The Perceived Zero-Sum Game of Aging Theories

It is a common viewpoint that researchers advocating various theories of aging, each of which implies a different approach to developing ways to treat, slow, or reverse degenerative aging, are in competition with one another for a limited pool of research funding. In the short term this has truth to it: the most visible funding for science comes from public institutions with fixed budgets, where increasing those budgets is a major undertaking. Scientists themselves usually behave as though working within a zero-sum game, and I myself tend to imply as much at times when talking about the growth in support for programmed aging theories.

Public funding accounts only accounts for about a third of all scientific research, however, and in the long term science and money works in roughly the same way as business and money: you can increase overall global funding for your field to the degree that you can persuade people that you are doing something that they want to pay for. Competition is good, and aging research has so very little funding at the moment in comparison to other aspects of medicine that growing the funding pool for all approaches seems a realistic goal.

That is not the first impulse for researchers, however: consensus is the aim, the search for truth and the elimination of competition in theories by determining which is correct. This remains an ongoing challenge for aging, and thus there is tension in the field - though I would suggest that the tension introduced by the disruptive advent of SENS-style rejuvenation as a research goal is ultimately more important to the future than the programmed/non-programmed dispute that SENS presently a part of.

This piece was written by an advocate for programmed aging theories, but the points would be the same if approached from the other side of the fence:

Some dedicated proponents of non-programmed aging feel that it is impossible that their theory could be wrong. They therefore feel that any fair discussion of the programmed/non-programmed controversy is adverse to medicine because it will lead to directing at least some effort and funding toward the wrong theory. Because of the "zero-sum game" that generally applies to medical research, any resources directed toward the wrong theory will inevitably subtract from the efforts directed at the right theory - thus, in their view, delaying medical progress. They therefore use their considerable influence on gerontology publications and other research and educational venues in efforts to prevent publication of articles favorable to programmed aging and consider that doing so benefits medical research. Obviously they oppose any activity that entails admitting that programmed aging has any validity whatsoever, such as participating in symposia or workshops specifically directed at discussing the programmed/non-programmed issue. They also oppose fairly funding experiments or activities specifically directed at distinguishing between programmed and non-programmed theories. They fervently hope that, if only they hold fast, eventually the programmed/non-programmed issue will simply go away and they can return to the earlier happier times when everybody who was anybody believed in non-programmed mammal aging.

This approach is shortsighted for three reasons. First, it is now rather obvious that the programmed/non-programmed controversy is not going to simply go away. As someone once said, once the toothpaste is out of the tube it is very difficult to get it back in. New evolutionary mechanics concepts have eliminated the main objection to programmed aging. Journals are increasingly willing to publish pro-programmed aging articles. There is now even a journal that is oriented towards programmed aging research (Biochemistry [Moscow] Phenoptosis). Programmed aging books and papers keep appearing. The popularity of programmed aging is increasing.

Second, attempts to suppress dialog on this subject only delay the development of a consensus. For more or less 150 years, science has been unable to arrive at a strong consensus on what certainly seems to be an issue of monumental importance: Why do we age? There is now not only a programmed/non-programmed controversy but also various non-programmed theories still attack each other.

Third, the lack of consensus poisons research funding. Funding sources can look at the current situation (there is no scientific agreement regarding even the fundamental nature of aging) and reasonably conclude that significantly funding research in this area is premature at best and possibly even foolish. Even worse, lack of any scientific consensus tends to lend credence to the fundamental limitation theories. If science is unclear, why not believe in the fundamental limitation theories, which suggest that aging is unalterable and therefore that aging research is strictly "academic" and has little practical value? After all, the fundamental limitation theories provide the best fit with evolution theory as understood by most of the science-oriented public. Trying to understand cancer, heart disease, or other massively age-related disease without agreement on even the fundamental nature of aging seems at least faintly ridiculous, so lack of consensus negatively affects attitudes about age-related disease research.


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