Global priorities research

Since publishing this profile, there has been further research on this cause. See our newer profile of the area.

What is this cause?

Global priorities research is activity aimed at working out which causes, interventions, organisations, policies, etc. do the most to make the world a better place. Organisations and projects within this cause include some policy think-tanks and some parts of economics. Within prioritisation research, we think the most high-priority area is long-run-focused cause-prioritisation. That is, research aimed at working out which causes do the most to make the world a better place in the long-run if we add more resources to them. Note that this research need not consist of detailed economic modelling. Global priorities research can also involve down-to-earth projects like investigating room for more funding or aggregating expert opinion. Organisations within the cause include the Copenhagen Consensus, GiveWell Labs, the Future of Humanity Institute and the Centre for Effective Altruism’ Global Priorities Project.

Why do we think it’s high-priority?

We think global priorities research is a highly effective cause, because: (i) we think there are likely to be large differences in the effectiveness of different causes, (ii) people don’t have a good understanding of these differences, and (iii) without a better understanding, society is unlikely to take the best opportunities to do good. We also think working on this cause offers high value of information. Since there hasn’t been a large systematic attempt to evaluate causes before, even if the project turns out not to produce useful answers, it’ll still be highly useful to rule it out as a promising project.

At the same time, we think global priorities is somewhat tractable and very uncrowded. Little has been directly spent on this kind of project so far – there are only three major organisations working on the cause and their annual budgets are under US$2m – but there are hundreds of billions of dollars at stake in philanthropy and government aid spending. What has been spent so far, however, has led to significant progress, for instance GiveWell identifying global health as a promising area to look for effective donation opportunities, the Copenhagen Consensus’s promotion of micronutrient supplements, and the development of better methodologies for prioritisation (e.g. how to make use of cost-effectiveness estimates). Moreover, there are promising lines of future research, and organisations within the cause that are short of funding and human capital (see here, here, and here).

One important weakness of this cause is that, as with many research programs, it can be difficult to tell when you’re making progress, which lowers tractability.

We’d like to flag that there are reasons we may be biased. Our parent charity, CEA, carries out global priorities research. On the other hand, our high rating of global priorities research is not an accident. CEA and 80,000 Hours aim to work on the most high-potential causes in the world. It’s because we think global prioritises research is a high-priority cause that we’re working on it (our money is where our mouth is). So, although it’s true there’s potential for a conflict of interest, there’s a good reason we’re in this situation. The greater risk is in the future: we’re likely to be biased towards continuing to believe prioritisation research is high-priority because we’re already working on it (an instance of the ‘sunk cost bias’) despite new evidence potentially suggesting otherwise.

Further reading

  • You can see much more detail on the case for global priorities research in this draft report.
  • You can see an overview of the opportunities with global priorities research, including an attached series of interviews, here.