Thoughts on the Funding Situation in Aging Research

Given the potential for producing effective treatments in near all areas of medicine brought about by the ongoing revolution in biotechnology, a growing number of people are coming to see that the present established systems of funding, both public and private, are essentially broken. They are far too conservative, funding next to none of the most important early stage research. All of the most important and risky early stage research programs are funded by either administrative sleight of hand or by visionary philanthropy: established funding sources as a rule never offer grants unless the new science has already been discovered and mapped out with a fair degree of certainty. Thus they fund the process of fleshing out and developing a discovery, not the work needed to create and validate that discovery in the first place. If we want real progress and radical new directions in medicine, it is exactly the early stage and risky research that must be funded with greater confidence, however.

The difference between science and engineering is that scientific research starts without understanding and tries out various hypotheses until one seems to work; while an engineer works with a paradigm that she knows to be reliable enough to be a basis for results of her innovations in advance. A high failure rate is inseparable from good science. But the National Science Foundation (NSF) prefers to fund low-risk work, which is really engineering. One irony is that capitalism is pretty good at allocating funds for engineering. Once the science is well developed, the marketplace isn't a bad model for deciding where to invest engineering resources. We probably don't need NSF to fund the "D" half of "R&D". But the reason that we need NSF (and NIH and NIA) as public funding institutions is that the rewards of science are difficult to predict.

I venture to propose that the more unpredictable the result, the more important the experiment. The best prospects for future scientific breakthroughs lie in the direction of things that we already know but don't understand - things that don't make sense. Most of these will turn out to be mistakes in experimental technique or interpretation; but there are some that have such broad corroboration from diverse laboratories that this is unlikely. I could say that "professional scientist" is already a oxymoron. Scientists work best when they are driven by curiosity and a passion to find out, when they are doing what they love. How can that be consistent with centralized decision-making and bureaucratic control of research priorities? If we pay a scientist to do science, we should not make the payment contingent on studying anything in particular. No one in a government bureaucracy has the wisdom to predict next year's breakthroughs, or to single out the scientists most likely to achieve them.

In the late 1970s, when I was a low-level researcher at a government contract research house, we always worked one year ahead of our funding. By the time a proposal was written, we had worked out the science in sufficient detail that we knew the results. If the proposal was funded, we would use the proceeds to support us while we worked on next year's proposal. We may be outraged at 70% overhead rates for administration, and think of this as "slush money" that is ripe for abuse. I agree that bureaucrats receive too big a share of the pie, and scientists too little. But there is some portion of the overhead money that finds its way back through departments to the researchers themselves, and offers them some slack between contracts, their only real freedom to think and to innovate. I asked my collaborator at Prominent Midwestern U whether he had funding for the exploratory, groundbreaking work on population dynamics that he was doing with me, but I already knew the answer. He was doing it with soft funding for a follow-on to previously successful research. He had prudently kept the funders in the dark about this specific project. There's plenty of time to tell them about it if we succeed.



I think the main reason that more people aren't funding aging research (even at the grassroots level like a lot of us do with SENS) is because of two things: Overpopulation concerns, and the animosity towards "The rich and them keeping it for themselves, etc" Many people just cite these concerns without doing any research about it. If they don't use those two reasons it's usually something about uneven distribution such as "but not everyone would get it, what about people that don't even have access to basic vaccines"

some comments here show all you need to know...

Posted by: Ham at July 26th, 2015 7:57 AM

The Craig Venter Institute is receiving 90% of its funding by government. The problems I have with current funding for aging research are:

1) Where are the benefits? Look at all the crowdfunding portals. You always have the outlook for getting something. Can you promise me to get one of the first longevity pills you are working on, when I spend a few thousand USD? No? Well, you can't because of FDA regulation. Do I get some shares? No? The only thing I get is that during one of the next longevity conferences, a few slides regarding finding XY are made. Direct relevance or benefits for the funders? None! So why would people spend money?

2) Since you can't offer anything to come of the funding for the next 15 years (it takes 12-15 years till a drug gets approved normally) would it be possible to offer knowledge and experience on how to conduct longevity related research? As funder the least thing, if you don't get anything else, would be, to learn more and to initiate country-specific working groups, where people with shared interest advance research on their own.

As long as funding is not connected to benefits for the funders, I see no change anytime soon.

Posted by: Waverunner at July 27th, 2015 1:10 AM

Couldn't whoever is making the drugs set up shop in a country that isn't overseen by the FDA and make/distribute it from there?

Posted by: Ham at July 27th, 2015 6:43 AM

Ham: Cripes!! And with an Aubrey de Grey AMA advertised for Aug 4, 9 AM. Judging by those kinds of comments, he's gonna get gang mobbed. I hate Reddit (because it's full of this kind of crap), but I might have to make an account there just to try to push against the inevitable "but I deserve to retire!" crapflood.

Waverunner: You might want to read a comment by Aubrey on this post. People from SENS have founded for-profit biotech companies, which surely need investment funding.

Posted by: Slicer at July 27th, 2015 8:02 PM

Slicer, I post on there a lot about aging too. Especially when people make comments about how things will be for the rich only, overpopulation, etc. Reddit can be a cesspool, especially when A lot of people try to make authoritative comments on things without any real information. I wish I could take part in the AMA, but alas, it's my wife's birthday on the 4th, and I don't think she'd be too happy with me sitting on reddit all day.

Also, Aubrey de Grey did an AMA last year too, he didn't get mobbed too bad I don't think. Here's the link.

Posted by: Ham at July 27th, 2015 8:19 PM

And about the reddit link I posted originally, that one was fairly mild as far people concerned with it being natural or overpopulation type, etc. It seemed like it was more concern over raising the retirement age, automation, and distribution... all the other fun longevity associated topics :|

Posted by: Ham at July 27th, 2015 8:23 PM

Every time I see "raising the retirement age", I want to reach through the screen. Do these people even know what retirement even is or why it exists? With very rare exceptions involving people retiring exceptionally early, retirement is a state brought about by being too decrepit to do anything and having someone else take care of your degenerating body and mind while you slowly die. That's why reasonably intelligent people save for retirement, because they want to have easy deaths instead of hard ones spent greeting people at Squalor-Mart.

That's retirement. It's not a magical time when you don't have to work anymore. It's the beginning of a drawn-out end, often spent in a drug haze as a substitute for excruciating pain.

Posted by: Slicer at July 27th, 2015 8:57 PM

I agree for the most part. But people have the idea of retirement engrained in their heads as an entitlement. And people love to bitch and complain about how older people working longer and not retiring keeps the good jobs out of reach for the younger generations.

Posted by: Ham at July 28th, 2015 3:37 AM

Bah, I wish I could edit comments since I saw this immediately after posting. Here is an example on an article on reddit about Calico and their partnership with Ancestry:

"Unless life changes dramatically I do not want to live a very long time.

It is simply getting to be like ground hog day. I don't see why that is so wonderful.

What lets live another 50 years of work, home, work, home.

How fucking inspiring. Not.

I could imagine a lot of people's lives are the same."

This is one of the attitudes that we're going to need to change, and there's no doubt in my mind that it's going to be difficult. I personally have zero issue working longer if it means living longer, but so many people say they'd rather die than have to keep working, so...

Posted by: Ham at July 28th, 2015 3:56 AM


Maybe automation will change that (or maybe not). Many people hate their job, me included, but I would not change immortality for retirement. I think many of these people would not, either. Simply, they don't think indefinite lifespans can be achieved.

Posted by: Antonio at July 29th, 2015 2:31 AM
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