A central directory for open research questions

by MichaelA7 min read19th Apr 202012 comments

61

Get InvolvedCollections and Resources
Frontpage

Quite wonderfully, there has been a proliferation of research questions EAs have identified as potentially worth pursuing, and now even a proliferation of collections of such questions. So like a good little EA, I’ve gone meta: this post is a collection of all such collections I’m aware of. I hope this can serve as a central directory to all of those other useful resources, and thereby help interested EAs find questions they can investigate to help inform our whole community’s efforts to do good better.

Some things to note:

  • It may be best to just engage with one set of questions that are relevant to your skills, interests, or plans, and ignore the rest of this post.
  • It’s possible that some of these questions are no longer “open”.
  • I’ve included some things that aren’t explicitly written as collections of research questions, as long as research questions could very easily be inferred from them (e.g., from the problems people identify, or the posts people want written).
  • You can also find a Google Doc version of this post here; as explained at the bottom of this post, I hope that that can grow into something much better than this.

Various EA-related topics

Mostly focused on longtermism, existential risks, or GCRs

Mostly focused on AI

Fairly technical (I think)

Less technical / AI strategy / AI governance

Mostly focused on biorisk or coronavirus

Cause prioritisation/global priorities

Animal welfare

(Perhaps Charity Entrepreneurship and Rethink Priorities have relevant collections or research agendas?)

Global health and development

Important unresolved research questions relevant to macroeconomic policy - Open Philanthropy Project, 2014

(Perhaps Charity Entrepreneurship and GiveWell have relevant collections or research agendas?)

Other areas many EAs are interested in

Improving institutional decision-making & forecasting

Rationality

Mental health, happiness, etc.

Other?

I’d guess there are other relevant areas for which research questions have been collected somewhere.

Potential lists of lists which I haven’t properly taken the lists from yet

What this could become (with your help!)

As noted earlier, I hope this can help some of the many wonderfully curious EAs out there to find important questions they can start plugging away at, to help guide us all in our various efforts to improve the world.

But I’m sure that:

  • I’ve missed various collections of questions, especially for cause areas other than longtermism (my personal focus)
  • New collections will be made in future
  • There are many individual questions that haven’t yet been collected anywhere, or new individual questions that could be suggested (I’ve added some as “Comments” in the google doc already)
  • Some people would find this more useful if someone actually pulled out all of the questions from those collections and organised them, by topic and subtopic and so on (with the original source of each question referenced).
    • This could be in one central document, in a “family” of interlinked documents (e.g., one for each broad cause area), in a spreadsheet, or in a wiki-style page.

And I think we could do more to inspire and support people to actually investigate these questions than just assemble a big list. For example, we could somehow “attach” to each question, perhaps as comments or indented bullet points, things like:

  • thoughts on how to approach the question
  • potential breakdowns into subquestions
  • links to relevant resources
  • links to draft documents where someone has begun answering certain questions
  • “tags” indicating what sort of skills or backgrounds are required for answering each question or set of questions
  • offers of “prizes” (payment) for sufficiently high quality explorations of the questions
    • Ideally, it’d be easy to offer the prizes, stipulate the terms, and see the total amount offered by everyone for a particular question

And this could all be done collaboratively. (Plus, I don’t expect to have time to do it myself.)

So here’s a Google Doc version of this post. Anyone can comment and make suggestions. Please do so, to make this as useful as it can be! (You can either say “someone should probably do X”, or just do go do X yourself.)

I’ll monitor and accept changes regularly, and occasionally update the post version as well. I’ll thank contributors at the bottom.

Also feel free to:

  • Duplicate the doc
  • Create other docs and suggest links to them from this central directory
  • Let me know if you want to get full editing permissions and be the person “in charge” of this doc

I’d be really excited to see this develop into something that can really help people advance our movement’s collective knowledge, and to see people actually executing on that - actually making those advancements.

Thoughts from Aaron Gertler

I emailed Aaron Gertler of the Centre for Effective Altruism to ask his thoughts on how valuable something like this would be, and what its ideal eventual form might be. His reply, which he confirmed it was ok for me to quote here, included the following:

I'm not sure how often people actually look at these "open question" lists to decide on research priorities, so I don't know what kind of return you'd get on your time. However, some kind of Google Doc for this should exist, and if your post is what causes that to happen, I think it will be valuable (over time, some number of people will eventually go looking for this sort of thing -- I've been asked for it before, and it will be nice to have a good place to send people).
A really comprehensive list of open questions (which is regularly updated both with new questions and with new resources relevant to old questions) would be an interesting resource, and is the kind of thing one could apply for an EA Funds grant to support; however, I think you'd first have to make a case that such a thing would be used by at least a few people who otherwise wouldn't have picked very good research topics (the Effective Thesis use case is a classic example of this). It seems to me like any such list should be research-oriented (pointing out where work can be done to resolve confusion) more than debate-oriented (pointing out what different people believe), though of course your ability to emphasize that will vary from question to question.

