If you want to maximise your chance of having a big positive impact with your career, we think it’s usually best to work on a global problem that’s large in scale, solvable and ‘neglected’ — i.e., that doesn’t have many people already trying to address it.

This page presents our current views on which global problems most urgently need more people to work on them. Our views are based on analyses of different problems’ scale, solvability, and neglectedness done in collaboration with researchers at the University of Oxford’s Global Priorities Institute and the Open Philanthropy Project.

Read about the moral and methodological assumptions behind these views here. The most distinctive of these is probably ‘longtermism’ — the idea that approaches to improving the world should be evaluated mainly in terms of their potential for long-term impact — over thousands, millions, or even billions of years.

Emerging technologies and global catastrophic risks

In the 1950s, large scale production of nuclear weapons meant that a few world leaders gained, for the first time, the ability to kill hundreds of millions of people. This was a striking milestone in a robust trend: as technology improves and the world economy grows, it gets easier to cause destruction on an ever larger scale.

In the 21st century, we expect this trend to continue. New transformative technologies may promise a radically better future, but also pose catastrophic risks. Mitigating these risks, while increasing the chance these technologies allow future generations to flourish, may be the crucial challenge of this century.

There is a growing movement working to address these issues, including new research institutes at Cambridge, MIT, and Oxford. Nonetheless, work on mitigating many risks remains remarkably neglected – in some cases receiving attention from only a handful of researchers. If you can find an effective way to work on these issues, we think it may be the most valuable thing you can do.

Four areas we recommend, roughly in order, are:

Problems faced by socially motivated actors

Comparing global problems involves lots of uncertainty and difficult judgement calls, and there have been surprisingly few serious attempts to make such big picture comparisons. There are also many issues we’ve not yet investigated.

For these reasons, we’re also strongly in favor of work that might help resolve some of this uncertainty, as well as work that seems robustly useful on many different worldviews.

One top priority in this category is to build the field of ‘global priorities’ research, to try to work out which global problems are most pressing and make progress on foundational questions about how best to address them.

Another strategy is to help major existing institutions improve their capacities to make complex decisions, and therefore navigate global challenges.

A third strategy is to build communities of people who want to do good effectively, with the hope that they can deal with future challenges as they come. We’re especially keen to build the effective altruism community, because it explicitly aims to work on whichever global challenges will be most pressing in the future. Indeed, we count ourselves as part of this community because we share this aim.

Cause X

It seems like there’s a good chance that there are very pressing problems that we aren’t aware of. We refer to these possible problems as “Cause X”. We give some possibilities for Cause X below, though there are surely very pressing issues we haven’t even thought of yet. We include Cause X on this page as a reminder to ourselves and our readers to keep questioning this list and to keep exploring new areas.

That there might well be very important issues we don’t yet know about is a consideration in favour of building transferable career capital — skills and other resources that can help you maintain the flexibility to change focus, even while making progress on a specific career path.

Other important issues we’ve investigated

Below are two more global problems we’ve analyzed. We think these problems are very important, but expect additional work on them at this time to yield somewhat less impact than additional work on the areas listed above. This is mainly because these issues seems to have less potential for very long-term impact – our main focus – and are not as neglected as some of the problems above.

That said, if you’re a particularly good fit for one of these areas (e.g. you already have relevant expertise or your skills are a very good match), or you don’t share our focus on the long term future, then working on one of these may be your best opportunity to have a big impact.

Our current overall list of global problem areas

If we had to rank the problem areas listed above in terms of the overall effectiveness of additional work on them (assuming someone had the same level of personal fit for each), our ranking would be as follows.

Bear in mind, however, that we expect this list to change to some extent year-to-year (seeing the addition or subtraction of perhaps one or two issues a year) as we learn more and as circumstances change — e.g., as problems become less neglected or new issues arise.

We discuss other problem areas that might turn out to be promising to work on — perhaps even more promising than those listed here — in the next section.

Highest-priority areas:

As we said, we also think an issue may well exist that we aren’t aware of — “Cause X” — which could be even more pressing than these.

Second-highest-priority areas:

Other important areas:

We encourage our readers to weigh how pressing a problem area is in general against their personal fit and comparative advantage for the area, thinking about expected long-term impact as roughly the product of a ‘fit factor’ and a ‘typical effectiveness’ factor.

This means that when choosing between the highest-priority areas, personal fit is the main consideration; but it can be better to work in a second or third priority area if your degree of fit for them is sufficiently high.

