Effective Altruism as an Ethical Lens on Research Priorities. uri icon

abstract

  • Effective altruism is an ethical framework for identifying the greatest potential benefits from investments. Here, we apply effective altruism concepts to maximize research benefits through identification of priority stakeholders, pathosystems, and research questions and technologies. Priority stakeholders for research benefits may include smallholder farmers who have not yet attained the minimal standards set out by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals; these farmers would often have the most to gain from better crop disease management, if their management problems are tractable. In wildlands, prioritization has been based on the risk of extirpating keystone species, protecting ecosystem services, and preserving wild resources of importance to vulnerable people. Pathosystems may be prioritized based on yield and quality loss, and also factors such as whether other researchers would be unlikely to replace the research efforts if efforts were withdrawn, such as in the case of orphan crops and orphan pathosystems. Research products that help build sustainable and resilient systems can be particularly beneficial. The "value of information" from research can be evaluated in epidemic networks and landscapes, to identify priority locations for both benefits to individuals and to constrain regional epidemics. As decision-making becomes more consolidated and more networked in digital agricultural systems, the range of ethical considerations expands. Low-likelihood but high-damage scenarios such as generalist doomsday pathogens may be research priorities because of the extreme potential cost. Regional microbiomes constitute a commons, and avoiding the "tragedy of the microbiome commons" may depend on shifting research products from "common pool goods" to "public goods" or other categories. We provide suggestions for how individual researchers and funders may make altruism-driven research more effective.

publication date

  • 2020
  • 2020