Some causes, organizations, and interventions are far more “neglected” than others – meaning they receive less funding, talent, political capital, public attention, or other resources. Taking neglectedness into account helps us recognize unique opportunities for impact. It also helps ensure that our investments are cost-effective since opportunities receiving a lot of resources tend to face diminishing returns.
When people set out to improve the world, they often focus on the most famous, salient and popular issues. These well-known issues – like climate change or mental health – often have major opportunities for impact. However, because they are so popular, they are likely to receive a lot of attention, money, and people interested in working in them. This means that it may be harder to make a significant impact in the field.
Imagine, for instance, that you could donate money to two different charities. Both are using effective methods to tackle important problems, but one problem/cause tends to receive more attention and funding than the other. There’s lots of organizations working on the popular cause, but very few working on the important, less well-known one. Where might your donation make a bigger impact? All else being equal, the value of your donation may extend further (or do more good) at the charity working on the less popular (or more neglected) problem.
Neglectedness is the extent to which a cause, organization, or intervention is scarce in resources. A core part of the Scale, Tractability and Neglectedness framework (developed and used by Open Philanthropy and 80,000 Hours), it is an important measure in estimating how promising different opportunities are to work or invest in.
Taking neglectedness into account is especially useful when we can’t measure cost-effectiveness directly. In this case, we often use heuristics (or approximations) to try and estimate whether the proposal in question is a worthy investment.
Due to the common phenomenon of diminishing returns, neglectedness helps us identify opportunities to make a bigger impact. The first resources invested in a certain goal are often the most cost-effective, achieving high potential impact for relatively little resources. After that, additional resources are likely to be less cost-effective. This is because we (and others) tend to go for the “low-hanging fruit” – or the most cost-effective opportunities – and only get around to less cost-effective investments afterwards.
How does this apply to your career?
Neglectedness becomes important when factoring in our counterfactual impact (or what would happen if we didn’t take a certain job or action). This is because the extent to which others are working on a problem influences how likely it is that someone would take your place if you didn’t invest in it. As previously discussed, it often makes sense to donate to a charity with less funding or investment. In the same way, it might make sense to pursue a career in a field or problem that has less people working on it – so long as it is important and effective.
Often, when we’re evaluating neglectedness to help estimate the cost-effectiveness of a specific area, it’s because we’re considering investing a specific resource – such as money or people working on the cause. Within a cause, we could look at underinvestment in more specific resources such as political advocacy, prioritization and planning time, certain types of outreach, and more. In this context, it makes sense to evaluate neglectedness as it relates to that specific resource, since a problem might be much more or less neglected in different resources (some cause areas have more money than available talent and vice versa).
While neglectedness can be extremely important, it is still only a rough tool for approximating cost-effectiveness. Of course, a more neglected cause won’t always be a more promising one, and some areas are rightly neglected because they are not very promising! The question of when and how much neglectedness should enter into our decision process is non-trivial, but we think many people make the mistake of ignoring neglectedness completely – focusing on the popular, well-known problems and ignoring what this means about the difference their resources are likely to make.