For some of the world’s problems, like many forms of cancer, there are currently no solutions. In such cases, research can be a particularly impactful activity. Even in cases where there are ways of dealing with a problem (like HIV), further research may provide more effective tools (like a vaccine).
Research is often a promising path to impact partly because the knowledge it creates is a non-rival good. Non-rival goods can be provided to a marginal individual at no additional cost. By contrast, when a rival good is consumed, it can’t be consumed by anyone else. Everyone can use Newtonian physics, but the apple Newton ate is lost to the rest of humanity.
Unfortunately, this also means that research tends to be undersupplied by self-interested agents, since the benefits will be widely diffused and hard to monetize. Imagine a piece of research which would be mildly useful to everyone in the world, but is relatively costly to produce. While it would be better for society overall if this line of research was carried out, no individual agent has an incentive to pursue it. Since research tends to be undersupplied by the market despite being potentially very socially valuable, it can be a highly promising path to impact for altruists.
Recognizing this, governments also often fund research. However, governments tend to support the kind of research that is most helpful to their countries and constituencies, rather than focusing on the most promising research areas. As a consequence, they often neglect research into problems that affect individuals with little or no political influence, such as the global poor, future people, and nonhuman animals.
Cotton-Barratt, Owen (2015) Project overview: Problems of unknown difficulty, Global Priorities Project, February 15.
Argues that research is a problem of unknown difficulty, because we don’t know how much we need to spend to invent something new andwhether marginal funding will be impactful.
Giving What We Can (2015) Why focus on neglected tropical disease research?, in 'Medical research', Giving What We Can, September 21 (updated 25 April 2018).
A discussion of why research is plausibly effective.
Open Philanthropy (2021) Scientific research, Open Philanthropy.
The Open Philanthropy Project’s assessment of scientific research as a focus area.