2018 list of half-baked volunteer research ideas

[Beta content for the new EA Forum]

I’ve heard from some EAs recently that they would like to do research in a part-time/​volunteer capacity, but their bottleneck is research ideas that could be done by a non-expert without much support from a professional organization, e.g. Saulius Šimčikas’ recent post on “Fish used as live bait by recreational fishermen.” In this post, I’ll share some ideas for such projects.

I tend to prioritize movement-building, farmed animal issues, and improving the quality of the far future, but I’d encourage other people to contribute any other EA research ideas in the comments section.

And these are definitely half-baked ideas, and I’m not prepared to defend them in much detail. I’ve tried to add citations for context when I had some readily available.

I also don’t expect so many people to work on these ideas with sufficient rigor that duplicating effort is a huge concern, though of course coordination is helpful. I’ve seen a lot of research that was never done because of duplication concerns, but very little harm from duplication of effort in this context.

Some of these are also included in Sentience Institute’s research agenda, though many of those (e.g. RCTs) aren’t as promising for this context.

The list is in very rough order of the value of a decent-quality implementation of the idea.

Research Ideas

  • Detailed analysis of how much would it cost (money, land, energy, etc.) to actually have large-scale “humane” animal farming (i.e. net positive lives to the average well-informed person)

  • Aggregation of predictions made for new technologies. E.g. when did people think we would get personal computers after the first supercomputers came out? (context: AI timelines, predictions of the year 2000)

  • What can be done with grazing/​non-arable land in an animal-free food system: E.g. What plants (e.g. switchgrass for biofuels) can we grow on how much of it? Can we put clean meat breweries on it? Housing? Rewilding?

  • Aggregation of attempts at certification programs (analogous to “humane meat”) across different industries. Namely, how and how often do they lead to industry-wide reform?

  • Aggregation of the health evidence for and against animal products (probably best to start by aggregating pro-vegan and anti-vegan lists of studies and arguments; I currently don’t know of any even-handed lists)

  • Timeline of how public perceptions of vegetarianism have changed over the past two centuries (e.g. old media articles)

  • Summaries of Cochrane and similar reviews on mass media interventions for public health (e.g. “Mass media interventions for smoking cessation in adults” [1]). Namely, what, if any, somewhat-robust conclusions have been found that might apply to the advocacy of plant-based eating?

  • Summaries of social movement strategy books (e.g. Power in Movement, Rules for Radicals, From Dictatorship to Democracy)

  • Various other literature reviews (e.g. voter turnout, anti-substance abuse, environmental advocacy, healthy eating, exercise, anti-violence, anti-discrimination/​bias)

  • Various social movement case studies (e.g. environmentalism (e.g. climate change, pollution, wildlife preservation), children’s rights, early US antislavery, mental disabilities, prison reform, anti-abortion, animal rights (e.g. lab, entertainment, food, shelters), anti-smoking, healthy eating)

  • Summary/​references for farmed animal welfare laws in each country (similar to WAP’s API), especially Switzerland, Austria, Australia, China, and India. Including a timeline for each country if possible.

  • How useful is reducing animal farming for reducing pandemic risk?

  • More detailed analysis of how much animal farming subsidies affect animal product prices (see Lewis’ brief investigation here)

  • Analysis of the impact of animal ag on global food prices

[1] (see comment)