie Krátká

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Improving the measurement of animal welfare

#zoology #physiology #evolutionary biology #ecology #animal behaviour #molecular biology

Why is this important?

Improving the quality of life for nonhuman animals seems like a particularly effective way to improve the world: animals currently make up the vast majority of sentient beings, helping them is a very neglected cause, and there seem to be cost-effective ways how to go about it. The welfare of wild animals appears particularly neglected. However, attempts to improve animal welfare are impeded by the difficulty of actually measuring and comparing the quality of animals’ lives.

One particularly promising new approach to measuring overall animal wellbeing is to compare the rate of biological ageing in different populations, with faster-ageing animals taken to be experiencing worse welfare. If developed properly, these ageing-based methods could provide a much better way of evaluating and comparing the quality of life of different animal groups, allowing us to target resources to improve animal welfare much more effectively.

How to tackle this

For ageing-based methods of measuring welfare, there are currently several promising avenues that an interested student could pursue, including experimental laboratory work evaluating different ageing measures as potential welfare metrics, theoretical work exploring the evolutionary relationship between ageing and welfare (for example, the theoretical validity of ageing-based welfare measures in juvenile animals versus adults), and using existing ageing-based measures to investigate outstanding questions in animal welfare science. The range of potential approaches here mean there is space for students from many different branches of the life sciences to make valuable contributions. There is also a lot of potential value in spreading knowledge and application of ageing-based welfare methods in academia. See here for a thorough discussion of potential routes forward.

In this video, Will Bradshaw, a research fellow at Wild Animal Initiative, outlines the potential of biological ageing as a measure of animal welfare, as well as some of its possible limitations.

Who are some of the people already working on this?

Melissa Bateson, Colline Poirier, Wild Animal Initiative

*thanks for building this profile go William Bradshaw

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Resilient foods research

#biochemistry #biological engineering #botany #marine biology #microbiology #physiology 

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 jeopardise 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 resilient 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, or watch the talk below on events that could cause catastrophic disruption to food production and possible strategies for mitigating the damage.

How to tackle this

Doing initial food production scaling calculations (like were done in Feeding Everyone) for additional alternative foods such as mushrooms growing on coal, oil or peat, algae in ponds/enclosures, deep ocean fish, etc….

  • Quantifying behaviour change for conserving food (sleeping more, exercising less, working less, quitting smoking, weight loss, taking antibiotics, etc)
  • Genetic engineering/crop breeding to make new plants that can grow well in nuclear winter in the tropics. Especially promising would be plants that use spores to reproduce, either naturally like ferns, or genetically engineered into existing crops. This is because spores are much smaller than seeds, so the storage cost would be much less. Furthermore, each plant could produce more like 1 million spores, versus 100 seeds, so scaling would be far faster.

...and 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

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Cause-specific mortality in wild animals

#zoology #physiology #evolutionary biology #ecology #animal behaviour #molecular biology

Why is this important?

The welfare of wild animals is poorly understood, having received little research up until recently despite their vast numbers. One of the few things we can say with confidence is that a small minority of all the wild animals who are born survive to adulthood. Death often entails extreme suffering; and for those individuals who die young, the process of dying may actually comprise a significant proportion of their lifetime, making it a key determinant of wild animal welfare. Understanding how and why wild animals die is therefore crucial for understanding the current state of welfare in nature, as well as identifying ways to improve it. Watch the talk below for an introduction to wild animal welfare and how it can be improved through research, or read more here.

How to tackle this

Research into wild animals’ causes of death depends on the use of demographic statistics and veterinary forensics. Because the field has been relatively neglected, there is plenty of opportunity for applying the current best practices to new species and ecosystems, or developing new methods. For example, students with engineering backgrounds could work on miniaturising tracking devices to monitor the deaths of very small animals, including insects. Veterinarians could document cause-of-death indicators on the bodies of wild animals who have died in known ways, to enable more accurate identification in the field. Statisticians could improve models for dealing with uncertainty in the fates of unobservable wild animals, which are crucial for avoiding biases that have marred many previous studies. Ecologists and biologists could apply the current state of the art in all of the above to actual field work, generating hard data on cause-specific mortality in wild animal populations.

