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 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.

Civilisation collapses

Why is this important?

From a longtermist perspective, the most value that humanity can achieve lies in the future. From this standpoint, it's crucial to ensure that longterm trajectories of humanity are as good as possible. One thing that could disrupt these trajectories and prevent us from achieving the extraordinary amount of value waiting in the future is a global catastrophe that humanity would not be able to recover from. We don't have a clear picture of how likely these catastrophes are and, especially, how likely it is that humanity would recover. Trying to get a better picture of how society reacts in cases of large scale catastrophes, how likely is it to recover and how to improve these chances further would, therefore, be very valuable.

In this video, Luisa Rodriguez discusses her research into civilisation collapse scenarios and describes how to tackle questions in an unfamiliar field.

How to tackle this

We can approach this problem from multiple angles.

To better understand the likelihood of civilisation recovering from a global catastrophe, we can explore large-scale catastrophes in history and look at how survivors dealt with the aftermath of catastrophes.

A taxonomy or categorisation of such catastrophes would also be useful, as the scenarios leading to civilisation collapse may be very different depending on the catastrophe. Our best guess is that more impact can be had by focusing on scenarios involving anthropogenic risks like nuclear winter or pandemic outbreaks, rather than naturally occurring risks.

We can also take a look at civilisations that actually collapsed and explore how that happened, the main factors causing the collapse, what factors could have been preventative and how survivors dealt with the aftermath.

Looking forward into the future, we can look at factors that could prevent the recovery of global civilisation (e.g. a lack of resources crucial to recovery).

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Understanding the impact of social movements

#social movement theory #internet sociology #sociology of organizations #macrosociology #social network theory #social movement studies #digital sociology #new social movements

Why is this important?

Building social movements is a common strategy when attempting to change the world for the better. Some mass social movements like the anti-apartheid, civil rights, women rights, animal rights, LGBT rights and environmental movements have already achieved changes. Learning more about how this strategy of changing the world works could help current and future movements to maximise their impact.

Social movements include but are not limited to mass movements. Much attention has been paid to mass movements, but it may be impactful to study smaller, more niche movements (like the neoliberal or effective altruism movements) to better understand in which situations these kinds of movements may be the best strategy.

See the talk below for considerations that could be further explored in relation to the effective altruist movement.

How to tackle this

A big problem in this field is the lack of systematisation. Right now, it would be most immediately useful to answer the questions below for specific scenarios or cause areas, but to do so in a way that provides knowledge that others can build on.

  • Which factors cause social movements to decline?
  • What are the largest successes one can attribute to social movements? What were the trajectories and crucial events for past successful movements?
  • What kind of impact do successful social movements produce (e.g. changing the public opinion via advocacy, activating people to directly work on a given cause, setting up new institutions)?
  • What does a successful social movement look like for its given goals (e.g. what is the structure, size, coordination mechanisms)? See one of the examples here.
  • How do the internet and other new information technologies change size, structure, coordination and other important features of social movements?
  • What is a healthy vs unhealthy fluctuation of people within a successful social movement and how does this work?
  • Challenging or improving commonly cited techniques like the 3.5% rule (e.g. one can argue that this rule assumes that having growth happen as rapidly as possible is optimal, which does not have to be the case for some movements, especially niche and intellectual movements).

Who are some of the people already working on this?

Mario Diani, Sidney Tarrow, JC Jenkins, Yochai Benkler, Manuel Castells, Charles Tilly, David Snow, Jacy Reese, John C McCarthy, Elinor Ostrom, Sentience Institute

*the thanks for the help with building this profile go Vaidehi Agarwalla

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Sociology of long-term stability and change

Why is this important?

From the longtermist perspective, the majority of the value that humanity can achieve lies in the future. From this standpoint, it's crucial to ensure that longterm trajectories of humanity are as good as possible. However, it's unclear whether or how can we influence the longterm trajectory of humanity today. Research into the causes of longterm stability and the conditions under which stability is achieved might give us a better idea of how to go about improving the longterm future.

How to tackle this

It might be valuable to explore why some values, institutions, and organisations are extremely durable, lasting hundreds of years (e.g. academia), whereas others change frequently. What are the social mechanisms that explain this?

