High Impact Science

Paul Ehrlich began his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, with this statement:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to
death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a
substantial increase in the world death rate.

Ehrlich predicted the deaths as a consequence of the challenge of feeding a
rapidly growing world population, pointing to recent devastating famines in
South Asia. But even as those words were written, the fields were being planted
with new, higher-yielding semi-dwarf strains of wheat and rice. Combined with
modern fertilizers and other methods, these strains ushered in the “Green
Revolution”
: wheat production
in India and Pakistan almost doubled between 1965 and 1970, and formerly
famine-wracked countries became self-sufficient in food and have not seen such
hunger since. The agronomist Norman Borlaug, who developed new and more
effective methods of plant breeding, used them to develop the key strain of
wheat, and brought about expansion of his methods to other crops and deployment
in South Asia, played a pivotal role.
Some credit him
with saving a billion lives, referring to the number of people fed by the
increase agricultural production of the Green Revolution. Indisputably,
scientific and technological advances and technological innovation have brought
about almost incredible amounts of good.

Not whether, but when?

However, when we ask how we can effectively do good in our careers, the key
question is not how much scientific research on the whole has made the world
better: it is “how do I expect the world to be different if I take up this
career, rather than another one?” If Norman Borlaug had never lived his
discoveries would eventually have been made by others. Continued food scarcity
would have evoked both market and government responses in increased research.
Fertilizers and other agricultural technologies would have been applied without
enhanced crop varieties, capturing some of the Green Revolution’s benefits. We
should think of achievements like Borlaug’s as bringing about technologies
faster, rather than making them possible at all.

However, tremendous impacts are possible through speeding the pace of progress,
even slightly. According to the
WHO,
malaria killed over 781,000 people in 2009. If current trends continue,
advances in vaccines, bednets, mosquito control, and increased deployment
efforts will likely eventually drive down fatalities to zero. But leaping
ahead in this process by a single year could save 781,000 lives. A single
day’s speedup would save 2,139 lives. Advancing the process by even 40 seconds
would save a life. Then the question becomes: how many seconds can you expect
to advance your field over your career?

Norman Borlaug advanced progress on a massive issue by years, a truly
exceptional achievement that very likely saved millions of lives or more over
time. But far more scientists, working on important but neglected problems,
could each hope to do good comparable to moving malaria eradication forward
several days. Such an achievement could do as much good as donating millions
of pounds to apply existing vaccines or drugs.

How much can I advance my field?

When we consider donating to administer treatments for tuberculosis or malaria,
we can measure lives saved through randomized experiment: administer the
treatment to half of a study population at random, and see how many more
members of the vaccinated group remain healthy. Estimating the impact of
individual research contributions is harder.

It’s easy to measure inputs such as R&D funding and scientific workforce. For
instance, spending on malaria
R&D
was $612
million in 2009, after doubling from 2004 levels thanks to increased spending
by the Gates Foundation and United States NIAID. So one can fairly easily find
out whether adding one’s brain or donations to the field will boost the
relevant inputs by 10% or by 0.01%, and rephrase questions about impact of
additional researchers in terms of the speed increase from a percentage
resource increase. Will doubling R&D budgets cut development time by at least
10%? 2%? 0.2%? Phrased in this way, it is easier to draw on other knowledge to
judge the plausibility of potential impacts.

When a
panel
convened by the RethinkHIV initiative,
which performed cost-benefit analysis of a number of HIV/AIDS interventions,
turned to HIV vaccine
research
,
it consulted expert HIV researchers to estimate a likelihood that vaccine
development would be both successful and not preempted by substitutes. The cost
of vaccine development was estimated based on the costs and frequency of past
partially successful vaccine candidates. They then found very large benefits
relative to costs from increasing annual R&D spending from $900 million to $1
billion, provided that this increase would accelerate vaccine development by ~5
months (vs a baseline 20-30 year timeframe), so that vaccine research would
outrank deployment of existing treatments in cost-effectiveness.

Reasoning like this, taking into account the magnitude of potential gains in a
field, the scale of inputs so far, track records in similar fields, expert
judgment (with caveats) and
interim successes, can make a good start at deciding what research areas to bet
on when trying to steer towards high impact.

Interested?

If you think you might be interested in high-impact scientific careers, and
you’d like to discuss the specifics of your situation and of which subfields
you might pursue, please email info@eightythousand.org. Opportunities for
high-impact science are present within a wide variety of fields, including not
only public health but also physics, mathematics, computer science, economics,
and many more. Do send us an email — we’d love to hear from you.