Differing personal fit alone would mean that our readers should spread out over different problem areas, even if they were to all agree with our ranking of the issues. Moreover, as we gain more readers, there are additional reasons for them to spread out (especially the fact that as more people work on an issue, we get diminishing returns). We cover this subject more in our article on community coordination.

We think that it’s likely best for most of our readers to aim at the highest-priority problem areas listed above, but that a significant fraction should aim for opportunities in the second and third groups, as well as work on other issues, some of which we discuss below.

We think these reasons to spread out also apply to people aiming to take an ‘effective altruism’ approach to doing good — so we’re keen to see people taking that approach pursuing a wider range of issues than those we prioritise most highly, and also to see some work going into global health and factory farming. It also seems important for the health and overall effectiveness of the effective altruism community to have people working in a diversity of areas.

That said, since we think our highest-priority areas are currently neglected (including within the effective altruism community) relative to their scale, we intend to focus our efforts on them for the time being.

Within 80,000 Hours, we also use the categories above to prioritise our efforts as a team: we aim to put the majority of our effort into the highest-priority areas, a smaller amount into the second-highest-priority areas, and the remainder into other issues. For instance, most of our advising is focused on our highest-priority areas, but we also cover many other issues on our podcast.

Note that as our staff and readership grows, or if our highest-priority problems become less neglected, we may prioritise a wider range of issues.

Potentially pressing issues we haven’t thoroughly investigated

There are many global problems we have not yet looked into at length, but which might turn out to be very promising for people to work on upon further investigation. Below we list some issues we’ve at least briefly considered.

We’d be keen to see more of our readers gain expertise and test out projects in these areas than are currently doing so — especially within the first set of issues below — both because we think it might be directly valuable, and because it would allow us to learn more about how to prioritise them.

Ideally, a significant minority of our readers would be exploring these issues and learning more about them. If you have a strong personal fit for a role in one of these areas, and are happy to forge your own path working on an issue we haven’t researched, then it could easily be your highest-impact option.

We came up with this list by surveying seven advisors and combining their views with our own judgement. We’ve added some interesting sources with arguments about the importance of each area as leads to learn more, though we don’t always agree with what these sources say.

Note that the issues within each list are not in any particular order, and that there may be some overlap between them.

The following are some issues that seem like they might be especially pressing from the perspective of improving the long-term future. We think these have a chance of being as important to work on as our highest-priority issues listed above, but we haven’t investigated them enough to know.

Our best guess is that, at this time, it would be better for more of our readers to work on the issues below than are currently doing so. However, because we are highly uncertain of the impact of working in these areas (and what a career focused on one of them might look like), we don’t recommend that a large number of our readers pursue them — at least until more research is done.

Measures to reduce the chance of ‘great power’ conflicts

A violent conflict between major powers such as the US, Russia or China could be the most devastating event to occur in human history, and could result in billions of deaths. In addition, mistrust between major powers makes it harder for them to coordinate on arms control or ensure the safe use of new technologies.

Though there is considerable existing work in this area, peacebuilding measures aren’t always aimed at reducing the chance of the worst outcomes. We’d like to see more research into how to reduce the chance of such conflicts breaking out and the damage they would cause, as well as implementation of the most effective mitigation strategies.

Great power conflict is the subject of a large body of literature spanning political science, international relations, military studies, and history. Get started with accessible materials on contemporary great power dynamics — this blog post for a brief and simple explanation, this report from Brookings on the changing role of the US on the world stage, this podcast series on current military and strategic dynamics from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and this talk on the risks from great power conflict using the scale, solvability, and neglectedness framework.

Useful books in this area include: After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000, and Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

Efforts to improve global governance

International governing institutions might play a crucial role in our ability to navigate global challenges, so improving them has the potential to reduce risks of global catastrophes. Moreover, in the future we may see the creation of new global institutions that could be very long-lasting, especially if the international community trends toward more cohesive governing bodies.

The Biological Weapons Convention is an example of one way institutions like the UN can help coordinate states to reduce global risks — though it also demonstrates some classic weaknesses of this approach, like underfunding and weak enforcement mechanisms.

There doesn’t seem to be as much work on improving these institutions — especially with an eye toward reducing global risks — as you might expect, and we’d be interested to see more research here. See section III.8 on page 125 here for some preliminary research in this area.

The Global Challenges Foundation recently held a prize competition for proposals for global governance reform — see the winners.