Another angle that one could take is to explore issues around increased surveillance, which is becoming more feasible with technological development and might influence the longterm future positively or negatively, e.g. via reducing existential risk or making totalitarian regimes more sustainable. In the talk below, Ben Garfinkel explores the potential benefits and risks of increasing surveillance in more detail.

Who are some of the people already working on this?

Nick Bostrom, Frederic Hanusch and Frank Biermann

*the thanks for the help with building this profile go Toby Shevlane

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Improving institutional decision making

#political sociology #law and sociology #organisational sociology

Why is this important?

Large institutions in our societies, most notably governments, have vast resources and power to change the world both, for the better or for the worse. Yet decision processes used in these institutions are often not optimal or rational. If we could improve these processes even a little, the expected positive value created would be very large. However, we often lack knowledge of how to go about improving these processes. Read more here or watch the conference talk below for an introduction.

How to tackle this

From a policy perspective, you can start from looking into Administrative behaviour and the new policy sciences.

Alternatively, looking into case studies on how better practices have been implemented in organisations historically or historical analysis on what went badly during major decisions (for example, exploring the system errors and individual errors that led to the decision to invade Iraq) might also bring more understanding of how to contribute to improving institutional decision making.

Here is a possible framework on how to think about questions related to improving institutional decision making.

Who are some of the people already working on this?

Herbert Simon, Cairney & Weible (2017); the Simon Institute for Longterm Governance; the Effective Institutions Project; All-Party Parliamentary Group for Future Generations; Rethink Priorities

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Improving voting methods

#public policy #political science

Why is this important?

In a democratic system, the voting method ultimately determines who decides to run, what ideas get heard, and who writes and carries out policy. The current voting system that many countries use (first-past-the-post) seems very suboptimal from many perspectives. There seem to be a couple of other proposed voting methods that seem to generate better results. If we could reliably test and deploy better voting methods to our institutions, we might benefit from the cumulative positive effects over a large range of domains, perhaps for a very long time, including future generations. For more information, listen to this podcast episode or watch the talk below, in which Aaron Hamlin of the Center for Election Science discusses the benefits of approval voting.

How to tackle this

Case studies of attempts at creating voting reforms may bring more understanding on how to go about changing voting systems.

Who are some of the people already working on this?

Pippa Norris; William Poundstone; David M. Farrell; Douglas J. Amy; The Center for Election Science; Jesse Clark; Steven Brams; Marc Kilgour; Herrade Igersheim; Jean-Francois Laslier; Christian Grose; Peter Fisher

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Progress Studies

Why is this important?

Advances in science, technology, economic organisation, institutions, and culture have caused immense improvements in the standard of living over the past several hundred years. Increasing the rate of this progress by even a small amount can lead to very large gains in the long-run (for example, increasing output by 1 percent per year will translate into an increase of 35 percent output in 30 years). Therefore, research focused on identifying interventions and policies that would speed up the rate of progress could be highly impactful. Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison have proposed progress studies as a single discipline. You can learn more in this article or this podcast, or watch the video below for an introduction to the field.

A counterargument against generally speeding up progress is the differential progress framework. According to this view it is important to slow the development of harmful technologies and speed up the development of risk-reducing technologies, rather than increase progress overall, as otherwise technologies might be developed before we know how to prevent their adverse effects (e.g. unaligned artificial intelligence).

How to tackle this

One potentially promising avenue is to study how to organise institutions of science to increase productivity. The new discipline named Science of Science sets out to do this in a quantitative, interdisciplinary manner. Some further related ideas can also be found in this series of posts at Nintil. Some people also argue for more structural diversification of scientific institutions and are putting together proposals for how new types of research organisations could be structured (for example, see Samuel Arbesman’s list and José Luis Ricón’s list).

Inefficient practices and technology often persist despite the availability of better alternatives. For example, Bloom et al. (2013) show that providing consulting on management practices to randomly chosen Indian textile firms increased their productivity by 17%. Further research could address why firms do not adopt more productive practices (although this area might be less neglected, see e.g., Comin and Mestieri 2014 for a review of literature on technology diffusion).