To provide the most value for understanding the welfare of individual wild animals, a few shifts in approach are recommended relative to most past research on the topic, including a focus on species with the largest population sizes, as well as on juvenile animals and the causes of death that most commonly affect them. Ultimately, reliable data on cause-specific mortality rates for specific populations can be incorporated into ‘multiple decrement life tables’ to identify opportunities for improving wild animal welfare by averting early deaths by a specific cause or substituting a less painful manner of death for another.

Who are some of the people already working on this?

Most people currently researching this treat it as a dimension of their work specialising on particular taxa, not as their primary focus. If you are interested in this area of research, Wild Animal Initiative can help identify and connect you with compatible supervisors. However, here are a few people who have done influential research on the topic:

Jacob Hill - causes of vertebrate mortality

Robert Peterson - insect biocontrol

Michael Schaub - statistical modelling of cause-specific mortality

*thanks for building this profile go to Luke Hecht

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Anti-ageing research – prolonging health in the elderly

#biomedical research #molecular biology

Why is this important?

Ageing is a major risk factor for frailty, disease, and death. Nearly half of deaths worldwide occur at the age of 70 or older. This number will starkly increase during the coming decades. As life expectancy increases, people also spend a longer time in poor health. In addition to posing a major health burden, ageing causes huge societal and economical costs.

Studies with animal models show that it is possible to increase an organism’s healthy lifespan. For example, treatment with the drug rapamycin can increase the lifespan of mice by up to 60%. Moreover, a drug that targets senescent cells can increase fitness, kidney function and hair density in old mice. Thus, it seems feasible to design treatments that significantly increase healthy lifespan in humans.

While research targeting major age-related diseases is flourishing, relatively few scientists study ageing itself. It is crucial to shift the focus from individual diseases such as cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer to their underlying cause of ageing. This could not only prevent the onset of these fatal age-related diseases but also drastically improve the overall quality of life for the elderly.

Watch the video below for a short introduction to the value of targeting ageing directly to increase human wellbeing.

How to tackle this

Ageing is characterised by the functional decline of an organism over time. Ageing is caused by a gradual buildup of molecular and cellular damage in the body. While humans have extensive mechanisms to repair such damage, some damage is not repaired and slowly accumulates. As the level of damage becomes critical, repair mechanisms themselves become affected, speeding up the process of functional decline through a positive feedback loop. Ageing is characterised by several hallmarks, including stem cell exhaustion, a buildup of senescent cells, genomic instability, and several others (López-Otín et al. 2013). People considering research in this area are strongly encouraged to read The Hallmarks of Aging.

As ageing is caused by multiple types of damage, multiple parallel treatments are needed to rejuvenate the body. Anti-ageing researchers typically specialise in one of the major ageing hallmarks and try to find a treatment that reverses this phenotype.

For possible research directions you could look at this report from the Foresight Institute listing next steps in the field.

Who are some of the people already working on this?

US: Buck Institute for Research on Aging; National Institute on Aging; Paul F. Glenn Center for Biology of Aging Research; Rochester Aging Research Center; Anne Brunet; Irina Conboy; Jan Vijg; Jean Hebert; Jerry Shay; Nir Barzilai; Tony Wyss-Coray; Steve Horvath; Siegfried Hekimi; Foresight Institute

Europe: European Research Institute for the Biology of Ageing; CECAD; Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing; UCL Institute of Healthy Ageing; Manuel Serrano; Peter de Keizer

*thanks for building this profile go to Veerle de Goederen and William Bradshaw

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Antimicrobial resistance

Why this is important?

Development of resistant infections could undermine many aspects of modern healthcare. With widespread resistance, previously routine procedures such as C-sections or appendectomies would become associated with severe risks for patients. Urinary tract infections could become untreatable, and pneumonia could again become a life-threatening disease. The prospects for treating serious conditions, like cancer or brain damage, are also seriously impaired if we cannot count on reliable treatment of infections. While anyone can get and potentially die of a resistant infection, the problem is significantly worse in poor countries where general infection frequencies are higher and access to healthcare is worse.

In terms of scale, about 33,000 people died because of resistant infections in Europe 2018, and in 2019 it was estimated that resistant bacteria and fungi caused more than 2.8 million infections and 35,000 deaths in the United States. There is a widely cited projection that 10 million people could die globally every year from resistant infections by 2050. This number has been debated, and one should be careful since the statistics are poor, especially from low- and middle-income countries where diagnostic facilities for identifying resistance are often lacking.

Watch the video below for an introduction to the development of antibiotics, antimicrobial resistance and possible approaches to the problem.

