Aubrey de Grey on Resistance to Debate

In an excellent piece published at EMBO Reports, biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey expands on past comments on the lack of scientific and public debate over a cure for aging.

A perennial complaint in biogerontology, and one whose legitimacy I would be the last to dispute, is that public funding for ageing research is far lower than it should be. Such funding has roughly kept pace with biomedical research spending as a whole, but much more is warranted because postponement of ageing would have a far greater impact on public health and healthcare spending than postponement of any or all of the major age-related diseases. Here, I discuss whether our obstinately modest funding is due, as most of my biogerontologist colleagues evidently feel, to a failure on our part to communicate the scientific and biomedical realities to our political paymasters, and is therefore best rectified by continuing to repeat the arguments we have used for decades until they sink in. I argue that it is instead because those arguments are genuinely weak. I then discuss whether our neglect of more effective justifications for greater investment in biogerontology research is because we overlook key components of the trade-offs that determine funding policy, or whether the problem is the failure of most biogerontologists to maintain an open mind concerning the scientific options. I conclude that it is for both those reasons. Thus, our field is passing up the opportunity to elevate itself to its rightful level of public appreciation and investment, with the result that much longer healthy lives are being denied those who will die before 'real anti-ageing medicine' arrives unless we start working harder towards it now.

As usual, Aubrey de Grey goes on to make detailed points and suggestions - many of which will be familiar to those who have read his past thoughts on the topic. He has made a convincing scientific case that - with adequate funding, public support and directed research programs - the research community knows enough to get started and is within decades of technologies that can greatly extend the healthy human life span. New medicine to address the root causes of degenerative aging would greatly reduce the staggering ongoing toll of suffering, disease and death that claims tens of millions each year.

The scientific path ahead towards healthy life extension technologies is as clear as the future of science ever gets. The problems all lie in matters of funding, scientific and public support and understanding. This is why activism, advocacy and education are vitally important, both within and without the scientific community.


"Just as the purpose of oncology is to defeat cancer, the purpose of biogerontology is, and should be declared to be, to defeat ageing."

Just brilliant. I would add:

"The purpose of AI (and ethics), is, and should be declared to be, designing Friendly AI.

I can't wait to read the whole article.

Posted by: Kip Werking at July 2nd, 2005 1:35 PM

Why the wait on public funding? Why can't a case be made for private investment? How much would you pay for an extra (healthy) 10, 20 years or more? Why wouldn't a for-profit enterprise work out better?

I'm sorry, even absent much profit potential, I just don't understand why old billionares aren't seting up their own research institutes. How much did Gate's partner at Microsoft (I forget his name) spend on Rutan's successful effort at a private space launch? 50 million? 100 million? If you are doing it for yourself you don't really even need to worry about the FDA and all the related expenses, wasted time, etc. Who cares if they approve it?

If it works, the FDA wouldn't have much choice but to approve it anyway. Could you imagine the political pressure?

Posted by: Jim Thomason at July 3rd, 2005 10:31 AM

Aubrey de Grey is a proponent of public and philanthropic funding - he doesn't think that private for-profit funding will work. I disagree, but the line between philanthropic and for-profit is fairly fuzzy - it depends on what your profit horizon is.

The most obvious billionaires with research institutes are John Sperling and Larry Ellison - but both are funding more conservative work than Aubrey de Grey is recommending.

As publicity grows, we will see more old billionaires with research institutes - but that is part and parcel of the slow baseline change resulting from continued advocacy. We'd like to get things moving more rapidly, of course...

Posted by: Reason at July 3rd, 2005 11:31 AM

I think that the reason we don't see billionaires jumping at this is a little more complicated than we're giving credit. Older billionaires, who have the least to lose in doing something that WILL be seen as selfish by the masses, are also very set in the ways of the 20th century, and hence can't bring themselves to believe that radical approaches like Aubrey's might work. So they invest in more traditional, basic science.

Younger billionaires have more to lose in doing something seen as fringy, although that guy from Virgin Atlantic may be setting a new standard for billionaires to learn from.

Also, younger billionaires are probably going to view Aubrey with some skepticism. Would you throw a ton of money at a person who is promising something that the scientific establishment either scoffs at or wishes would go away?

Once the wheels of the MPrize start turning faster and faster, and as de Grey and the MPrize gain fame and notoriety and become as recognizeable as Carl Sagan and the XPrize, respectively, then you'll see multi-millionaires come forward, and eventually, billionaires. But that might not happen for another couple years, and possibly not even until the 2010's. I'd like it to be sooner, but we move forward and we don't let ourselves be discouraged by the fact that Ellison hasn't written a check yet. Yet.

Posted by: Jay Fox at July 3rd, 2005 7:19 PM

Maybe the billionaires are experiencing a psychological block, resulting from a fear of not having an encore; what could they do with more time that they haven't already, by the success standards of the planet as it now exists? Maybe, then, what's needed is to inspire them with projects and plans that REQUIRE a few centuries or millennia to complete, so the life extension becomes a necessary means to a "higher" end, rather than an end-in-itself.

Posted by: Brian H at July 22nd, 2005 9:36 PM

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. 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.