Finally, we need to better understand how (and to what extent) we can shape the direction of technological progress to avoid development of harmful technologies. Research in this area could build on the literature on directed technical change, which includes both theoretical (Acemoglu 2002, Acemoglu et al. 2012, Popp et al. 2010) and empirical (Popp 2002, Hanlon 2015, Aghion et al. 2016) studies on the impact of various economic factors (such as prices of input) on the evolution of technology. The problem of potential adverse side effects or even existential risks being caused by new technologies has received little to no attention so far. Thus, it appears to be a promising subject to pursue.

Aside from technological progress, which generally gives us more power and more choices, one could also focus on moral and epistemic progress, which improves our ability to make good choices. An example of such research could be debate on moral convergence towards liberalism (e.g. Cofnas, 2019) and changes via generational replacement.

To learn more, you can check e.g. Links to resources related to progress studies by Patrick Collison; Progress studies reading list by Daniel May; Online course on economics of innovation by Kevin Bryan and Heidi Williams; and blogs The Roots of Progress; Nintil; Kris Gulati’s blog

Who are some of the people already working on this?

Tyler Cowen, Patrick Collison, Pierre Azoulay. Danielle Li, Carolyn Stein, Nicholas Bloom , it might also be useful to check Winners of Emergent Ventures grant (progress studies tranche)

*thanks for building this profile go to Martin Kosik and David Janku

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The nature and universality of human values

Why is this important?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is increasingly present in many areas of daily life, be it in the form of targeted advertising and content suggestions, speech recognition tools or algorithms to predict social outcomes. Increasingly, intelligent systems not only promise diverse economic advantages, but also offer great potential in areas where human error can cause damage, such as in medical diagnostics and treatment or in road traffic. However, as soon as an artificial intelligence replaces humans in carrying out cognitive tasks that have far-reaching social consequences, it must meet not only technical but also social and moral requirements. It is therefore becoming increasingly relevant to analyse and better understand human morality in order to make progress on establishing the values an AI should preserve.

While some AI researchers in the field of AI are focusing on how to successfully align intelligent machines with human goals, another fruitful direction could be research on the social nature and context of human morality and the existence of universally shared values. Only if we understand and identify consistent human values can we progress to analysing how to get intelligent algorithms to learn and act according to these values.

See the video below for an example of research exploring global moral preferences regarding the behaviour of artificial intelligence.

How to tackle this?

“What are the common values and principles around which different groups can coordinate? What do various stakeholders (the public, cultural groups, AI researchers, elites, governments, corporations) want from AI, in the near-term and long-term? What are the best ways of mediating between competing groups and between conflicting values?”

These are some of the research questions suggested in the research agenda for AI governance by the Oxford Future of Humanity Institute. Alongside research on the technical AI landscape and AI politics, they identify AI governance as a third research direction, which encompasses investigation of (shared) values.

Problems to tackle include:

  • Can we identify a set of values which are shared across all (or at least a majority) of societies and across different time periods? This can be researched through empirical investigations on moral judgements across different countries, as in the Moral Machine experiment by MIT.
  • To what extent do moral values depend on social context and situational circumstances? How stable are values across different contexts, how have they changed over time and how are they likely to change in the future?
  • What can we learn about the nature of morality in humans from sociology and other disciplines (like evolutionary biology, moral psychology, moral philosophy, cultural studies, religion) and how can we combine these insights?
  • Can we directly use insights from sociology for the development of AI, for example in distributed artificial intelligence, multi-agent-systems or computational social choice?
  • How do humans solve value conflicts, and can similar strategies be used in artificial intelligence?
  • How can we include moral values in the design process of technology and artificial intelligence, for example through frameworks such as Value Sensitive Design?

Who are some of the people already working on this?

Edmond Awad, Sohan Dsouza, Richard Kim, Jonathan Schulz, Joseph Henrich, Azim Shariff, Jean-François Bonnefon & Iyad Rahwan at MIT, Oxford Future of Humanity Institute, Prof Dr. Fahri Yetim, Prof. William Rehg, Prof. Jesse Graham, Prof. Dr. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Value Sensitive Design Lab, Institute for ethics and emerging technologies, as well as several well-known sociologists who have published research on morality (e.g. Habermas, Parsons, Simmel, Bourdieu, Mead etc.) and scholars who have expanded and build on their insights such as Steve Hitlin, Steven Vaisey and Gabriel Abend.

*thanks for building this profile go to Lara Lawniczak

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Other potentially promising directions:

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