Where to Find Data on Aging Research?

I was recently asked for pointers on where to look for historical data on aging and longevity research: the number of active biogerontologists, a count of laboratories dedicated to aging research, levels of public and private funding, and other measures that might be taken as proxies for progress (or at least growth in the field). Unfortunately I don't have anything more than the first sketches of a guide to hand: assembling this sort of data for any industry is a fair-sized task. There are plenty of questions without ready answers, especially when it comes to the for-profit side of aging research, where the participants don't tend to publish easily discovered summaries.

Some obvious starting points exist, however. The International Aging Research Portfolio (IARP), for example, is an initiative that aims to make data on aging research easily available. The present focus there is on funding, but that data can be broken down by laboratory, region, researcher, and date. There are some trend tools to help produce visualizations.

When looking that over, bear in mind that the IARP data is mined from available databases of public research funding, which probably amounts to ~30-40% of life science and medical research funding in the US. I'm not sure whether that general figure holds for aging research as a field, or whether it is at all representative of other regions of the world that lack the weight of NIH funding. Embarrassingly, I knew the origin of that 30-40% estimate some years ago, but the details have slipped my mind and I can no longer track it down. You might try digging through sources such as NSF publications on funding levels to see what can be gleaned.

In a search for historical funding data or the demography of biogerontologists, it makes sense to look for research papers where the authors have done the legwork to establish private funding levels or other historical data that's harder to come by. It's possible that such papers exist for aging research, the results of past interest on someone's part. This is a comparatively small field with little commercial activity as of yet, however, so I'm not optimistic on the chances of finding more than patchy data. Google Scholar and PubMed are good starting points for this line of investigation.

Speaking of PubMed, the tools there allow one to casually research the historical pace of publication in a given field, as any search of the PubMed database shows a histogram of results by year. This is of course heavily weighted towards more recent papers, as electronic publication is a comparatively recent advance. Most of the published history of research has yet to be digitized and added to this resource. It should be possible to filter out this bias by taking the results of general searches such as "science" or "research" as a baseline, however.

Between 1981 and 2011, we can see the following results for papers that match these search terms:

Search Term1981 Count2011 CountIncrease

Which is food for thought, even if it is an overly simplistic comparison: I didn't take the time to filter by journal topics, for example, so as to cut out papers on the aging of rock or longevity of flowers. Nonetheless, it suggests that aging research is being outproduced by other fields, but there is a strong and growing interest in the biology of longevity. The latter point fits with what I know of the recent history of this field.

It is hard to link numbers on research funding to actual progress, however. A healthy, large, and well-funded research community is a necessary prerequisite for progress, but these sorts of high level statistics don't say much about whether that community is actually working productively. When it comes to government funding, that's always a concern - but it's not as though the private sector is immune from barking up the wrong tree for years on end. The entities involved there have more of an immediate incentive to correct misallocation of resources, however, while government misallocation can continue for decades - and is, as we speak.

As regular readers will know, there is an enormous difference between working on ways to slow aging and working on ways to reverse aging. The former path means that we will gain little benefit from longevity science in our lifetimes. The latter path is the only way forward that might produce ways to rejuvenate the old before we age to death. Both research and development strategies may wind up costing similar amounts and take similar lengths of time to develop prototypes and laboratory demonstrations. Both look exactly the same when you're counting researchers, labs, and dollars. But one leads to certain death, and the other to the possibility of living for thousands of years.

If any of the folk out there have other suggestions for metrics or where to dig up data, feel free to add a comment.


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