Voting reform

We often elect our leaders with ‘first-past-the-post’-style voting, but this can easily lead to perverse outcomes. Better voting methods could lead to better institutional decision-making, better governance in general, and better international coordination. Moreover, despite these potential benefits, ideas in this space often get little attention.

To learn more check out resources from the Center for Election Science and our podcast episode with Aaron Hamlin.

Another related issue is the importance of voting security to prevent contested elections, discussed in our interview with Bruce Schneier.

Improving individual reasoning

The case here is similar to the case for improving institutional decision-making: better reasoning and deliberation usually make for better outcomes, especially when problems are subtle or complex. And as with institutions, work on improving individual decision-making is likely to be helpful no matter what challenges the future throws up.

Although focusing on individuals seems to us like it will usually be less effective for tackling global problems than taking a more institutional approach, it may be more promising when it can be targeted toward highly influential people. See the Update Project for an example of this kind of strategy.

Pioneering new ways to provide global public goods

Many of the biggest challenges we face have the character of global ‘public goods’ problems — meaning everyone is worse off because no particular actors are properly incentivized to tackle the problem, and they instead prefer to ‘free-ride’ on the efforts of others.

If we could make society better at providing public goods in general, we might be able to make progress on many challenges at once. One idea we’ve discussed that both has promise and faces many challenges is quadratic funding, but the space for possible interventions here seems enormous.

Another potential approach here is improving political processes. Governments have enormous power and are the group we most often turn to to tackle public goods problems. Shifting how this power is used even a little can have substantial and potentially long-lasting effects. Check out our podcast episode with Glen Weyl to learn about current and fairly radical ideas in this space.

If you’re interested in tackling these issues, learning product design, gaining experience in advocacy or politics, or studying economics may all be useful first steps.

Research into surveillance

We’d be keen to see more research into balancing the risks and benefits of surveillance by states and other actors, especially as technological progress makes surveillance on a mass scale easy and affordable.

Some have argued that sophisticated surveillance techniques might be necessary to protect civilization from risks posed by advancing technology with destructive capabilities (for example see Nick Bostrom’s article ‘The Vulnerable World Hypothesis’); at the same time, many warn of the dangers widespread surveillance poses not only to privacy but to valuable forms of political freedom (example). Because of these conflicts, it may be especially useful to develop ways of making surveillance more compatible with privacy and public oversight.

Shaping the development of atomic scale manufacturing

Both the risks and benefits of advances in this technology seem like they might be significant, and there is currently little effort to shape its trajectory. However, there is also relatively little investment going into making atomic-scale manufacturing work right now, which reduces the urgency of the issue.

To learn more, read this popular article by Eric Drexler, a cause report from the Open Philanthropy Project, or listen to our podcast episode with Christine Peterson.

Broadly promoting positive values

If positive values like altruism and concern for other sentient beings were more widespread, then society might be able to better deal with a wide range of other problems — including problems that haven’t come up yet but might in the future, such as how to treat conscious machine intelligences. Moreover, there could be ways that the values held by society today or in the near future get ‘locked in’ for a long time, for example in constitutions or international institutions, making it important that positive values are widespread before this point.

We’re unsure what an impactful career aimed at promoting positive values might involve, but one strategy would be to pursue a position that gives you a platform for advocacy (e.g. journalist, blogger, podcaster, or academic) and then using that position to speak and write about these ideas. Advocacy could be built around ideas such as animal welfare, moral philosophy (including utilitarianism or the ‘golden rule’), concern for foreigners, or other themes.

In the context of cause prioritization within the effective altruism community, some have argued for the importance of spreading positive values through working to improve the welfare of farmed animals (comparing it to AI safety research), while others push back against this view.

Measures to improve the resilience of civilization

We might be able to significantly increase the chance that, if a catastrophe does happen, civilization survives or gets rebuilt. However, measures in this space receive very little attention today.

To learn more, see our podcast episode on the development of alternative food sources, this paper on refuges and our podcast episode with Paul Christiano.

Research to identify potential ‘s-risks’

An ‘s-risk’ is a risk of an outcome much worse than extinction. Research to identify these risks and work out how to mitigate them is a subset of global priorities research that might be particularly neglected and important. Read more.

Research into whole brain emulation

This is a strategy for creating artificial intelligence by replicating the functionality of the brain in software. If successful, whole brain emulation could enable dramatic new forms of intelligence — in which case steering the development of this technique could be crucial. Read a tentative outline of the risks associated with whole brain emulation.

Improving information security

Researchers at the Open Philanthropy Project have argued that better information security may become increasingly important as powerful technologies like bioengineering and machine learning advance in order to protect them from misuse or tampering.

