How would you spend $500,000,000,000?

Every year governments, foundations and individuals spend over $500 billion on efforts to improve the world as a whole. They fund research on cures for cancer, the rebuilding of areas devastated by natural disasters, and thousands of other projects.

$500 billion is a lot of money, but it’s not enough to solve all the world’s problems. This means that organisations and individuals have to prioritise and pick which global problems they work on. For example, if a foundation wants to improve others’ lives as much as possible, should it focus on immigration policy, international development, scientific research or something else? Or if the government of India wants to spur economic development, should it focus on improving education, healthcare, microeconomic reform, or something else?

As we’ll see, there are vast differences between the effectiveness of working on different global problems. But of the $500 billion spent each year, only a miniscule fraction (less than 0.01%) is spent on global priorities research: efforts to work out which global problems are the most pressing to work on.

With a track record of already influencing hundreds of millions of dollars, future research into global priorities could lead to billions of dollars being spent many times more effectively. As a result, we believe this is one of the highest impact fields you can work in.

This profile is a summary of our full research report, for which we interviewed eight people involved with global priorities research.

Summary

Governments, foundations and individuals spend large amounts of money on efforts to improve the world. However, there is currently little research to guide them on what priorities they should focus on at the highest level.

Global priorities research applies techniques from economics, maths, and social science to help organisations choose which global problems they should spend their limited resources on, in order to improve the world as much as possible.

Our overall view

Recommended
This is among the most pressing problems to work on.

Scale  

13 / 16

It seems plausible that better prioritisation within international organisations and governments could raise global economic output by more than 10%. Or that better understanding of existential risk reduction priorities could lower extinction risk by between 0.1% and 1%. There’s a lot of uncertainty in these estimates.

Neglectedness  

9 / 12

Current spending of the main global prioritisation groups is between $5-10 million a year.

Solvability  

4 / 8

Doubling spending would be expected to solve 1% of the problem, but there is a lot of uncertainty in this estimate.

Profile depth

Medium-depth 

Profile author

Roman Duda

This is one of many profiles we've written to help people find the most pressing problems they can solve with their careers. Learn more about how we compare different problems, see how we try to score them numerically, and see how this problem compares to the others we've considered so far.

Why work on global priorities research?

1. Some problems are far more pressing than others

Intuitively, you might think that if we rated the world’s problems on how pressing they are, and put them on a graph, we’d end up with something like this – some problems are more pressing than others, but most are quite pressing:

Log-normal distribution of problems by effectiveness

But when we used our framework to evaluate different problems we found that it looks more like this – some problems are far more pressing than others:

Gaussian distribution of problems by effectiveness

For example, in rich countries like the U.S. or Switzerland the marginal cost to save a life through spending on health care is over $1 million dollars.1 By contrast, the marginal cost to save a life in sub-Saharan Africa through distributing anti-malarial bednets is estimated to be less than $10,000.2 This suggests that if a foundation focused on health in developing rather than in rich countries, it could save on the order of 100 times as many lives.

If such big differences in effectiveness exist, then it is crucial to identify the best areas to focus on. Finding a more effective area could mean we achieve ten or a hundred times as much. Choosing poorly could mean achieving only 1% as much. The aim of global priorities research is to enable decision makers to avoid this mistake.

2. We may discover new, even more pressing global problems

The differences in effectiveness between working on different problems could be bigger if there are problems that humanity hasn’t even thought of yet. And it seems likely that we haven’t discovered all the serious global problems which exist.

When we look at the history of the human race, we see many examples of major moral problems that most people were completely oblivious to. These include slavery, the deplorable treatment of foreigners, the subjugation of women, the persecution of people who aren’t heterosexual, and the gross mistreatment of animals. It is unlikely that we’re the first generation to have discovered all the serious moral problems that exist, meaning there are probably major global problems we aren’t even aware of today.

Global priorities research could have a huge impact if it identified new pressing problems that we’re not aware of, and redirected money and talent towards working on them.

3. Billions of dollars could be redirected to more pressing problems

Organisations whose stated purpose is to pursue the common good spend tens of trillions of dollars each year (out of a global GDP of around $75 trillion), most of which is spent by governments domestically. Foreign aid spending is over $135 billion each year, and private philanthropy in the US totals $350 billion each year.

Official development assistance (ODA) is widely used as an indicator spending on international aid. Chart from oecd.org
Giving by individuals, foundations and corporations in the US in 2014

Probably only a small fraction of these tens of trillions of dollars is genuinely intended to improve the world as much as possible, rather than promote the interests of a specific group (e.g. a voting block within a specific country). And only a small fraction of that would be responsive to higher quality research.

Nonetheless, if billions of dollars could be redirected to problems that are larger in scale, more neglected, or easier to solve, this could provide huge gains.

However, since differences in effectiveness can be so large, even if research only influences a comparatively small amount of resources, it can be highly effective. As one example, the charity evaluator GiveWell produces research which, in 2015 alone, led individuals to give $15.5 million to the highly effective charity the Against Malaria Foundation. These donations will likely save around 2,000 lives through the distribution of bed nets that protect people from malaria.3 Only around 4% of US charitable donations go to international causes. This makes it likely that the majority of the $15.5 million GiveWell redirected would have gone to charities working in the US, which, on average, have do far less to improve lives than charities working internationally.

