Which global problems are most important to work on? To answer, we’ve drawn together research from the Global Priorities Project (affiliated with Oxford University); the Open Philanthropy Project (a multi-billion dollar foundation); the Copenhagen Consensus Center (a major think tank); and other researchers.
We’re looking for the biggest problems in the world, but that isn’t enough for a problem to make it onto the list: it could be too hard to solve, or it could already receive a huge amount of attention. We’re looking for problems that are big and solvable and neglected (this is why). And this means our list is a bit different from what you might first expect.
List of the world’s biggest problems
|Solvability(?)||Total Score (?)|
|Risks from artificial intelligence||Recommended||16||9||2||27|
|Promoting effective altruism||Recommended||13||10||3||26|
|Global priorities research||Recommended||13||9||4||26|
|Factory farming||Sometimes recommended||13||6||4||23|
|Nuclear security||Sometimes recommended||15||5||3||23|
|Developing world health||Sometimes recommended||13||2||6||21|
|Climate change (extreme risks)||Sometimes recommended||14||2||4||20|
|Land use reform||Sometimes recommended||9||7||4||20|
|Smoking in the developing world||Sometimes recommended||12||5||3||20|
Click through to see our reasoning for each problem. If there’s no link, the profile isn’t yet complete, but will be published soon. This is a preliminary list, so the answers are likely to change. There’s also many pressing problems we didn’t yet investigate. One point higher means the problem is roughly three times as pressing.
Surprised at the list?
Learn more about how we compare problems in part 2b of our career guide. You can see our reasoning for each individual problem by clicking through to the full profile.
Potentially promising problems we haven’t yet investigated
- Science policy and infrastructure
- Improving collective decision making
- Cheap green energy / solar energy
- Foreign policy and peace
- International development – trade reform
- Advocating increased taxation of the super rich
- Democratic reform
- Medical research into how to slow ageing
- Reducing migration restrictions
- Promoting human rights
- Increasing aid spending and effectiveness
And many others…
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Which problem should you work on?
Comparing global problems involves difficult judgement calls, so different people come to different conclusions. We made a quiz filters our list based on your answers to some crucial questions.
Once you have a personalised list, the next thing to factor in is your personal fit. Different problems need different skills and resources, so some people are better placed to work on them. To learn more about what’s most needed in each problem, click through to read the full profile. If you’re early in your career, don’t feel too constrained by the skills you already have – you can build expertise where it’s most needed.
You might also be more passionate about some problems rather than others. If that’s the case, then factor it in – it’s probably better to work on a second tier problem that you’re super motivated by rather than a top tier one you’re not. Just don’t forget you can become motivated by new areas if you know that the work helps others and become good at what you do. If you’re unsure whether you’ll be motivated, try it out. (Read more about how to assess personal fit.)
Appendix: What is our list based on?
We gathered a list of pressing problems from the best sources we could find, then rated them using our problem framework, and prepared a problem profile on each. Click through to these profiles to see our full reasoning.
We drew on the following sources:
- The Open Philanthropy Project – a partnership between GiveWell and Good Ventures, a multi billion dollar foundation. Open Phil aims to compare as many different problems (what they call “causes”) as possible in terms of their potential for social impact, treating all people as equal. This is unlike most foundations, which start from a list of problems the founder is especially passionate about, then only try to find the best opportunities within those problems. Also unlike most foundations, Open Phil shares much of their reasoning publicly. This makes it much easier for us to understand and apply their findings. For these reasons, we think Open Phil is the best source of information on which global problems are most pressing, and our list draws heavily from theirs. The main downsides are that: (i) Open Phil focuses on the problems that are most pressing for philanthropists, which means they could overlook problems that are more talent constrained than funding constrained; (ii) Open Phil is new, so it has not yet been able to investigate many important problem areas. We discussed how well Open Phil’s findings transfer to 80,000 Hours with their co-Executive Director, Holden Karnofsky here.
- The Global Priorities Project – a partnership between the Centre for Effective Altruism (of which we are part) and the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. GPP does research into how to compare problems in terms of how pressing they are; and advises governments and philanthropists on which problems to prioritise from a global humanitarian perspective.
- The Copenhagen Consensus Centre – a major think tank, which commissions cost-benefit analyses by leading economists of different interventions to help the global poor, and has an expert panel rank these interventions in terms of priority. See their most recent ranking.
We selected problems that we thought were especially likely to be pressing, based on the work of the groups listed above or our own background knowledge. We also selected problems we think are popular but likely to be less pressing than our top rated problems. Bear in mind, (i) this is just preliminary work and our rankings are likely to change (ii) there’s likely to be many pressing problems that we’ve missed. We hope to expand the range of problems covered in the future.