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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.

 

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Changing Your Story

The process of turning an idea into a manageable product is not linear. It may start with a fixed idea, but that idea can change as you collect more information, do more reading, and write-up what you have. New information changes old ideas. And your story changes.

Inspiration comes from anywhere, and everywhere.  Take the story of a guy from Lisbon who is traveling the world and making hand-drawn sketches of everything he sees (the full story is here).

“Luis Simoes has visited 29 countries in the past two years, traversing Europe and Asia and documenting every step. But not in the usual way — there’s no snapping of thousands of photos with his smartphone, or making friends back home jealous with interminable Facebook posts. Instead, Simoes, a 35-year-old former 3D motion designer from Lisbon, Portugal, is sketching his way around the world…”

Why?  Because others travel, so why not him?

“After ten years in the same job he decided that he’d had enough; he wanted to be out there doing what he loved. And that thing, he discovered, was sketching. “I had a friend who was traveling around the world and I was jealous, but then I thought, if he’s doing this then I can also do this.”

How he started, and how he changed. He says:

“Up until now as I’ve been traveling around I do a lot of sightseeing but I try to capture the mood of a traveler when he’s sightseeing. So I’m not just drawing a beautiful building, I’m trying to capture the life around the building, and how people connect with that building. So I try, with my sketches, to bring these moments. I try to build a story behind every sketch.”

His style has changed, he reflects. He no longer draws tourist attractions like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona or the Eiffel Tower. “Now I’m drawing a story… I don’t have to tell everything, but I give you the subject. I’ve learned how to go sketch faster but keep all the ingredients to keep the viewer interested. Of course the more you sketch the more you grow, so it’s an evolution.”

Your own research is an evolution, not a straight line from a fixed, beginning idea that is ultimately realized.

And it requires a leap into the unknown. Luis is on a five year sketching journey, and he says:

“I needed the ambition — I wanted something big, for myself. Five years is a long time but I want to search for the unknown.”

For more on the evolution of research, see this TED video, “Uri Alon: Why truly innovative science demands a leap into the unknown.”

On the Need for Examining Concepts

Lewis Coser, American sociologist, wrote in preface to his book, The Functions of Social Conflict (1956: 7):

Before the “facts” can speak, they have to be arranged though some conceptual scheme. The divorce between research, conceived as a quest for “facts,” and theories which too often soar beyond the reach of facts, is responsible for many of the shortcomings of American sociology. And this divorce is responsible as well for the lack of cumulation and continuity in American sociology. Periodic conceptual analysis, in our view, serves to mitigate these two kinds of shortcomings.”