Anti-Aging Passion and Pragmatism: Effective Bedfellows at Last
By Aubrey D.N.J. de Grey, SENS Research Foundation. Originally published in: REJUVENATION RESEARCH Volume 21, Number 5
“Combine your calling with your passion to achieve great results” —Sunday Adelaja
I am writing this shortly after returning from the third edition of RAADfest, a conference created two years ago by a team led by Jim Strole. I go to a lot , I mean a lot, of conferences, not least because outreach is such a big part of my role in our crusade. But I think this is the first time I have chosen to devote an editorial to one. You may wonder what’s so special.
Well, RAADfest is ... not your typical conference. Its organizers—Strole and his team, most notably his partner Bernadeane—have, for a couple of decades, led a group in Arizona named “People Unlimited”, which has acquired a reputation—and, I have to report, a well-deserved one—for, let’s say, placing excessive emphasis on the principle that ‘‘where there’s a will there’s a way’’ in relation to the defeat of aging (Yeah, I can still do classic British understatement when I try). Accordingly, when they first let it be known that they planned to do something bigger, the initial reaction was decidedly mixed. I don’t know how many credentialed biogerontologists declined speaking invitations, but only a few of us accepted—and of those, as I recall, only the perennially fearless Michael Rose was a university professor. I myself, though happy to lend my support to this new initiative as a speaker, was rather more diffident in response to Strole’s entreaties to promote the event through my outreach channels.
But the doubters were wrong—very wrong. The event was a storming success, in terms of both attendance—Strole had secured significant sponsorship from the Life Extension Foundation under the expectation of a budgetary shortfall but was actually able to give it back, yes you read that correctly—and also content, which, while being necessarily a little light on science given the paucity of scientist speakers, was coherent, rousing, and informative.
A curious collection of adjectives? Well, yes. The fact is, RAADfest in 2016 achieved something that had truly never been achieved before. On the one hand there was the passion of those whose inclination was to gloss over the technical challenge of defeating aging in favor of the idea that the goal could be achieved if one just hoped for it hard enough, and on the other hand there was the pragmatism of those who understood all too well how long a road we still have ahead of us before reaching a postaging world, even though they wanted that world just as much as the former group. And somehow, somehow, these polar opposites made peace not war. The inclination of the passion-centric side to stand and cheer and clap rather more often than strictly necessary was something that the pragmatists got used to, and conversely the respect and appreciation shown for the efforts of the scientists was every bit as strong and sincere as it was for the speakers who were more of the People Unlimited persuasion. Against all the odds, the mix worked.
And it wasn’t just the novelty value. As I noted above, two more RAADfests have now occurred, each larger than the last, and indeed the planned 2019 RAADfest is likely to move to a larger venue. This has occurred for the only reason it can: that the word has spread that this is a truly valuable event. In contrast to my initial hesitation, I have enthusiastically played my part in that word-spreading effort, promoting the last two conferences extensively through all channels available to me—and I am, of course, by no means the only prominent participant who has done so.
An obvious question arises: how have Strole and his team pulled this off? For sure there are all the reasons you would immediately think of, which are indispensable for any such endeavor: the organizers have worked their socks off, they have applied all the experience from their People Unlimited history, and they have known when to seek guidance and help from others. But on top of all that there was one huge thing that worked in their favor: timing.
Ray Kurzweil, who incidentally gave one of the keynotes this year, has often highlighted timing as a key requirement for success in pioneering technology, and many others have of course said the same in relation to other aspects of business. In this case, I believe that the timing of RAADfest’s launch worked because of the sea change in sentiment that was occurring around that time with regard to the idea that the true medical defeat of aging really might be within reach.
Something I like to point to as an illustration of this is the subtitles of the conferences that are convened each year by the most mainstream academic societies in our field. The titles of these conferences are purely formulaic—‘‘47th Annual Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America,’’ that sort of thing—but they always also have subtitles, which are carefully crafted so as to maximize interest, to attract registrations, and above all to enthuse the study sections at the funding bodies to which the societies always apply for sponsorship. With that in mind, it is most instructive to flip through the list of such subtitles and observe their change over recent years. As little as a decade ago, it was totally impossible to find a hint of a reference to intervention in those taglines—but for the past few years, the exact opposite has been true. The characterization of aging as a medical challenge is here with a vengeance, even in the curmudgeonly mainstream, and it’s here to stay.
And that is why the community is no longer polarized in the way it until so recently was. While it remained verboten among academics to whisper that aging is quite a bad thing, there was no way for them to engage productively with the wider world. Now, by contrast, that conversation is in full swing; I have alluded to various aspects of its emergence and growth in recent editorials. Accordingly, and especially now that it has proven itself, more and more academics are seeing that they will not tarnish their reputations among their future peer reviewers by speaking at an event such as RAADfest. Indeed, the same applies beyond academia: one of this year’s other keynotes was Jim Mellon, a billionaire whose reputation in the world of finance is immense, and who has become the most prominent (and high-rolling) early-stage investor in the nascent rejuvenation biotechnology industry.
It therefore feels fitting to bring RAADfest to the attention of any of RR’s readership who were not already aware of it. Congratulations, Jim et al: you have created a major new string to the bow of the longevity crusade.