Amenability of cause prioritization to individual research

A valuable question to ask is whether cause prioritization can be advanced by individuals or small groups. In other words, can lowly individuals with (possibly) little experience accomplish anything in this domain? Even if individual research is not the most effective, one could for instance make the argument that existing research is too closed, too risk-averse, and so on.

For instance Katja Grace says (archive) (pg 8, 11):

Prioritization research seems relatively amenable to modular independent contributions, and relevant research inputs seem even more so

and suggests to

Coordinate interested amateurs to do in-depth work together, or try out this kind of work on a small scale. e.g. choose a larger project together, such as evaluating education improvement in the developing world, and break it up into parts, so that for instance one person investigates the effect of education on fertility, and another the effect on income, etc.

Paul Christiano says (archive):

Merely experimenting with different approaches seems likely to yield useful information if done publicly and openly, in light of the small amount of work that has been done to date.


[I]t appears that to date there are no intellectually substantial, transparent, relatively widely known efforts to identify and prioritize high-impact causes. Thus even a failed project could have a large positive impact if it managed to hold itself to high intellectual standards, achieved a modest profile, and was transparent about its reasoning. Such a project would allow successors to understand the difficulties of cause prioritization more clearly, which would facilitate future efforts or provide adequate justification to abandon a failed approach.

We would expect such a project to have a number of distinctive characteristics that we don’t observe in historical projects: open and public engagement with dissenting voices, clear exposition of their reasoning process, correct and clear argument, openness to the full class of interventions and effects that informed critics consider plausible, and identification and aggregation of relevant work that has been done historically.