UPDATE 05/21/2011: The Vegas Group initiative launched soon after this post, and was later renamed to Open Cures, with a new website and a new mailing list. Please do drop by and take a look at what we're working on.
The Vegas Group: a so far fictional community of the next ten years that will merge the longevity advocacy and open biotech communities in order to (a) reverse engineer the most promising life-span-enhancing techniques demonstrated in the laboratory, (b) translate that work into human rejuvenation biotechnologies, and (b) make these therapies available for use via medical tourism to Asia-Pacific region clinics.
So I have been pondering how best to make the vision of the Vegas Group a reality: what steps do we take so that we wake up six or seven years from now to an open source biotech community whose members are working on enabling the best longevity therapies produced by the formal research community - and who have the overseas connections to enable responsible use of resulting therapies in a clinical setting.
The path to this future involves networking and community building in a whole new and different direction from that taken by much of the longevity advocacy community - and the construction of a codex of information, a how-to manual of recipes for replicating specific products of the formal research community in longevity science. Networking makes the world go round, and that is the most important part of any attempt to create the Vegas Group, or indeed any human endeavor: making relationships and persuading people to join in. But this is not where I can be the most effective.
So any step one for me will involve considering the codex: what it is, and how it will be constructed, maintained, and made useful to the seeds of what will be the Vegas Group - however that organization ultimately comes about, and whatever form it ultimately takes. It is very clear to me that open biotechnology will grow into a massive semi-professional sphere of activity, exactly like the open source software community today. I want to take advantage of the wave that is coming, and produce a work that will both aid that wave and in turn be aided by it.
When thinking about the way in which contributions of content are made voluntarily to any given community or site - such as Wikipedia, or blogs such as this one, or the documentation repository at your workplace - it is self-evident that very, very few people step up to produce good content. Wikipedia works because a great many people each contribute just a little, a continual process of polishing, one grain of sand at a time, applied to the bulk outlines contributed by the motivated few. But for smaller groups, you don't get polishing, you just get next to nothing in the way of contributions.
So I'm fairly certain that for the Vegas Group codex, while a wiki model may be helpful as an adjunct to a motivated community further down the line, it isn't a way to get things written at the outset - it's not a way to provide the corpus of work that a community can later polish. There are few biotechnologists in the world in comparison to, say, football fans. Look at the number of science bloggers as compared with other topics, for example. Despite this, there are still initiatives out there, however, working on pulling together repositories of techniques and knowledge: OpenWetWare for example. So the concept of producing an open collection of techniques and recipies is not a foreign one to the biotechnology community - it's just not very advanced at this stage, at least not in comparison to the bodies of knowledge associated with larger communities.
Thus I think that a larger seed, a bigger online repository of freely available and reliable recipes for longevity-related biotechnology, would act as an attractor for people willing to tinker and help out. The same class of supporters and advocates who produced initiatives like OpenWetWare will contribute to help polish its contents. Overall, the concept of a codex seems to me to be where a comparatively small amount of money could be leveraged to good effect. Consider this:
- Creating an initial repository website and content management system isn't a significant cost given the present state of open source content management software - it's almost something I could undertake myself.
- People with significant knowledge of biotechnology are remarkable cheap to engage at the post-graduate level. Consider that a few thousand dollars of post-graduate time can net you a long and well-informed analysis, or detailed explanation of a specific methodology.
- It wouldn't be a good piece of writing of course - no offense is intended when I say that few post-graduate scientists can write well. Writing well is hard, and just as much a specialty as is becoming a scientist; few people have the time and inclination to specialize in more than a few things, and why should one of them be writing?
- Fortunately, people who can write well are always in supply, desperate for work, and inexpensive. It is a buyer's market.
So I can envisage a guiding council of advisors putting together a plan for the hierarchy of topics they would like to see in the Vegas Group codex, from basic methods in biotechnology through to best attempt reverse engineering of things we know to be possible and that have been published: such as Cuervo's work on restoring youthful levels of autophagy, or protofection to replace mitochondrial DNA. The end result of that process might look something like a distillation of Fight Aging! mixed with the very elegant materials produced by the Science for Life Extension Foundation.
Codex project volunteers would then run an ongoing process of hiring post-graduates and interested researchers to write, and passing the results to starving authors who improve the output to a quality suitable for the open biotechnology community. There would of course be some back and forth between the post-graduates and the starving authors in order to reduce the inevitable translation errors, but I see this as a viable way to produce a body of knowledge that is sufficiently good to begin with - not perfect, not even necessarily very good, but sufficient.
Since only a comparatively limited reach of biotechnology is under consideration, the cost of bootstrapping such a project might be less than a few hundred thousand dollars. The things I would need to understand before getting seriously underway on a Vegas Group codex are largely related to validating that price tag. A few hundred thousand dollars would mean that it is worth starting with ten thousand dollars, some volunteers, spare time, and raising funds as we go based on the quality of work exhibited. That would be true bootstrapping, but I'd have to give thought in advance to:
- The actual cost of generating the materials - something that I suspect won't be clear until the project is at least twenty articles in. I have a fair grasp on the range of costs for writing for hire, in fields that range from very specialist (pricey) and completely generalist (a few cents a word), but I've no idea where this market falls in that spread of values, nor how much management and general cat-herding of writers would be required.
- The predicted size of a sufficiently large body of information, as set out by guiding experts. Is it a hundred articles, a hundred videos, a thousand images, or half that, or ten times that?
- How to make this project attractive to the existing open biotechnology community even in its earliest stages. There is no such thing as "build it and they will come" - if anything building in isolation guarantees that you'll have few visitors.
Which comes right back around to networking and relationships: as I said, they make the world go round. On that topic, I am sadly lacking in a knowledge of the current state of the open biotechnology community - something that will have to change as I give more thought to the Vegas Group idea. No sense in reinventing the wheel if there is a wheel out there already ... or even a half-built wheel, a project where lessons were learned.