Aubrey de Grey Did Not Receive Fair Treatment in the Investigation Commissioned by the Board of Directors of the SENS Research Foundation
I have read the “independent” investigative report that was commissioned by the Board of Directors of the SENS Research Foundation – the same Board that fired Dr. Aubrey de Grey before the investigation was completed and now, it seems, is using this report as ex post justification of its preconceived decision. Here are the insights I can glean from reading this report; not all are original to me, and many have pointed out some of these observations already. However, it is useful to summarize them here to spread understanding of just how flawed this report is.
1. This report underscores the essentially ubiquitous fact that, in corporate America, “he who pays the piper calls the tune”. There is no true possibility of a neutral, independent investigation when the investigator is financially compensated by one of the parties with a preconceived interest in the outcome. Whatever the personal ethics of the investigator, it would remain the case – and this is true for any paid professional contractor – that she would be concerned about where her future revenue stream would be coming from. Releasing a report that challenged or undermined the well-publicized intentions of (and actions already taken by) her clients – the Board of the SENS Research Foundation – would have jeopardized her future opportunities to be retained by the same clients or similar corporate Boards, whose interest is not so much in the objective truth, but rather in ratifying the legitimacy of the Board’s actions after the fact and mitigating adverse publicity.
It was naïve for many of us to give this investigation the benefit of the doubt and hold our peace while it proceeded, with the hope that it might have actually shed light on the situation in an impartial manner. Indeed, the mistake that we supporters of Aubrey de Grey have made is to assume throughout this process that all sides would have the intention of bringing the facts to light and making proportionate conclusions based on the evidence. Instead, the far more typical calculus of “cui bono” and motivated reasoning were clearly in play here.
2. The standard of “preponderance of evidence” utilized in the report is incredibly weak and subjective – essentially amounting to whether, in the opinion of the investigator, a given event was more likely than not to have occurred. This is not proof; it is not beyond reasonable doubt; it is not even clear and convincing evidence. Essentially, all of the assertions in this report are the investigator’s personal opinions that some chain of events was plausible. But the report does not actually bring any fundamentally new factors to light. None of this would hold up in a court of law or any official investigation by a governmental body (and even such an official investigation would not be warranted in any event, because no violation of law was ever made or even alleged).
3. It remains the case, based on what the report was actually able to corroborate, that the only definite actions that Aubrey de Grey was known to have taken were the sending of two ill-advised e-mails nearly a decade ago, which were poorly worded and definitely had a high likelihood of being misunderstood. To be sure, I consider those e-mails to have been a mistake on Aubrey’s part (and he does as well), but they stemmed from his own European cultural context, in which the sentiments expressed would have been considered far more innocuous than they would be in the United States of 2021. To punish a person with a loss of a prominent position and jeopardy to that person’s career, retroactively, for statements that would not have been and were not considered offenses a long time ago when they were made, and which are not at all criminal, civil, or otherwise actionable offenses even today, is a draconian perversion of justice. It implies that not only is anyone vulnerable to incredibly harsh penalties for any mistake or minor lapse in judgment, but even that a comparatively mild statement that would have been dismissed or overlooked in the past could become career-ending retroactively if societal norms change many years later. The fact that “Complainant #1” actively collaborated with Aubrey de Grey for nearly a decade after the ill-advised comments were made suggest that those comments were reinterpreted much more recently to have a motivation that nobody attributed to them in the past.
4. The allegations that Aubrey de Grey “interfered with the investigation” ultimately disregard the possibility that Aubrey could have been genuine in his stated motivation to help rehabilitate the reputation of “Complainant #2” after she made unsupported allegations which could, indeed, have jeopardized her career. The investigator interprets Aubrey’s e-mail to an intermediary as a threat to the career of “Complainant #2”, when Aubrey was much more likely expressing an objective fact – that few people in the longevity industry would be willing to work with someone who makes allegations of predation so lightly. The “Why risk it?” consideration is likely going to lead many in the community to tread extremely lightly around the accusers for the indefinite future. Aubrey himself could have been able to avert that particular outcome if the misunderstandings that prompted the allegations had been resolved.
5. Moreover, if Aubrey de Grey sensed that the investigation was not conducted in an objective or impartial manner, and that the actions of the SENS Research Foundation Board already placed the punishment before any official determination of guilt, then he would have had a clear and highly understandable incentive to attempt to tell his side of the story through channels outside of the investigation. If he had fully complied with the investigator’s admonitions, the outcome would have likely been the same; a determination of his guilt was a foregone conclusion based on the “he who pays the piper” principle. In that situation, Aubrey would have simply quietly acquiesced to his own professional destruction. Perhaps he would have been shown some leniency, perhaps not; the history of show trials demonstrates that compliance and even confessions by the accused seldom improved their outcomes and indeed lent legitimacy to the severe penalties that were imposed.
