How Long is the Longevity Research Funding Ramp?

As a follow on to my remarks on the ambitious nature of Ray Kurzweil's timescales for longevity research, it would seem to be a useful exercise to ask just how long it takes to ramp up funding for specific medical research. How long after the first advocacy organizations get underway does it take to direct $500 million or $1 billion per year into a narrow field of medical research?

We can look at a number of historical initiatives over the past four decades in an attempt to find out; cancer, AIDS and Alzheimer's are the most obvious. While digging up private investment figures is a real undertaking, one can at least get an idea as to boundary points and timescales involved by looking at public funding. Based on a casual examination of the recent past, it would seem that a good ten to twenty years is required to generate large public research programs; private research is sometimes ahead, sometimes behind in its own funding while this is going on.

While it is gratifying to see the success of regenerative medicine as a viable field of research - especially given the understanding of cellular biochemistry and genetics that will be generated in the course of deploying stem cell therapies for age-related conditions - it is not going to do anywhere near as much for healthy longevity as a directed program of research into understanding and curing the aging process. The question would be whether we can muster a surge of advocacy for serious anti-aging research akin to that of AIDS groups, or whether we face the slower ramp up of cancer or Alzheimer's research - tens of millions of lives hang in the balance with each passing year. We cannot afford to waste time.


While I don't doubt that in the past it has taken this amount of time, and I am all for pushing the research into this area to move as fast as possible, I think you have to take into account what Ray has said in his article on The Law of Accelerating Returns. While this may not influnce the amount of money being directed to a given area, it will affect the leverage that any given amount of money produces in that area, such that 500 million directed at an area today will produce much greater returns that it would 5 years ago, and will produce even more returns in 5 more years. The point I'm trying to make (evidently in a roundabout way) is that any amount given to an area now can produce some results, such that private donations, even by people of "normal" means, can have an impact on the research, whereas 20 years ago the funding required for meaningful gains in an area was prohibitive to donations from individuals having any benefit. Give so we can all live!

Posted by: David Canning at March 25th, 2005 6:35 AM

Building on David's mention of the Law of Accelerating Returns, I should point out that Aubrey de Grey predicted that $100 million a year for ten years would be enough to effect "robust mouse rejuvenation" (RMR).

However, that was a couple years ago at least, if I recall correctly. Assuming that the funding were to come available in 2010, that $100 million a year would probably only need to be $10 million to $20 million a year, and the 10 years would probably become 6-8 years, so that the whole thing might be done for $60-$160 million.

Which bodes well for the M Prize, as it would only need to get to about $5 million or $10 million to be useful in attracting that level of funding. Of course, given the prize structure, it probably needs to be about $10 million to $20 million, but that's almost an order of magnitude better than the $50 to $100 million we were discussing six months ago.

More importantly, it wouldn't have to be cash in the bank, just cash and pledges (well, cash and about a third of the pledges, since we're looking at less than 10 years for RMR, not 25). Which, for the sake of argument, means the prize would need about $5 million in cash, and another $30 million in pledges.

Of course, if we can't get that, it only means that true competition will have to wait until the costs come down even more. If we waited until 2015, the cost would probably be about $5 million a year for 5-6 years, so a prize of $10 million, cash and pledges, should be more than enough.

Hmm, I could get sillier and sillier with this, but extrapolating ten years into the future at this point is just too uncertain... Perhaps it's that very uncertainty that prevents potential competitors from getting started...

I guess for now, the thing to focus on is growing the prize as quickly as possible, and increasing the visibility of the longevity meme in the public's eye.

Posted by: Jay Fox at March 25th, 2005 10:01 AM
Comment Submission

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. New comments can be edited for a few minutes following submission. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.