Costly Publicity Makes Little Sense When Research is Cheap

Broad public understanding and support is a necessary part of scaling rejuvenation research programs like SENS into a scientific community the size of the cancer or Alzheimer's establishments. At a small scale, even up to millions of dollars, research funds can be obtained whether or not the man in the street knows or cares about what is happening in the laboratory. Philanthropists can be convinced, foundations approached, and so forth: all that is needed there are scientific credentials and a talent for opening doors and making connections.

Once you start talking about sourcing hundreds of millions of dollars, however, the goal must be something that most people know of and approve. That level of resources requires scores of funding organizations and laboratories, an ecosystem of hundreds of researchers willing to join in, an eager next generation being taught in graduate programs, and the persuasion of thousands of people who make funding and research allocation decisions. None of that can credibly happen for a research program that lacks support in the public eye. Unpopular or unknown research takes place, certainly, but awareness must accompany growth.

Numerous different approaches can be taken in raising awareness for a particular branch of scientific research. One method of bootstrapping focuses first on raising research funds from philanthropists in the absence of public support - which is challenging, but you have to start somewhere - and then publicizing ongoing research programs through the normal channels. A subset of the overlapping journal and media industries deals with research publicity, for example, and that is one way to talk to the public. Another approach is the years-long drudgery of advocacy: knocking on doors, giving talks, going to conferences, making connections, and writing on the topic. These two are largely the approach taken by the SENS Research Foundation and Methuselah Foundation, and are effectively a trade of time for money.

There are more expensive methods of publicity, such as making infomercial-length programs and putting them in front of television audiences, for example. Production costs will set you back $50,000 for a few-minute piece and $250,000 for a 30 minute slot, if done by professionals who know the business. Per-showing cost for a single channel can be thousands of dollars. If someone gives you this sort of coverage for free - such as by deciding to make a film about your efforts - then obviously you don't look the gift horse in the mouth, but for most initiatives the filmmakers don't come knocking until there is already so much attention that their efforts are largely moot.

There is a good reason as to why research charities don't tend to go in for this sort of thing, even aside from considering whether or not a cost-benefit argument could be made for creating video publicity materials - something that is hard to do for intangibles like public attention. The good reason is that most research is cheap. Consider that Jason Hope's $500,000 donation to the SENS Research Foundation made back at the end of 2010 continues to keep two labs working on the foundation of AGE-breaker therapies. For the $250,000 cost of a profession publicity video for public consumption you could set up a modest lab and hire two smart industry biotechnologists for a year - or get twice those resources working in an established academic lab, where remuneration is nowhere near as grand and economies of scale are somewhat better.

Thus it isn't hard to make the choice between expensive publicity and getting research done, given that progress in research is (a) the point of the exercise, and (b) generates its own opportunities for low-cost publicity as results roll in. If we were still in a 1970s-like situation regarding the cost of biotechnology then perhaps one could field an argument for greater expenditures on publicity, because without large-scale funding there would be no meaningful progress, and public support is necessary for that end goal. Things are different today, however - and just as well. Capable, low cost biotechnology makes meaningful progress in medicine much more likely to occur, as it enables smaller, less wealthy, and more numerous groups to contribute to advancing the state of the art.

Comments

My reasoning for setting up a monthly subscription to SENS was largely what you've posted here. There's already a reasonable amount of publicity out there, it's just that only the 'bleeding edge' technologists have bought into it. People like my mother, or my siblings, just aren't going to bite, no matter how hard I personally push it - nevermind people I don't know well. The most effective way for me to help out really was to donate raw cash.

The thing to remember is that there are already billions of dollars of private funds out there waiting to pounce on research that shows real promise. That cash is controlled by conservative people and conservative organizations, who don't want to risk it unnecessarily. They need hard results, hard reasons to put it to use.

Things like the SENS A2E and 7KC projects are excellent hitters for this reason. Both are fairly well along in terms of research, and both have candidate enzymes in testing. Showing that these work and have theraputic benefit opens up an entire class of drug research which companies can jump on.

Showing that a SENS approach works and has a real, tangible benefit would be the best PR you could buy.

Posted by: Dennis Towne at May 24th, 2013 7:42 PM

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