6. Even this report exonerates Aubrey de Grey from having interfered with the funding of the doctoral research position of “Complainant #2”. This would have been one of the principal allegations explaining the resentment that “Complainant #2” felt against Aubrey de Grey. If the rest of her actions were precipitated by that perception, and the initial perception was mistaken, then it is reasonable to expect that the rest of the narrative motivated by that perception would unravel under closer genuine scrutiny.
7. Moreover, this report, in its own telling, fails to identify any other concrete allegations against Aubrey de Grey beyond the relatively mild allegations which were made by “Complainant #1” and “Complainant #2”. There is no pattern of harassment or abuse, no legions of women who were somehow preyed upon. Indeed, the characterization of predation made by “Complainant #2” against Aubrey de Grey can be seen as clearly libelous even if the investigator’s understanding of the facts were ultimately shown to be correct. The term “predator” should be reserved for the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein, not someone who made a few poorly thought-out attempted compliments from which no other actions ensued – especially considering that many of the years between 2012 and 2021 contained no incidents of any nature documented within the report.
8. The report is sloppily written and has obvious errors in dates. On page 14 of 16 of the report, three e-mails addressed to Aubrey de Grey are mentioned as having dates in July 2019, when the events to which the e-mails refer could clearly only have taken place in July 2021. It seems that the motivation to release a report with these conclusions was so strong that shortcuts were taken in proofreading the report for basic accuracy. While anyone can make typographical errors, a robust internal editing process should have caught them. This also raises the question of what other, more fundamental errors were left undetected in the course of the internal review of drafts of this report.
9. I am left with no option but to conclude that the SENS Research Foundation Board acted in a deliberate and premeditated manner to displace Aubrey de Grey from his Chief Science Officer position, despite Aubrey de Grey being the originator of the SENS program and an indispensable presence to the research efforts that comprise this program. Instead of seeking to facilitate a truly independent investigation that could have brought genuine facts to light and resolved this immense misunderstanding, it is my impression that the SENS Research Foundation Board conceived of the investigation as a tool to validate and ratify the preconceived intention to remove Aubrey from his role. This is why the punishment came before the determination of guilt. This is why the Board failed to utilize the plethora of milder measures that were available to address any concerns of interference with the investigation on Aubrey’s part. I have no doubt that multiple members of the SENS Research Foundation Board are good people and did not intend any harm to Aubrey; I believe, however, that they were tragically misled by those who did have such motives. Perhaps they, too, naïvely believed that the investigation could be truly independent and impartial, rather than motivated by the agenda of whomever got the idea to engage the firm in the first place. Perhaps they thought that an independent investigation that exonerated Aubrey would be trusted more in the court of public opinion than an approach of the organization standing resolutely with one of its own (which is what should have been done, if for no other reason than loyalty to Aubrey and deep respect for his tremendous contributions to aging-research and advocacy endeavors for over two decades). The fact remains, though, that the cynical among the Board members were able to lead the rest along with a plan for the premeditated destruction of Aubrey’s career and reputation. By doing so, they irreparably damaged the standing of the SENS Research Foundation and made it unworthy of the tremendous dedication and trust placed in it by thousands of donors and activists within the longevity community. We always donated and stood by the SENS Research Foundation because of our admiration and support for Aubrey de Grey, not for the people who ousted him. We always understood Aubrey’s efforts to be the impetus behind the SENS Research Foundation; what remains is an empty shell. What could have motivated some on the Board of the SENS Research Foundation to remove Aubrey? The recent immense success of over $28 million collected via the PulseChain Airdrop fundraiser would certainly have been a tempting prize. Those who might have considered Aubrey to be too outspoken, too eccentric, too liable to “damage the respectability” of aging research with establishment “gatekeeper” institutions, would have seen the allegations against Aubrey as a convenient way to sideline him and then take custody of the funds. The tragedy is that now the funds raised through enthusiasm for the cause of longevity are at risk of being directed into more status-quo-acquiescent channels.
10. At this stage I am of the view that Aubrey de Grey should proceed to create a new foundation, where he remains in complete control, and there is good reason to believe that the researchers and new donations will follow his lead. It is unfortunate that the SENS Research Foundation Board has chosen to consign its organization to irrelevance, but we cannot let faux-outrage over some mildly inappropriate comments derail the far more essential mission of saving over 110,000 people who die per day of the diseases of aging. This entire episode also illustrates the folly of setting up organizational boards that are outside the control of the founders and prime movers of the organizations. In such situations, petty, short-sighted, fear-driven, and narrowly conventional motives come necessarily to predominate over the original vision and ambition of the founder(s). After so many stories of founders being displaced by the institutional machinery they have acquiesced to, surely it is time to learn the lesson – both for nonprofit organizations and for-profit startups. An organization succeeds because of the merits and vision of its founder(s); without the founder(s) the organization becomes a mere husk, replicating conventional patterns until it fades into the background with millions of other similar organizations. What we seek, on the other hand, is an organization that will bring humankind into the era of longevity escape velocity. We should all support any efforts by Aubrey de Grey to create such an organization.