In a recent podcast episode, Bruce Schneier pushed back on the importance of this specific issue, but argued that other applications of information security are very valuable and will become increasingly crucial. We would like to see more people investigating these questions and pursuing information security careers as a path to social impact.

Research into human enhancement

New strategies and technologies for enabling human enhancement could empower people to make better decisions, as well as be happier and longer-lived. Moreover, over many generations it seems feasible for increasing human cognitive capabilities (e.g., through embryo selection) to have a significant impact on technological and social progress. Read more.

Designing recommender systems at top tech firms

The technology involved in recommender systems — such as those used by Facebook or Google — may turn out to be important for positively shaping progress in AI safety, as argued here.

Improving recommender systems may also help provide people with more accurate information and potentially improve the quality of political discourse.

Investing for the future

It may be that the best opportunities for doing good from a longtermist perspective lie far in the future — especially if resources can be successfully invested now to yield greater leverage later. However, right now we have no way of effectively and securely investing resources long-term.

In particular, there are few if any financial vehicles that can be reasonably expected to persist for more than 100 years while also earning good investment returns and remaining secure. We’re unsure in general how much people should be investing vs. spending now on the most pressing causes. But it seems at least worthwhile to look more into how such philanthropic vehicles might be set up.

We’re also interested in the following issues, but think that work on them is likely somewhat less effective for substantially improving the long-term future than work on the issues listed above.

More research into and implementation of policies for economic growth

Speeding up economic growth doesn’t seem as useful as more targeted ways to improve the future, and in general we favour differential development. However, speeding up growth might still have large benefits, both for improving long-term welfare, and perhaps also for reducing existential risks. For debate on the long-term value of economic growth check out our podcast episode with Tyler Cowen.

The causes of growth already see considerable research within economics, though this area is still more neglected than many topics. Potential strategies for increasing growth include trade reform (which also has the potential to reduce conflict), land use reform, and increasing aid spending and effectiveness.

Improving science policy and infrastructure

Scientific research has been an enormous driver of human welfare. However, scientific institutions are not designed to incentivize research that most benefits society in the long-term. Furthermore, the cost-effectiveness of science research spending appears to be declining.

This suggests that there is room for improving systems shaping scientific research, and thus increasing their benefits going forward. Read more.

Reducing migration restrictions

This strategy has the potential to greatly increase economic growth, intercultural understanding, and cosmopolitanism — as well as help migrants directly. However, it also faces strong opposition and so carries political risk.

Read more from the Open Philanthropy Project, OpenBorders.info, or see the book Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration.

Improving institutions to promote development

Institutional quality seems to play a large role in development, so if there were a way to make improvements to institutions in developing countries, this could be an effective way to improve many people’s lives.

For instance, legal and political changes in China seem to have been key to its economic development from the 80s onwards. For a discussion of the importance of governing institutions for economic growth see our interview with a group trying to found cities with improved legal infrastructure in the developing world.

Keep in mind, however, these efforts are often best pursued by citizens of the relevant countries. There is also substantial disagreement about which institutions are best, and the answers will vary depending on a country’s circumstances and culture.

Research into space settlement and terraforming

Expanding to other planets could end up being one of the most consequential things humanity ever does. It could greatly increase the number of beings in the universe and might reduce the chance that we go extinct by allowing humans to survive deadly catastrophes on earth. It may also have dramatic negative consequences, for instance if we fail to take into account the welfare of beings we cause to exist in the process, or if settlement turns out to increase the risk of eventual catastrophic conflict.

However, independent space colonies are likely centuries away, and there are more urgent challenges in the meantime. As a result, we think that right now resources are generally better used elsewhere. Still, there does seem to be a chance that in the long run research on the question of whether space settlement is likely to be good or bad — and how good or bad — could have significant impacts.

Shaping lie detection technology

Lie detection technology may soon see large improvements due to advances in machine learning or brain imaging. If so, this might have significant and hard-to-predict effects on many areas of society, from criminal justice to international diplomacy.

Better lie detection technology could improve cooperation and trust between groups by allowing people to prove they are being honest in high-stakes scenarios. On the other hand, it might increase the stability of non-democratic regimes by helping them avoid hiring, or remove, anyone who isn’t a ‘true believer’ in their ideology.

