In a nutshell: We’ve changed our minds before about which problems are highest priority — and which careers we think have the highest impact — as a result of global priorities research. And we’re not the only ones. This research can shift the direction of actors like us, as well as foundations and other nonprofits. This means that high-quality research into important questions about which issues to prioritise can be very impactful.
If you are well suited to this career, it may be the best way for you to have a social impact.
Why might global priorities research be high impact?
We’ve argued that one of the most important priorities is working out what the priorities should be. There’s a huge amount that’s not known about how to do the most good, and although this is one of the most important questions someone should ask, it has received little systematic study.
The study of which actions do the most good is especially neglected if you take a long-term perspective, in which what matters most are the effects of our actions on future generations. This longtermist position has only been recently explored, and we know little about its practical implications. With more research, we could easily see our current perspective on global priorities shifting, so these questions have practical significance.
The study of how to help others is also especially neglected from a high-level perspective. People have done significant work on questions like “How can we reduce climate change?” — but much less on the questions of “How pressing is climate change compared to health?” and “What methods should we use to make that comparison?”
It’s these high-level questions we especially want to see addressed — we call the study of such questions about how best to help others ‘global priorities research.’ It’s primarily a combination of moral philosophy and economics, but it also draws on decision theory, decision-making psychology, moral psychology, and a wide variety of other disciplines, especially those concerning technology and public policy. You can see a research agenda produced by the Global Priorities Institute at Oxford to get an idea of the sorts of questions that are currently highest-priority.
We’d like to see global priorities research turn into a flourishing field, both within and outside of academia.
To make this happen, perhaps the biggest need right now is to find more researchers able to make progress on the key questions of the field. There is already enough funding available to hire more people if they demonstrate potential in the area — but demonstrating potential is hard in a nascent field with a lack of mentorship. However, if you are able to enter, then it’s extremely high impact — you might help define a whole new discipline.
Beyond a need for researchers, another bottleneck to progress on global priorities research might be operations staff. So if you want to work in this area but research isn’t a good fit for you, consider finding an operations role at an organisation focused on global priorities research.
What does this path involve?
You can generally pursue this path either in academia or nonprofits.
We think building this field within academia is a vital goal, because if it becomes accepted there, then it will attract the attention of hundreds of other researchers.
The only major academic centre currently focused on this research is the Global Priorities Institute (GPI) at Oxford, so if you want to pursue this path as an academic, that’s one of the top places to work. One problem is that GPI has limited open positions, and you’d usually need to have a top academic background in philosophy or economics to get one of them (e.g. if you did well in a PhD from a top 10 school in your subject). Positions are especially competitive in philosophy.
A new organisation called the Forethought Foundation for Global Priorities Research offers scholarships and fellowships to students in global priorities research, as well as research grants for established scholars. We expect you’ll need a top background in philosophy or economics to get one of these — for example:
An undergrad who could get into a top 10 philosophy PhD programme or a top 10–20 economics PhD programme
A grad student attending one of those programmes
A postdoc or academic who graduated from — or teaches at — one of those programmes
That said, we expect other centres will be established over the coming years, which will open up more opportunities like these. In the meantime, you could try to build expertise. For instance, doing an economics PhD (and postdoc) opens up lots of other options, so it’s a reasonable path to pursue even if you’re not sure that global priorities research is a good fit for you. It’s also important to have academics from other universities doing global priorities research (and potentially collaborating with GPI).
One downside of academia, however, is that you need to work on topics that are publishable, and these are often not the most relevant to real decisions. This means it’s also important to have researchers working elsewhere on more practical questions.
We think the leading organisation working on applied research in this space is Open Philanthropy. Working there allows your findings to directly feed into how billions of dollars are spent (disclaimer: we have received grants from them).
You can also pursue this research at other effective altruism organisations. 80,000 Hours, for instance, does a form of applied global priorities research focused on career strategy.
Examples of people pursuing this path
How to assess your fit
To assess if this path might be a good fit for you, consider these questions:
Do you have a chance of getting into a PhD in economics or philosophy at a top 10 school? (This isn’t required, but potential success on this path is an indicator of ability.)
Do you have excellent judgement? For example, can you take on messy, ill-defined questions, and come up with reasonable assessments about them? This is not required in all roles, but it is especially useful right now given the nascent nature of the field and the questions that are being addressed.
Do you have general knowledge or an interest in a wide range of academic disciplines?
Do you have a chance at making a contribution to one of the relevant research questions? For instance, are you highly interested in the topic, and have ideas for questions to look into? Are you able to work independently for many days at a time? Are you able to stick with or lead a research project over many years? Read more about predicting success in research.
A few more useful exercises to test your potential fit for this path:
Read some papers in the field and try to come up with questions for further research.
Write down something like a “List of the top 10 key uncertainties for my worldview.” Then try to think of ideas for how to reduce your uncertainties.
Ask someone in the field what they think about your research ideas.
How to enter this field
The best entry route to the academic end of the field is to study a PhD in economics or philosophy, which both provides useful training and is also required for most academic positions. Currently, economics PhDs are in shorter supply than philosophy PhDs. An economics background also gives you better backup options, so is preferable if you have the choice.
It’s also possible to enter from other disciplines. A number of people in the field have backgrounds in maths, computer science, and physics. Psychology is perhaps the next most relevant subject, especially the areas around decision-making psychology and moral psychology. The field also crosses into AI and emerging technology strategy, as well as knowledge of relevant areas of science. Finally, as the field develops there will be more demand for people with a policy focus, who might have studied political science, international relations, or security studies. In general, this is a position where wide general knowledge is more useful than most.
With non-academic positions, a PhD isn’t necessary, but you do ideally need to find a way to demonstrate potential in this kind of research. It’s useful to develop skills in clear writing and basic quantitative analysis. Sometimes people enter non-academic roles directly from their undergraduate studies, if they’re sufficiently talented.
The Global Priorities Institute is an interdisciplinary research centre at the University of Oxford. It conducts foundational research that informs the decision-making of individuals and institutions seeking to do as much good as possible, using the tools of multiple academic disciplines (especially philosophy and economics) to explore the issues at stake. See current vacancies, or submit a general expression of interest.
Longview Philanthropy designs and executes custom giving strategies for major donors, with a focus on using evidence and reason to find the highest-impact opportunities to protect future generations.
Open Philanthropy uses an approach inspired by effective altruism to identify high-impact giving opportunities across a wide range of problem areas, shares this research freely online, and uses it to advise top philanthropists on where to give. See current vacancies. Disclaimer of conflict of interest: we have received a grant from Open Philanthropy.
Rethink Priorities is a research organisation that conducts critical research to inform policymakers and major foundations about how to best help people and nonhuman animals in both the present and the long-term future — spanning everything from animal welfare to the threat of nuclear war. See current vacancies.
Want one-on-one advice on pursuing this path?
Because this is one of our priority paths, if you think this path might be a great option for you, we’d be especially excited to advise you on next steps, one-on-one. We can help you consider your options, make connections with others working in the same field, and possibly even help you find jobs or funding opportunities.