A Few Thoughts on the Funding of Aging Research

Yesterday I stumbled onto a press release on the topic of funding from the Ellison Medical Foundation and the American Federation for Aging Research. I am very struck by the tone of the piece:

The Ellison Medical Foundation has awarded AFAR more than $2.8 million to support 45 postdoctoral fellows (both MDs and PhDs at any level of postdoctoral training) over the next three years in the fundamental mechanisms of aging. With this new commitment, the Ellison Medical Foundation/AFAR partnership has increased five-fold the number of researchers it will support.


There are so many promising scientists yet we are only able to fund eight percent of the applicants who seek grants. There's a potential to lose a tremendous brain trust of future leaders in aging research. The Ellison Medical Foundation has taken a lead role in helping the next generation of researchers establish careers and an aging society will benefit


In the face of this opportunity we currently see declining federal support for scientists. Those just beginning their careers are especially vulnerable as support dries up. Our hope is that this decline is temporary, yet even a temporary reduction in support for scientists just beginning their careers, or those deciding whether to stay in science or build a career elsewhere, could result in the loss of most of a whole generation of scientists.


"While AFAR-supported grant programs have traditionally focused on early-career scientists, it is also important to sustain that investment in our scientists at all stages of their careers," said Stephanie Lederman. This generous grant can make all the difference in allowing years of painstaking research to continue."

"Mid-career scientists, with newly acquired tenure, are at a unique career stage. Freed from worry about getting tenure and job stability, they have more intellectual freedom than they have ever had before. We hope to empower them to try riskier research with great potential pay-off, for themselves and for an aging society."

This might as well be language lifted from a mythical government release on the Full Employment Act for Gerontologists. It's all so grey and tired - rescue the scientists, pay the scientists, help the scientists. Note the utter absence of any sort of discussion of goals or results. What are these scientists actually doing? What is the value of it? Where are they going? When will they get there? What does it mean to me?

This sort of thing is exactly why there is little public support for or understanding of mainstream aging research. I've long said that basic research is no different from any other human endeavor. It isn't magic, immune to planning - you can set goals, plans and schedules. You can invest in research in exactly the same way as commercial companies invest in research day in and day out. Those who claim that you can't set goals, timelines, explain matters to the public, create excitement and make real fireworks fly in an area of fundamental research are generally much more interested in the steady flow of dollars or their own particular hobby than in actually getting something meaningful accomplished.

The drift of mainstream American science into government dependency has drained it of vigor and accountability to produce real progress. There's a reason why most of the interesting, productive scientists largely work outside that system, in the market or philanthropic ventures.

Another thought: the languishing of aging science - in comparison to, say, regenerative medicine, tissue engineering or cancer research - makes $2.8 million a big deal. $10 million from the Glenn Foundation to establish the Paul F. Glenn Laboratories for the Biological Mechanisms of Aging was a big splash in the pond.

With those numbers for comparison, note that the Methuselah Foundation has $4.8 million pledged to Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) research. I will venture to say that the Foundation has succeeded in building up to that level of funding by being everything that the Full Employment Act for Gerontologists is not. There is a plan, there are goals, there are timelines, there is accountability for failing to deliver - and a real effort to explain what all this work and funding really means to folk like you and I.


Good post. I think you are spot on.

If you don't inspire people and don't even try to explain why what you are working on is important an exciting, you can't expect people to support you.

Posted by: Michael G.R. at October 21st, 2007 1:53 PM

It does need to be jazzed up, but at the same time, basic statements like this are useful for people who do realize the implications, as I'm sure Reason does know. But yes, for public consumption, it needs fleshing out. Still, one doubts the common public reads such things, so complaints should be more focused on things more widespread.

Posted by: Tyciol at October 30th, 2007 10:30 AM
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