Accelerating Science With Wagers and Contests

As you all know, I'm a big fan of research prizes - harnessing the human urge to compete in order to accelerate scientific progress.

If anti-aging and life extension research 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 anti-aging, regenerative and healthy life extension medicine could be taken as seriously. This is why we need an Ansari X Prize for aging. Anti-aging research is 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 anti-aging 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.

Historically, prizes have inspired somewhere between 16 to 50 times as much investment as is in the purse - a very good deal if you are a philanthropist looking to get the biggest bang for your buck.

One of the important effects of a prize is to gain attention, support and understanding for a particular field or problem. Scientists and futurists also make use of high profile wagers for this purpose:

Jay Olshansky, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois in Chicago, and Steven Austad, a biology professor at the University of Texas, study gerontology, or the aging process.

A few years ago, the two scientists who are also friends made a bet. Austad stated that he thought it was possible that at least one person born in the year 2000 would still be alive on Jan. 1, 2150. Olshansky thought living to be 150 years old would require almost impossible, "extraordinary conditions."

(The current documented world record for longest living person is 122 years, held by Jeanne Calment, a French woman who died in 1997.)

The stakes of Olshansky's and Austad's bet: $500 million.

Neither scientist has that kind of money. Gerontology doesn't pay that well. Nor can either man, both in their 50s, expect to be around for the bet's conclusion. Instead, Olshansky and Austad each deposited $150 into a trust fund and promised that they or their heirs would contribute an additional $10 annually until 2150.

By their calculations, compounding interest would balloon the total amount of the fund to at least $500 million by 2150. At that time, a panel of notable scientists will determine the winner and award the prize to the victorious bettor's heirs.

"I thank Steve every time I see him for making my future relatives rich," laughs Olshansky.

Olshansky and Austad had other motives for making their bet beyond enriching relatives yet to be born. They both thought the bet would stimulate public interest in gerontology, which is has.

"It has been wildly successful," said Austad. "Both Jay and I have done dozens of interviews, taken inquiries from around the world." Olshansky said the bet was probably what got them an invitation to speak before the President's Council on Bioethics and inspired the Methuselah Mouse Prize, an ongoing effort to extend the life span of lab mice and, in the process, better understand how aging works.

Olshansky, I should note, is a conservative gerontologist - and most likely wrong about the timescale of productive anti-aging research. Unfortunately, public pessimism makes investment in research less likely; it is in danger of being a self-fulfilling prophecy. Biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey has spoken at length on this topic.

However, this wager - like the Methuselah Mouse Prize - accomplishes the all-important goal of drawing public attention towards serious anti-aging research and the prospects for extending the healthy human life span. Large scale research - public or private - does not happen without widespread public support and understanding. Obtaining that support is vitally important.

You can do your part to help - make a donation to the Methuselah Mouse Prize fund!

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