Finding and Doing Important Research

From 80,000 Hours:

Like many new academics, you want to do important research; research that makes the world a better place. The problem is there’s virtually no guidance out there. All you can do is ask experts in specific fields, while there’s no-one providing an overview of which areas might be best.

A high impact research question has three characteristics:

It’s important: If we make progress, then the world will become a better place.
It needs talent: If more people work on it, then more progress will be made. And in particular…
It needs your talent: If you work on it, then more progress will be made
A good research question needs to be both important and in need of more researchers. Building a perpetual motion machine is extremely important – if we could do it, then we’d solve our energy problems – but we have good reason to think it’s impossible, so it’s not worth working on. Similarly, a problem can be important but already hold the attention of many extremely talented researchers, meaning your extra efforts won’t go very far.

Instead, we want to find questions that are important and where one extra person’s efforts can go a long way. What matters is the importance of the problem weighted by the extent to which you can make a difference to the problem.

Finding these questions, however, is difficult. Often, the only way to identify a particularly promising research question is to be an expert in that field! That’s because (when researchers are doing their jobs), they will be taking the most promising opportunities already. The only way for you to have more impact than the average is to have more informed views about what’s important to work on.

Nevertheless, it seems that there are some types of question that tend to get unfairly neglected. So, for someone who prioritises impact, there are special opportunities to uncover. What follows is one way to start narrowing down the huge range of options available.