The Role of Research Prizes

Historically, prizes awarded for scientific progress have had tremendous beneficial effects on the advancement of science and human progress. Research prizes in other fields are currently proving very beneficial, so perhaps it is time for a prize for aging and healthy life extension research.

The Ansari X Prize was perhaps the best known prize of recent years: $10 million was awarded to Burt Rutan's team for safely launching a reusable suborbital spacecraft twice in two weeks. The Ansari X Prize received so much press attention because it worked - more than twenty serious attempts were made to win the prize or develop spacecraft for the post-prize aerospace industry. That represented a great deal of funding, time, and expertise: perhaps $160 million by some estimates. This multiplication of funds is one of the reasons to support a research prize. Great things can happen when we harness self-interest and competition. The Ansari X Prize was created to jump-start a languishing area of research and human endeavor, and in that it succeeded spectacularly.

A Little History

This is by no means the end of the story, however. A research prize can stimulate or help form an entire industry. We can look back to another famous prize to see this illustrated: the Orteig Prize of $25,000 was offered in 1919 for the first non-stop transatlantic flight from New York to Paris. Eight years of hectic, breakneck aviation development passed before a certain Charles Lindbergh made that flight.

That was a time of enormous progress. Great strides in aviation technology took place during the 1920s, due in no small part to the motivation provided by Raymond Orteig's philanthropic gesture. Aircraft moved from rickety to reliable, from toys and war machines to travel and transport aids that brought great benefit to modern civilization. Many commentators expect to see the same happen for orbital spacecraft in the years ahead, largely as a result of the initial motivation provided by the X Prize.

Projects like the Orteig Prize and the Ansari X Prize serve to direct and focus the engines of business, competition and entrepreneurship to the betterment of all. They provide a way for philanthropists to revive and excite poorly funded and neglected fields of research and development. A comparatively small prize can bring tremendous change.

We need an Ansari X Prize for the application of longevity research. To quote biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey: "Aging research is fashionable, but serious anti-aging research is not. We feel that a major reason for this is that the general public do not think that substantial human life-extension will occur in at least their or their children's lifetimes; hence it is effectively science fiction, having entertainment value but not being worth agitating for. This fatalism on the part of the public leads inevitably to lack of public funding for anti-aging work, and thence to lack of advocacy of anti-aging work by experts, which in turn serves to maintain public pessimism."

This is as good a summary of the central problem in longevity research as any you are likely to read. Little research on defeating aging means little progress. Little progress means less public interest. Less public interest means that funding goes elsewhere, which means that there will continue to be little research. This is an unfortunate trap, to say the least! If we cannot help the industry escape, it will mean old age, crippling medical conditions and death for all of us.

The Two Decade Promise of Longevity Science

If research into engineering greater human longevity could break out of its current ghetto, it might be a matter of twenty years or less to obtain the first working therapies. Just look at the fantastic progress made in the Western world in turning AIDS from a mysterious death sentence to a manageable chronic disease - in only 20 years! Look at the results of 30 years of well funded cancer research and advocacy: it seems like not a week goes by these days without some new potential cancer cure announced by a cutting edge biotech company. These are the results that can be achieved with funding, public awareness, advocacy, and hard-working researchers.

If only the nascent field of longevity medicine could be taken as seriously. This is why we need an Ansari X Prize for the application of aging science to extending healthy life. Longevity research is analogous to the aircraft industry following World War I. It is the tiny private commercial aerospace industry of a decade ago. With an Ansari X Prize for longevity research, we would have the chance to turn that all around: publicity, competing researchers, goals that the public could understand, appreciate and cheer for. In short, it would be a fine step forward.

In 2003, Aubrey de Grey and David Gobel come up with an ingenious plan for a longevity research prize: the Methuselah Mouse Prize (or Mprize) for researchers who work on healthy life extension in mice. The Mprize manages to hit every point that it needs to: it's easily understood by the layman, and attractive to researchers in the field. The prize can be awarded multiple times as researchers compete with incremental improvements in science. Efforts to win the prize need not take more than a few years, since the work depends on the life span of laboratory mice; this is always an important consideration.

The Mprize is only a first step, despite passing $3.5 million in pledged donations - but many wealthy potential donors are watching to see how well the prize meets its goals. In this context success means attracting attention from the press and public, encouraging scientists to compete, and obtaining a large number of modest, tax-deductible donations from people like you or I. If this prize succeeds, there will be other prizes for longevity research in the future, such as the NewOrgan Prize for tissue engineering launched in 2010.

Initiatives like the Mprize provide a real chance for meaningful longevity research to grow and succeed - just as the Ansari X Prize has helped the nascent commercial space industry.

You Can Help the Mprize Grow and Succeed

You and I, people of modest means, are unlikely to see many opportunities like this: an opportunity to make a great difference to the future of longevity medicine with just a few dollars. Donating to the Mprize is like starting a rockslide with a single pebble. You will be helping to create many more prizes and far greater funding for research in the future. One dollar now could encourage thousands of dollars in prizes and funding over the next few years.

This prize is a fulcrum, a lever, and an important point in the future of longevity research. We can all help to make our future health better by donating. I, for one, have put my money where my mouth is. I have joined The Three Hundred and donated to the Mprize. I encourage all of you to donate a modest amount, as your means allow:

How else can you help? Those of you with blogs and other websites can spread the word - but everyone can help in attracting the attention of the press and other donors. Talk to your friends. Talk to journalists: send a note to your favorite blogger, to the editors of your favorite science magazine, or the health section of your daily newspaper. By acting now to support longevity research, we can make a real, meaningful difference to our future health and longevity.

Last updated: December 7th 2010.

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