The frustration of Jason Pontin, editor of the MIT Technology Review, over the inexplicable reluctance of A-list bioscientists to deliver a good scientific critique of Aubrey de Grey's Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) has born fruit. From Pontin's latest post, we have the announcement of the SENS Challenge:
The most widely read story in Technology Review in 2005 was "Do You Want to Live Forever?," a profile of Dr. Aubrey de Grey, a British theoretical biologist and computer scientist at the University of Cambridge's Department of Genetics.
De Grey believes that aging, like a disease, can in principle be treated and defeated. He proposes approaching aging as a problem in engineering through something he calls "Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence." SENS claims to identify the 7 causes of human aging and describes how each cause might be circumvented. De Grey is also the guiding genius behind The Methuselah Foundation, an organization which offers monetary awards to biologists who make significant advances towards reversing aging in mice.
In my reply to our readers, whilst conceding nothing, I promised to find a working biogerontologist who would take on de Grey's ideas. But while a number of biologists have criticized SENS to me privately, none have been willing to do so in public.
This silence is puzzling (de Grey, less charitably, calls it "catatonia"). If de Grey is so wrong, why won't any biogerontologists say why he is wrong? If he is totally nuts, it shouldn't be so hard to explain the faults in his science, surely?
One possible explanation for the silence of biogerontologists is that criticizing SENS would require time and effort - and that working scientists are too busy to waste time on something so silly. Another explanation (one obviously preferred by de Grey) is that biogerontologists reject SENS out of hand without examining its details.
Technology Review thinks it would be useful to determine which of the two explanations is correct. If SENS has some validity, then we should take it seriously. Because if we can significantly extend healthy life, we will have to ask - should we?
Regardless of which explanation is correct, biogerontologists apparently need an incentive to consider SENS. To that end, Technology Review is announcing a prize for any molecular biologist working in the field of aging who is willing to take up the challenge: submit an intellectually serious argument that SENS is so wrong that it is unworthy of learned debate, and you will be paid $20,000 if it convinces independent referees. In the case that even $20,000 is insufficient to motivate the relevant experts, we also invite contributions to the fund; anyone wishing to pledge should contact me.
Pontin is not pro-life-extension, needless to say - and, sadly, still appears to be willing to describe Aubrey de Grey as "nuts." I don't agree with a number of his opinions on the workings and nature of science, even if he clearly understands where he should be going with respect to the circulation of his magazine. However, if the Technology Review staff pull this off, or even generate significant additional publicity for serious attempts to greatly extend the healthy human life span, I might just be willing to forgive some of their past transgressions.
Go and read the full post for the terms of the SENS Challenge. You might also find Aubrey de Grey's "The Curious Case of the Catatonic Biogerontologists" to be well worth reading in the present context.