This is the first week of my PhD in PoliSci at Georgetown. I broadly agree with the utilitarian ethos of the EA movement so I want to use my career to do the most good (in addition to meeting my personal needs and wants). The first part of that journey is developing a schema for cause prioritization. Whichever research agenda I commit to in grad school, I will spent years or even decades specializing in to achieve impact. Therefore I can get huge benefits from picking a high-leverage research area.
Furthermore, I believe that some research interests are much greater in expected utility without a career cost. I dispute Yudkowsky's argument that QALY-hungry PhD students face a "no free energy" problem because I disagree that PhD students are competent at predicting the most career-advantageous research agenda. From my experience most PhD students choose their topic based on their subjective degree of interest and sense of comparative advantage, rather than adequately predicting the academic job market. Some students do seek high-expected-utility areas, so these areas could be more crowded. But the areas people consider valuable vary highly because of inadequate information sharing Robin Hanson argues they are log-normally distributed here .
Before I address a few specific research agenda I am considering, lets zoom out. How can i categorize the ways that political scientists help the world in general? This post lays out five broad categories of activities.
1. World Modeling
Most political scientists spend their time studying what causes what in the political world.
Michael Albertus studied why some democracies and autocracies redistribute land, and some do not. He finds that autocratic leaders tend to redistribute more land partly because it disrupts the base of landowning rivals
BdMS^2 developed the selectorate model to explain, among other things, why autocrats rule for longer than democrats and why democrats provide more public goods. From this they explain some important distortions and inefficiencies in government to government aid.
Vreeland uses rational choice models of autocrats decision to torture to explain why signatories to the Convention Against Torture actually torture more.
Much of this work is of direct relevance to utility-generating policy interventions. Much of it is of indirect relevance. Much work also is of no relevance.
Broadly, the marginal good I can do on a particular problem area is proportional to the suffering caused (or utility to be gained). For example, reducing the occurrence of civil wars would directly save a few hundred thousand lives, but also spare from devastation the economies of those countries reducing the long term deaths from disease and malnutrition, etc. IMO, Accelerating economic and growth and spreading democracy/slowing authoritarian growth have the highest expected return to political science in general.
Second, it depends on how much influence political science as a whole can have on the issue. For most problems this effect will be small because political scientists are poorer communicators than economists, actors rarely have an incentive to listen to us, and because new knowledge tends to be complicated.
Thirdly, it depends on the crowdedness of the field. My first paper is forthcoming on the politics of water access in Jordan. As one of the worlds most arid countries, tons of water scholars come to Jordan every year to write. To contribute to the literature, I had to find a more niche theoretical question to comment on, which takes longer and usually detracts from relevance. On a personal level I seem to be unusually good good at finding good questions in crowded fields.
2. Studying development political interventions
Another approach is to study altruistic interventions in politics, such as those by development organizations. In general these questions cover the same The most promising interventions I've seen borrow from randomista development and focus on political development. Really a subset of world modeling, each topic This area has two huge advantages over a randomly selected research question.
Firstly, there's already an audience for the work. Instead of shouting in the wind about voting systems, you can engage directly with the actors. For example, Radio Free Europe probably does care about improving grass roots democracy.
Secondly, this area can be surprisingly uncrowded. Here is a quote from Rachel Glennerster's 80k episode -
"I’ve been working on some political stuff, and the implementers we work with just really want to do it beautifully in three villages, and we’re trying to say, “No- whole country, whole country. How do you do this for the whole country?" (...) people want it to be perfect in a few places, rather than (...) slightly better, everywhere.
I suspect that perfectionism is an easy failure mode for an altruistic political scientist. Yes this intervention works slightly better but it still marginalizes this stakeholder / creates this other problem / fails 80% of the time because XYZ. These concerns can distract from the cost-effectiveness of the intervention.
It might be more effective to look for interested actors prior to specializing in an area, to more accurately predict high-impact topics.
3. Improving institutional decision-making
Ex. Eva Vivalts recent paper on how World Bank policymakers update their beliefs on new evidence from RCT's.
An optimistic view of this research agenda is that it multiplies the effectiveness of all other evidence for policy selection. For a broader introduction see effective thesis .
4. Designing new institutions from principles
Ex. Glen Weyl's quadratic voting
An ocean of ink has been used to take first principle which are desirable and create institutions that align with them. Glen Weyl and Robin Hanson seem to have had real success designing new institutions which could plausibly resolve currently intractable flaws in western democracies. Glen Weyl even got the Colorodo legislature to use it, with some success.
This cause area could significantly improve peoples lives in the rich countries as well as the poor. While rich countries suffer much less from extreme poverty, starvation and childhood illnesses, they often struggle to solve political disputes. The US, for example, struggles with patronage (aka porkbarrel) and NIMBYism. As more countries develop economically the problems of advanced polities will grow in importance. So from a long-term perspective redesigning democratic institutions is more compelling.
Broadly, I'm pessimistic about the expected utility of devoting myself here . Firstly, its been a crowded area of political science since Hobbes's Leviathan. Secondly, my comparative advantages lie in empirical work. Thirdly, the audience for bold redesigns of democratic institutions is small. Hanson himself has been so challenged by the discrepancy between people's stated motives and their actual motives that he moved to studying hidden motives.
5. Disseminating research findings
My preliminary research has found that economists have much more policy influence that political scientists, even on many "political" issues like constitutional design. I could speculate many reasons for this observation, but the most important is that economists work harder to disseminate their findings. They write reductionist blogs pitched at a non-academic audience example example . They write accessible books with clear connections to EA topics. Political scientists occasionally produce similar work - The Dictators Handbook is a masterpiece. But in general I suspect a great deal of good can be done by connecting audiences to results of political science research. Whatever topic I specialize in, i expected most of my impact to come from disseminating other peoples work.
My next article will look at a few research agenda to discuss their value in greater detail.
Writing this article has updated me toward working in area 2 and 5. I have comparative advantages in area 2 from past work on development interventions and my EA-inspired preference for cost effective interventions. I do not have strong comparative advantages in 5, but I suspect there are more QALY's per hour of work there than any other area.