On the SENS Challenge Result

Those arriving late to the party may want to visit the SENS website and look at a summary of the background of the SENS Challenge before reading on. This has become a slightly involved story, or at least one that requires more than thirty seconds of reading time.

The panel of judges have given their opinions on the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) and the solicited submissions. Go and take a look. I think the core of the thing is here:

"We need to remember that all hypotheses go through a stage where one or a small number of investigators believe something and others raise doubts. The conventional wisdom is usually correct. But while most radical ideas are in fact wrong, it is a hallmark of the scientific process that it is fair about considering new propositions; every now and then, radical ideas turn out to be true. Indeed, these exceptions are often the most momentous discoveries in science.

"SENS has many unsupported claims and is certainly not scientifically proven. I personally would be surprised if de Grey is correct in the majority of his claims. However, I don't think Estep et al. have proved that SENS is false; that would require more research. In some cases, SENS makes claims that run parallel to existing research (while being more sensational). Future investigation into those areas will almost certainly illuminate the controversy. Until that time, people like Estep et al. are free to doubt SENS. I share many of those doubts, but it would be overstating the case to assert that Estep et al. have proved their point."

A majority of the judges also argued that if SENS was not exactly science, de Grey (a computer scientist by training) had described his proposals as a kind of engineering project -- and they upbraided Estep et al. for not considering them on those terms. Rodney Brooks wrote, "I have no confidence that they understand engineering, and some of their criticisms are poor criticisms of a legitimate engineering process."

Craig Venter most succinctly expressed the prevailing opinion. He wrote, "Estep et al. in my view have not demonstrated that SENS is unworthy of discussion, but the proponents of SENS have not made a compelling case for it."

You might also want to take a look at my earlier comments on the submissions. I am, it has to be said, surprised that editor Jason Pontin has gone ahead and awarded his half of the $20,000 prize to Estep et al (who will be donating it to the American Federation for Aging Research) despite the judges' opinion. To me, this is a helpful reminder that Pontin, for all he's shown himself to be a stand up fellow, is no supporter of SENS. I get the impression that, after past events, he would like to draw a nice line under this episode, declare victory irrespective of the contents, and move on.

The original terms of the challenge were to demonstrate SENS "so wrong that it was unworthy of learned debate." I think that the judges have demonstrated clearly and sensibly, as one would expect, that this isn't going to happen. SENS is a combination of ethical goals, present day biomedical research, and yet-to-be-funded research and development plans grounded in the science we know today. In that, it is no different from any well-researched scientific and engineering research and development proposal. Rodney Brooks hits it right on the head with his comment.

What we learn from this, as advocates for greater meaningful anti-aging research and development in the near term? What I take away from this is that "science," "engineering," and "plan" mean very different things to different people - even to different scientists, engineers and planners. Some people think that SENS is not science. I say those folk have a strange idea as to what science actually is, given that a number of scientists are presently working on SENS projects. That side of SENS looks very much like science to me: the scientific method, laboratories, biotechnology, fathoming the great unknown, peer review and publication; all very traditional.

How about the other side of SENS, the proposals and suggested courses not yet funded? One could look upon these engineering approaches as the delivery of solutions in the lack of full knowledge of the problem space. Science is there to increase understanding of that space, thus making engineering easier - but you don't need complete knowledge to obtain useful results. People were successfully building bridges long before modern mathematics and materials science, but those tools enabled bigger, better, more durable bridges. There is no bright line between science and engineering in planning, organization and divison of labor: think of the scientific research funded and accomplished in the cause of bringing bridge-building techniques up to a level required for proposed projects of the Brunel era.

The one crucial thing to take away from what biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey proposes in SENS - and many other scientists agree with - is this: we presently know enough to make serious inroads in medical engineering aimed at reversing aging. We can build the first of those bridges - but we are not yet doing so, and each year of delay will cost tens of millions of lives.

UPDATE: The TR staff just added an additional, new response - more in the way of another personal attack - from Estep and company. Aubrey de Grey responds to it in the comments on that page. Come on guys; if you're going to set up a forum for debate, at least stick to the form.

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