While the field of antimicrobial resistance itself may not be very neglected, it seems like there may be important approaches within the field that are neglected (see below).

How to tackle this

Implementation research studying the effect of public health policies, information campaigns, prescription practices, training of professionals, nudging interventions, etc., is needed to prioritise the best strategies and use resources effectively. The need for such knowledge is most critical in low- and middle-income countries. Another possible approach is designing and testing strategies for safely deploying new drugs in areas with poor healthcare access, where restrictive prescription practices from high-income settings may backfire due to a lack of prescribers, and such practices may instead render the new drugs completely unavailable.

Questions that would be relevant include:

  • Which alternatives to antibiotics may be promising and scalable for low-income settings, maybe for a specific illness?
  • How can treatment regimens be designed to prevent the development of resistance? Read more
  • How does horizontal gene transfer work and how important is it for the spread and effects of resistance?
  • How important are gene transfer mechanisms from agriculture for resistant infections in humans? This is primarily relevant for animal agriculture, but could also be relevant for fruit trees. Read more

If you’re interested in learning more about this issue, you can check The AMR Studio podcast which has a broad range of interviews with experts on AMR from different backgrounds and is a great introduction to the field.

Who are some of the people already working on this?

JPIAMR; Uppsala Antibiotic Center; World Bank; WHO; ReAct; Wellcome trust; The Foundation to Prevent Antibiotic Resistance and various governmental health agencies

*thanks for building this profile go to Cecilia Tilli

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Black Soldier Fly sentience and welfare

#zoology #neurobiology #comparative neuroscience #welfare biology #ecology #animal behaviour

Why is this important?

Black Soldier Fly (Hermetia illucens) is poised to become one of the largest insect crops in the coming decades, with trillions of larvae projected to be raised for slaughter each year. Yet little is known about the capacities of these animals for sentience or suffering. If more information about Black Soldier Fly’s wild ecology and neurobiology indicates suffering under farmed conditions or in the process of slaughter, that information may make it possible to influence farmed welfare regulations and discover and promote methods of humane slaughter.

In the talk below, researcher Stijn Bruers gives an introduction to indications of insect sentience.

How to tackle this

Because Black Soldier Fly is such a large crop with so little basic research, there are many diverse and productive avenues of study. Some suggestions:

  • Studying H. illucens in the wild would be filling a gap in the literature and providing indications of what behaviors and conditions are natural to them. This could give an indication of whether farmed conditions are comfortable for them, in particular, whether they are too densely crowded. Estimating the length and variance in their life cycle outside of captivity and determining larval survivorship to adulthood and causes of larval mortality would also help determine whether their quality of life is adequate under farmed conditions compared to wild conditions. See here for more details on this project idea.
  • H. illucens is a dipteran, in the same Order as powerhouse model insect Drosophila melanogaster. Comparatively much is known about the cognitive sophistication of D. melanogaster as well as their capacity to suffer, and this information could be leveraged to assess the capacities of H. illucens. I have developed a project (see the mini-proposal on the EA Forum) for imaging the brain of H. illucens larvae and comparing it to that of D. melanogaster larvae, where much research has already established a link between brain structure and function, including pain.
  • Black Soldier Fly is not unheard of as a lab organism, but it’s very much non-model. One project I suggest for research directly on H. illucens in the lab and which does not require developing extensive H. illucens-specific resources is studying their long term responses to pain (see here for more details). Developing further resources, such as tailored lab pr for H. illucens as a model organism could pay dividends as the popularity of Black Soldier Fly as a crop is only expected to grow.

Who are some of the people already working on this?

In academia and industry, Black Soldier Fly is studied to increase its efficiency and yield as a crop. This suggested thesis topic would involve doing more basic research with the ultimate purpose of understanding Black Soldier Fly sentience and welfare. Therefore, the ideal supervisor is likely not one that already works on Black Soldier Fly, but one who is sympathetic to the motivations of this proposal, familiar with the methods you wish to use, and open to studying H. illucens or developing H. illucens for study.

At Rethink Priorities supervisors could be: Saulius Šimčikas (studies Black Soldier Fly farming and regulatory environment); Jason Schukraft (studies philosophical issues relating to Black Soldier Fly sentience); Holly Elmore (wrote this profile and wants to know more about Black Soldier Fly brains and behaviour).

*thanks for building this profile go to Holly Elmore

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