Finding ways to improve the welfare of wild animals

Wild animals are very numerous, and they often suffer due to starvation, heat, parasitism and other issues. Almost nobody is working to figure out what if anything can be done to help them, or even which animals are likely to be suffering most. Research on invertebrates might be especially important, as there is such an enormous number of them.

Learn more in our interview with Persis Eskander and read some early research from the Foundational Research Institute here.

We think the following issues are quite important from a short- or medium- term perspective, and that work on them might well be as impactful as additional work focused on reducing suffering from factory farming or improving global health.

However, we don’t prioritize them as highly as those listed above because they seem less neglected and because work on them seems less likely to substantially impact the very long-run future.

Improving mental health

Improving mental health seems like one of the most direct ways of making people better off, and there appear to be many promising areas for research and reform that have not yet been adequately explored — especially with regard to new drug therapies and improving mental health in the developing world. See the Happier Lives Institute for more.

There is also some chance that like economic growth, better mental health in a population could have positive indirect effects that accumulate over time. Read a preliminary review of this cause area and check out our podcast episode with Spencer Greenberg to learn more.

Conducting some forms of biomedical research and other basic science.

Basic scientific research in general has had a large positive effect on welfare historically. Major breakthroughs in biomedical research specifically could lead to people living longer, healthier lives. An area that seems particularly neglected relative to its potential benefits is work to slow the rate at which people age. Read more.

Increasing access to pain relief in developing countries

Most people lack access to adequate pain relief, which leads to widespread suffering due to injuries, chronic health conditions, and disease. One natural approach is increasing access to cheap pain relief medications that are common in developed countries, but often not available in the developing world. One group working in this area is the Organization for the Prevention of Intense Suffering. Read more.

Mitigating other risks from climate change

We discuss extreme risks of climate change — such as severe warming and geopolitical risks — in our writeup of the area.

Climate change also threatens to create many smaller problems or make other global problems worse, for example frictions between countries due to movement of refugees. While compared to other areas we cover climate change is not as neglected, we are highly supportive of reducing carbon-emissions through research, better technology, and policy interventions. Read more.

Reducing smoking in the developing world

Smoking takes an enormous toll on human health – accounting for about 6% of all ill-health globally according to the best estimates. This is more than HIV and malaria combined. Despite this, smoking is on the rise in many developing countries as people become richer and can afford to buy cigarettes.

Possible approaches include advocating for cigarette taxes or campaigns to discourage smoking, and development of e-cigarette technology. Read more.

Other problems we’ve looked at which seem less impactful to work on than global health

There are also a number of global problems that — while important — seem to us to be particularly crowded relative to how impactful work on them is likely to be. What we’ve learned about these problems suggests to us that resources are usually better spent elsewhere. In particular, we think these problems are less promising to work on that global health.

  • Improving education in poor countries. Improving education can have positive impacts, but it seems to us it’s likely to be considerably less impactful than improving health and harder to do well.
  • Improving certain kinds of education in rich countries. This kind of education reform receives a comparatively large amount of resources, and so seems to us to be crowded and hard to affect.
  • Mitigating resource scarcity. – it’s unclear how serious resource scarcity really is, and substantial effort already goes into avoiding resource shortages by profit-motivated actors. This is likely dominated by work to prevent climate change or other environmental problems. Read more here and here.

Frequently asked questions

Holding all else equal, we think that additional work on the most pressing problems can be 100 to 1000 times more valuable in expectation than additional work on many more familiar social causes, where your impact is typically limited by the smaller scale of the problem or crowdedness. For this reason, our most important advice for people who want to make a difference with their careers is to choose a very pressing problem to work on. This list is meant to help readers with that choice. Read more about the importance of choosing the right problem.

This list is based on multiple avenues of research over several years, as well as input from advisors and judgement calls informed by our moral and methodological assumptions. Read more.

Here are some key articles that explain our reasoning:

Our key ideas series is designed to help you think this through.

To put it simply:

Your impact = urgency of problem x your ability to contribute

Different problems need different skills and expertise, so people’s ability to contribute to solving them varies dramatically. To learn more about what’s most needed to address different problems, click through to read the profiles above.

To explore your own skills and other aspects of your personal fit (especially early in your career) and find your comparative advantage, we encourage you to create a plan and test out options.

What’s next?

If you’re new to 80,000 Hours, read our ‘key ideas’ page.

This page features our most systematic and up-to-date research on how to best make a positive difference with your career.

Read now

If you’ve already read ‘key ideas’, see our topic archive.

The archive contains all of our content organised by topic, including everything we’ve written about choosing global problems and each area listed above.

Read now