Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - JUNE 15, 2020. Scientist researching the relationship between the Covid-19 virus and the nervous system in the midst of a pandemic.

Picking Research Projects That Matter

By Leah Pierson

Academia often treats all areas of research as important, and two projects that will publish equally well as equally worthy of exploring. This, I believe, is misguided.

Instead, we should strive to create an academic culture where researchers consider and discuss a project’s likely impact on the world when deciding what to work on.

Though this view is at odds with current norms in academia, there are four reasons why a project’s potential to improve the world should be an explicit consideration.

First, research projects can have massively different impacts, ranging from altering the course of human history to collecting dust. To the extent that we can do work that does more to improve people’s lives without imposing major burdens on ourselves, we should.

Second, the choice of a research project affects a researcher’s career trajectory, and as some have argued, deciding how to spend one’s career is the most important ethical decision many will ever make.

Third, most academic researchers are supported by public research dollars or work at tax exempt institutions. To the extent that researchers are benefitting from public resources, they have an obligation to use research resources in socially valuable ways.

Fourth, most researchers come from advantaged backgrounds. If researchers pick projects primarily based on their own interests, the research agenda will provide too few benefits to populations underrepresented in academia.

One might push back on this view by arguing that the research enterprise functions as an effective market. Perhaps academic researchers already have strong incentives to choose projects that do more to improve the world, given these projects will yield more funding, publications, and job opportunities. On this view, researchers have no reason to consider a project’s likely positive impact; journal editors, grant reviewers, and hiring committees will do this for them.

But the academic marketplace is riddled with market failures: some diseases receive far more research funding than other, comparably severe ones; negative findings and replication studies are less likely to get published; research funders don’t always consider the magnitude of a problem in deciding which grants to fund; and so on. And although these problems warrant structural solutions, individual researchers can also help mitigate their effects.

One might also argue that pursuing a career in academia is hard enough even when you’re studying the thing you are most passionate about. (I did a year of Zoom PhD; you don’t have to convince me of this.) On this view, working on the project you’re most interested in should crowd out all other considerations.

But while this may be the case for some people, this view doesn’t accord with most conversations I’ve had with fellow graduate students. Many students enter their PhDs unsure about what to work on, and wind up deciding between multiple research areas or projects. Given that most have only worked in a few research areas prior to embarking on a PhD, the advice “choose something you’re passionate about” often isn’t very useful. For many students, adding “choose a project that you think can do more to improve the world” to the list of criteria for selecting a research topic would represent a helpful boundary, rather than an oppressive constraint.

Defining impact

Of course, people will have different understandings of what constitutes an impactful project. Some may aim to address certain inequities; others may want to help as many people as possible.

People also will disagree about which projects matter most even according to the same metrics: a decade ago, many scientists thought developing an mRNA vaccine platform was a good idea, but not one of the most important projects of our time.

But the inherent uncertainty about which research is more impactful does not leave us completely in the dark: most would agree that curing a disease that kills millions is more important than curing a disease that causes mild symptoms in a few.

In practice, identifying more beneficial research questions involves guessing at several hard to estimate parameters—e.g., How many people are affected by a given problem and how badly? Are there already enough talented people working on this such that my contributions will be less important? And will the people who read my paper be able to do anything about this? The more basic the research, the harder these kinds of questions are to answer.

My goal here, though, is not to provide practical advice. (Fortunately, groups like Effective Thesis do.) My point is that researchers should approach the question of how much a given project will improve the world with the same rigor they bring to the work of the project itself. Researchers do not need to arrive at the best or most precise answer every time: over the course of their careers, seriously considering which projects are more important and, to some extent, picking projects on this basis will produce a body of work that does more good.

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