4. Highly neglected field

Despite the importance of this research, it’s also highly neglected. Organisations focused on directly comparing different global problems (e.g. farm animal welfare vs nuclear war vs improving scientific research) have a collective budget of less than $10 million per year:

 Estimated budget in 2015
Open Philanthropy Project$2.5m4
Future of Humanity Institute
(fraction on global priorities research)
$0.8m
Copenhagen Consensus Center$1-2m5
Centre for Effective Altruism
(considering only activities focused on global priorities research)
<$1m
Total$5-6m

However we should note that there is also research being done which indirectly helps with setting global priorities, for example work done by some academic economists, and groups which run trials and compile data on specific on policy areas.

5. Track record of success in redirecting hundreds of millions of dollars

The field of global priorities research is young, but it has already succeeded in influencing how resources are spent. Here are a few examples:

  • GiveWell – in 2015 redirected at least $39.7 million in donations from individual donors to their recommended charities.6
  • Open Philanthropy Project – advised the foundation Good Ventures to make grants totaling $76.7 million in 2015.7
  • Global Priorities Project – The UK Department for International Development reallocated £2.5bn (US$3.6bn) to fund research into treating and responding to the diseases that cause the most suffering. The Global Priorities Project was advocating for this change (though of course the policy process has many inputs of which they were only a small part).8
  • Copenhagen Consensus Center – their cost-benefit analysis helped convince the United States Bush administration to launch the $1.2bn President’s Malaria Initiative, among many other successes.9
  • Future of Humanity Institute – has advised many dozens of organisations in government and industry on potential problems from new technology, including the United Nations, the World Economic Forum, the US State Department, the UK House of Commons, and the UK Prime Minister’s Office.10

What are the major arguments against this problem being pressing?

The research may be too difficult

You might think that global priorities research will not be able to reach more accurate results than our current best knowledge, due to the large amounts of uncertainty, ambiguity and judgement calls involved. Perhaps the reason this research is neglected is that it’s simply too difficult.

We think this is a reasonable concern. However, the small amount global priorities research done so far, has already led to significant progress, including:

Moreover, there are many ‘low hanging fruit’ opportunities for global priorities research still available. For example, researchers could aggregate expert opinions on the severity of different global problems, and gather existing empirical data on the relative scale, neglectedness and solvability of different global problems.

The research may be ignored

You might think that politicians and donors won’t be motivated to act on the results of global priorities research. Maybe they’ll care more about securing re-election or will instead respond to emotional appeals and gut judgements.

This is a reasonable concern, but we think that if good evidence is presented, at least some will act on the results, as demonstrated by the examples mentioned above.

What is most needed to solve this problem?

Most needed are researchers, and in particular:

  • Researchers trained in economics, mathematics, or philosophy to develop the methodology for setting global priorities.
  • Researchers trained in social and natural sciences with the ability to collect data and analyse specific global problems.

Also needed are academic project managers.

Finally, it’s less of a bottleneck, but funding is also needed.

What can you concretely do to help?

How to enter

If you want to work in this area as a researcher, you’ll need training in the relevant disciplines.

  • If you are an undergraduate, you can major in, or take classes in mathematics, economics, statistics, or analytic philosophy. If you are out of university, you can take online classes in these subjects, for example this introduction to microeconomics.
  • In general, the best graduate subject is an Economics PhD. Other useful subjects include statistics, applied maths and public policy.
  • You should also read the existing work of organisations working on global priorities research to get up to speed, for example Open Philanthropy Project’s cause reports.

What are some top career options within this area?

Research paths

Non-research paths

Example: Owen switched from maths to global priorities research

Owen was doing research in pure maths, which he thought would have little impact because it’s a well-established field which already attracts many of the world’s smartest people. Through discussions with the 80,000 Hours community he became convinced to use his research skills to work directly on the most pressing questions. So he transferred into doing global priorities research at the Centre for Effective Altruism and as a research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute. His research focuses on how to prioritise between working on problems in cases of large uncertainty. He has already advised high levels of the UK government, including the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons on the long-term impacts of advanced artificial intelligence.

“80,000 Hours is unique in seriously thinking through the effects of your career on the world.”

Read Owen's story

Owen portrait photo

Which organisations could you work at?

We know of only a small number of groups doing research that tries to compare global problems at the highest level (e.g. climate change vs global health):

A wider range of groups run trials or collect and compile data in specific policy areas. We don’t regard this as equally neglected, but it is a very complementary form of research:

Where to donate to help global priorities research?

You can donate to most of the organisations listed above, though in 2016, it seemed like the Future of Humanity Institute and Centre for Effective Altruism (our parent organisation) were the top options. This is because (i) the Open Philanthropy Project isn’t funding constrained and (ii) the Copenhagen Consensus Center is currently only focused on international development, and cross-cutting issues seem more neglected. (Read more in our 2016 guide to giving, though note we combined global priorities research and promoting effective altruism into a single category there.)

Learn more

Want to work on global priorities research? We want to help.

We’ve helped a number of people formulate their their plans on how to work on global priorities research. If you want to work on global priorities research, particularly if you could get into or are in a relevant grad program:

Get in touch

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Notes and references

  1. Table 1, Page 60 in Hall, Robert E., and Charles I. Jones. "The value of life and the rise in health spending." The Quarterly Journal of Economics 122.1 (2007): 39-72. Link to paper Table 3 page 147 in Felder, Stefan, and Andreas Werblow. "The Marginal Cost of Saving a Life in Health Care: Age, Gender and Regional Differences in Switzerland." Swiss Journal of Economics and Statistics (SJES) 145.II (2009): 137-153. Link to paper
  2. “We estimate that it costs the Against Malaria Foundation approximately $7,500 (including transportation, administration, etc.) to save a human life.” GiveWell - Your Dollar Goes Further Overseas
  3. GiveWell’s impact page.