On Strategies for Large Scale Funding of Longevity Research

Elixxir is a flashy "anti-aging" consultant - one part calorie restriction to two parts unproven advice and mysticism, as I understand it, which would place him about on a par with Dr. Weil insofar as scientific backing goes - who also dabbles in advocacy for government funding of longevity research. Calorie restriction isn't rocket science; while responsible diet consultants certainly have their place as a luxury item, I'd suggest reading around online and picking up a copy of the Longevity Diet prior to paying anything else to anyone else. Caveat emptor and your own research are good philosophies to hold to.

In response to the recent 60 Minutes segment on radical life extension, Elixxir has assembled his critique of the methodology of the Methuselah Foundation and biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey. Skipping over the florid and self-aggrandizing portions, he makes a few arguments that have shown up over the past few years from those who object to the MPrize as a vehicle for improving the presently sad state of serious anti-aging research. In particular, I'm thinking of the suggestion that petitioning government for funding should be the primary activity of healthy life extension activists and advocates.

Yes, prizes don't hurt. But history shows what really works -- a hundred times, a thousand times more powerfully -- is state funding for research.

The Nobel Prize is as good as it gets for prizes. Yet most scientists or grad students who choose to go into a field or line of research don't do it because of the Nobel Prize, because even though it offers a prize of a million plus dollars, and a lot more prestige indeed, it is not a sure thing. It's not something that can sustain a researcher economically over the years. History clearly shows that what does greatly encourage grad students and even established researchers to go into a new field or new line of research is state funding, lots of state funding.

The examples of this fact -- that it is state funding and not prizes which really spurs research and breakthroughs -- are abundant and undeniable. The Manhattan Project. The Apollo Program. The National Institutes of Health. National Cancer Institutes.

Even if the Methuselah Prize goes up to 10 million, it will still fall far short to achieve our monumental goal! What is needed is state funding, and what opens up the spigot of state funding so it gushes out to the tune of hundreds of millions, and even hundreds of billions of dollars? Political pressure, lobbying, and grassroots activism.

I think most regular readers will know my objections to involving the government in anything by now, but de Grey - who is not libertarian - also sees this as a poor strategy. To him, parallels drawn with past government programs initiated through activism from the scientific community and wider public, such as cancer research and AIDS research, do not hold in the case of aging. This is illustrated by the lack of progress in building an analogous goverment-funded research infrastructure for longevity research over the past few decades.

de Grey responds personally to almost everyone who contacts him - a habit he will be forced to give up all too soon by the constraints of time and an ever-growing public profile - and his email response to Elixxir, also posted in the Immortality Institute thread on the topic, outlines his opposition to petitioning government:

Many thanks for your thoughts. I agree wholeheartedly with most of what you say, but I believe you have overlooked a couple of points and that these points invalidate your conclusions.

First, you are wrong to suppose that a campaign of the sort you describe has the faintest hope, as things stand, of influencing public policy on the funding of life extension research. The problem is that governments will not fund something unless they perceive that it will win them votes, and currently society is overwhelmingly in what I've termed a pro aging trance, whereby they resolutely persist in believing that serious life extension is not only impossible but is also undesirable on account of the social upheavals it would cause. Thus, of the four communities that might make a difference to the pace of the relevant research, the one which there is no point whatever in directly lobbying is the government. Lasker didn't have this problem -- there was no pro-cancer trance. My colleagues in biogerontology have been trying the political lobbying route for decades, and a few successes have been obtained, such as the founding on the National Institute on Aging 30 years ago, but progress has been virtually imperceptible since then because politicians have no reason to listen. Politicians don't listen to lobbyists -- they listen to voters and voters' representatives.

Read the rest; it's a good insight into present Methuselah Foundation strategy. The end goal is of course the development and commercialization of working anti-aging therapies, capable of repairing age-related cellular damage, but the most important requirements for that goal are widespread understanding and support and large-scale funding.

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It is possible to slow down the aging. There is a group of top scientists who thought it can be done now!

The program can reduce a lot of pains and suffers just like modern medicine in the aging population. We have good knowledge, but poor finance. We welcome assitance in any level.

Ian Yi (PhD)

Posted by: Ian Yi at September 6th, 2009 10:07 PM
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