Hopefully that can provide food for thought for people who might want to develop this idea further.

Thanks to all the people who created all the lists I’ve shown and/or taken from here. And thanks to Aaron Gertler for his above-quoted thoughts, to David Kristoffersson for helpful feedback and additions, and to Remmelt Ellen for helpful comments.

This post is related to my work with Convergence Analysis.

61

12 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:56 AM
New Comment

Thanks so much for this! I am keen to discuss this when Covid-19 has passed. I have some ideas and see opportunities for collaboration. EdoArad - I would love to talk with you too at that time. For context, I am one of the people involved in READI which is led by EA volunteers and seeking to tackle high impact/EA aligned research questions. This is our current project, you can see other work here.

I'm very interested in the work you are doing at READI, and it would be great to discuss ideas and collaborate. 

(by the way, what does READI stand for?)

For calibration, so far no one has contacted me to take on one of the research projects in the list of concrete researchy projects. And even in 1-1s, with people that are interested in joining EA Israel and are interested in taking on research project, it had very limited success going over this list and thinking together about possible research questions. 

(Upvoted)

Yeah, I've seen that sort of thing mentioned a few times, such that I no longer find it surprising, though I initially did, and I still don't fully understand why it's the case.*

That's why I included "I think we could do more to inspire and support people to actually investigate these questions than just assemble a big list", and the points after that. But I'd definitely be keen to hear more thoughts on how to provide effective inspiration and support for that. (Indeed, it seems that could be a research question in itself. Now, if only we could inspire and support people to investigate it...)

*It does seem there are a lot of interesting and important questions to be explored, many of which may not require extremely specialised skills. As well as a lot of intellectually curious, research-minded EAs interested in having more EA-y things to do. So my guess before hearing that sort of thing mentioned a few times probably would've been that there'd be more uptake of these sorts of lists, and I'm not entirely sure what ingredients are missing.

Obviously payment and organisational infrastructures would be very helpful for most people, and necessary for many. But I wouldn't guess they'd be necessary for all curious EAs with some slices of free time? I wonder if there are other levers that could be pulled to unlock some of this extra talent that seems to be floating around?

My current model is something like this. #BetterWrongThanVague

It is difficult to make noticeable research contribution. Even small incremental steps can be intimidating and time consuming. 

It is hard to motivate oneself to work alone on someone else's problems. I think that most people probably have their own passions and model of what's important, and it's unclear why subquestion 3.5.1 should be the single thing that they focus on.
Three of the main motivators that might mitigate that here are recognition for completing the work well and presenting something interesting, better career capital (learning something new or displaying skills) and socializing/partnering.

One thing which I thought about trying which might be related is to take on a small scale research problem and set up an open call to globally collaborate on this. To make it successful, we can set up something formal that some organisation is interested in this result (and better yet, possibly supply a prize - doesn't have to be monetary) and coordinate with local groups to collect an initial team. 

That could be fun and engaging, but I'm not sure how scalable this is and how much impact we can expect from that (which is uncertainty probably worth of testing out). I've tried to start a small ALLFED-directed research group locally, as part of our research team, but that also didn't work out. I think that going global might possibly work though.

Hey, thanks for putting this together. I think it would be quite valuable to have these lists be put up on Effective Thesis's research agenda page. My reasoning for this is that Effective Thesis's research agenda page probably has more viewers than this EA Forum post or the Google Doc version of this post.

Additionally, if you agree with the above, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on how we could make Effective Thesis's research agenda page open source?

I think those are both good ideas! (This is assuming that by "open source" you mean something like "easy for anyone to make suggestions to, in a way that lets the page be efficiently expanded and updated". Did you have something else in mind?)

I don't know the Effective Thesis people personally (though what they're doing seems really valuable to me). But I've now contacted them via their website, with a message quoting your comment and asking for their thoughts. 

Yep, that's what I meant by "open source"! Awesome to hear you're taking this forward!

Update: Effective Thesis have now basically done both of the things you suggested (you can see the changes here). So thanks for the suggestions!

Glad to hear this!

Update: 80,000 Hours have released an article entitled Research questions that could have a big social impact, organised by discipline, which draws on the lists of questions listed by this post, but also includes some new questions (sometimes from personal correspondences with the authors). Readers may want to check that article out too. (I've now added a link from this post.)