The Indeterminate Nature of Poorly Funded Research

In response to a news item posted yesterday, a commenter asks:

The fact that rejuvenation in mice seems to have been ten years away for around eight years now does not fill me with confidence. I understand of course that those estimates were for a scenario in which SENS had been adequately funded, and that it hasn't come remotely close. ... I want to know how far we are from actually achieving our goals given that funding is likely to continue to be inadequate. Fifteen years? Twenty? Fifty?

Which is a fair question. For reference, the fully funded SENS scenario called for a budget of $100 million per year over ten years the last time I checked, those funds spread between work on the seven categories of repair biotechnology required to prevent and reverse the degenerations of aging. That scenario is proposed to give a fifty-fifty shot at mouse rejuvenation by the end of the ten year period. As the clock keeps ticking without funding at that level materializing, one would expect the cost estimates to fall somewhat over time even if no-one is working on SENS: the cost of research and development in biotechnology is falling across the board, and in addition researchers benefit from a steady rate of progress throughout the fundamental life sciences. Some things that were obscure will become clear and some things that were hard will become easier because of progress in related areas of the broader field.

If SENS work stopped tomorrow and someone were to return to the drawing board ten years from now and run the numbers again, would rejuvenation in mice still be ten years and $100 million? Quite possibly yes on the ten years, and no on the $100 million - I think the cost would be significantly lower. But that doesn't mean it would take less time: as I've argued in the past there is a certain lower limit in the time taken for human endeavors. Organization of large projects, large-scale fundraising, and sequential tasks that depend upon one another can't be brought down below a certain minimum length of time for so long as there are humans in the decision loop. From this perspective, spending tens of millions of dollars on research in a few years is just as large and complex an undertaking as raising venture capital and starting a company - you can't expect to get much of anywhere without it taking a few years, no matter how good your tools and ideas are.

So watching estimated future costs ticking down is one form of progress - but not the one we want to see. The trouble with the question in the comment that I quoted above is that research funded at very low levels is inherently unpredictable:

I would say that the principal cause of uncertainty for the timeline leading to rejuvenation biotechnology - ways to repair and reverse the cellular and molecular damage that causes aging - is the fact that we lack a large, well-funded, well-supported research community at this time. Only comparatively small initiatives exist now, such as the SENS Foundation, and the actions, choices, and happenstance of individuals have large effects on the future timeline leading to the desired solid research community. That future community will be large enough that individual choices don't tend to have much of an effect on its progress one way or another, but here and now the element of chance is significant.

If funding of $100 million per year results in a big enough research group to allow for an averaging of the risks and reasonable predictions for a decade of work, then $1 million a year (the 2010 budget of the SENS Foundation) is far removed from predictability. If that continues for ten or twenty years, who can say what will result - certainly not fully implemented SENS, but my point is that no prediction of the actual resulting science and technology can be reasonable at these levels of funding.

The lesson to take away here is that we should view the SENS research program as a growth endeavor, and success in the long term goal of building a toolkit for human rejuvenation can only come through tremendous growth. These are still the early, formative years in a curve spanning decades. Present small scale work is accomplished to build the case beyond mere advocacy, to prove that the SENS vision leads to positive and useful results at every stage, and to attract greater levels of funding and support and greater numbers of researchers. Early outputs from SENS research will likely be technologies of use in producing therapies for end-stage age-related diseases, for example, or new science that contributes to these ends.


SENS was working towards doing work in another country to avoid the FDA red tape. Is this still being worked on?


Robert C.

Posted by: Robert Church at November 1st, 2011 8:55 PM
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