The Concrete and Conferences Metric

It's often hard to tell just how well a field of research is doing from outside, as filtered by the press, rumor central, and chatting to scientists. How fast are things going? Is lots of press attention a sign of progress, or just a sign of lots of press attention? How extensively is research funded compared to other fields? How does it all stack up in the grand scheme of things? What can we expect in the way of progress and accomplishments in five or ten years?

(As I point out in another post, correlations between speed of research and the pace at which new technologies, therapies and medicines become commercially available don't necessarily exist).

For my part, I'm a fan of the "concrete and conferences" metric for measuring the health of science. Two side effects of increasing research funding in a field are new buildings at universities and research centers (the "concrete" part of the metric) and new gatherings of researchers (the conferences). Both of these symptoms are also fairly easy to track. The more of both, the better, with new buildings indicating more money entering the system than new conferences.

Between five and seven years ago, the first new buildings for nanotechnology research centers (like the Center for Nanoscale Research and Science and Technology at Rice - probably the only place on the web you'll be asked to "click on a buckyball to begin") were under construction. The building authorities were well aware of the expansion of the field that was to take place. Today, nanotechnology is very much a hot ticket item.

Today, we see much the same process of pouring concrete and establishing conferences for stem cell and regenerative medicine research - and at much the same level. This is a very encouraging sign for the future of this field, and the corresponding future of human health and longevity.

It'll get even more encouraging when we see the building contractors called for anti-aging research institutes at major universities, but that, I suspect, is still some years away from happening.

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