There is No Such Thing as a Scientific Breakthrough

The concept of the scientific breakthrough is firmly embedded in our popular culture: a great leap forward happens in the laboratory, ushered in by the enlightened work of a tiny inner circle of researchers, and bursts upon the world to change everything. I would argue, however, that this doesn't happen, never happens, and there is, really, no such thing as a scientific breakthrough in this sense.

Science is nothing if not a business of incremental advances, each carefully built atop a pyramid of many earlier research results. Science is not the province of lone researchers and microcommunities: progress occurs reliably and steadily only in those fields where a great many people are working away - and among those workers, it is no great secret as to what are most plausible forthcoming items of progress. Someone will join the last pieces of the puzzle together, and to the best team goes the spoils of fame. But for any great discovery or step forward in the world of science, when we look back with the benefit of hindsight we see that if the discoverers didn't exist, any one of several other groups would still have completed the work at around the same time.

The scientific community based around any significant portion of any field of research consists of many groups, all working in the same milieu, at the apex of the same pyramid built from past research. That community generates an ongoing body of work, most of which will never make the news, but for any insider clearly points the way towards what will most likely next be accomplished. To anyone following along, the discoveries clearly don't come from nowhere: each is telegraphed from what came before.

So breakthroughs only look like breakthroughs to people who haven't been paying attention. That largely means the press, as they have the biggest megaphone in this day and age. When the popular scientific press shouts "breakthrough!" what they really mean is "look at what just popped out of nowhere while we weren't paying attention!" But it wasn't out of nowhere. It was, just like every other new brick set upon the pyramid, resting on a solid foundation of recent and directly related research: an incremental advance, and one that most people in the research community knew was coming in some form or another.

The point I want to make with all of this is that longevity science, work that will lead to biotechnologies capable of human rejuvenation, is no different. It is a process of incremental advances, requiring a large research community for any sort of reliable progress, and in which the nature of forthcoming discoveries are telegraphed by the nature of the work today.

If you think that scientific breakthroughs are the way in which the world works, then you might be sitting there expecting significant advances in engineered human longevity to arrive no matter what the state of the present research community. Because some people are working on it, right? And it's just a few scientists and a eureka moment, right? Sadly not. One of the biggest challenges facing us today is that there is no large rejuvenation research community, and if we want to see real progress, that community must come into being - large enough and vigorous enough to match the stem cell research community pace for pace.

So there are two large advocacy initiatives taking place in longevity science: the first to educate and persuade the broader public, and the second to convince researchers to work on the next generation of longevity science. These things go more or less in lockstep, and it is unlikely that either one will get a long way ahead of the other. Large strides in advocacy, fundraising, and persuasion on both sides of the aisle have been made in the last ten years, but a great deal remains to be accomplished.

This is where folk like you and I can help: every additional effort brings us all that little bit closer to where we need to be in order to engineer success in increasing human longevity, one foreseeable and expected incremental advance at a time.

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