Suppose you could identify a really important research topic – one that could yield huge benefits to millions of people something like ending ageing, developing a cheap, clean supply of energy, or discovering a cheap vaccine for HIV/AIDs. Suppose you think that carrying out this research is one of the most important things for humanity to do.
At this point, it’s easy to think ‘how can I get involved with this field?’ If you can get the right qualifications, you could aim to become a researcher in this field, with visions of being the person who makes the crucial breakthrough.
But now ask yourself: ‘is the important thing that I do this research, or is the important thing that someone does it?’ If what you really care about is helping others – making a difference – and not personal glory, then it’s the latter rather than the former that’s important. This shift in perspective opens up some unusual ethical career options.
Rather than attempt to personally become a researcher in that field, instead attempt to find the very best researcher already working on the issue. If you can do that, then it’s in your power to bring about more of the very best research in the world.
Consider: if you can save that researcher one hour spent on activities besides research, then that researcher can spend one more hour researching. So, by saving that researcher time, you can convert your time into their time. Suddenly, one of your hours becomes one more hour spent by the best researcher, working in the best field!
Since the most effective researchers can achieve extraordinary amounts, you too could have an extraordinary impact.
There are many ways you could do this. For instance, you could volunteer to become their PA (Personal Assistant) – something many top academics lack. Then you could save them time spent organising meetings, shopping, filing taxes etc. If you picked the right person, then at least some of this would result in more research.
At certain universities, researchers are required to teach undergraduates. Sometimes this indirectly makes the researcher better at research – they gain from the challenge of explaining their field. But in other cases it detracts from the amount of time spent on research. If you were an academic in the same field, you could volunteer to take the best researcher’s teaching load.
Even if qualified, if you pursue research directly, it’s very unlikely that you’ll end up as the best researcher in the best field. It will also take you several decades to attain that kind of position. In many cases, each year’s delay means thousands of deaths. So, by becoming a PA you could actually have far more impact than you could by pursuing the intuitively ethical course of becoming a researcher in a high impact field.
This option - a type of “multiplier” career – doesn’t just apply to research. If you could save the time of any ultra high impact person, you can convert your time into very high impact time.
The cost, of course, is that society won’t recognize your contribution in the same way. When you sit your grandchildren on your lap and tell them about how you contributed to ending ageing, they might assume that you were the person who had the ground-breaking ideas, the one who sat there, microscope pressed against the eye, and actually made the discoveries. They might not be impressed when you tell them that you actually did tax returns for the person who made the discoveries. The same goes for many indirect ways of doing good.
The lack of admiration given by society on such roles doesn’t change the fact that your efforts will have done a huge amount of good. And in fact, it makes these roles all the more virtuous. You’re going against received wisdom and sacrificing the personal glory you might have gained.