The tide of funding for life-extension research has turned. With the announcement of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences – sponsored by such renowned entrepreneurs as Yuri Milner, Sergei Brin, and Mark Zuckerberg, as well as Zuckerberg’s wife Priscilla Chan and Anne Wojcicki of 23andMe – there is now a world-class mechanism for rewarding outstanding scientists whose work contributes to understanding and curing debilitating diseases and extending human life. (You can find out more about this prize from The Guardian and Fast Company.) The first eleven laureates of the prize have already been selected, and every subsequent year eleven more will receive $3 million each.
The incentives behind the Breakthrough Prize are exactly right. In short, they move our society ever closer to a meritocracy. By receiving a sizable fortune, each scientist – still at the top of his or her career – would no longer need to worry about finances. He or she would at last have a justly deserved reward for ingenious work that advances the struggle of human civilization against disease, decay, and death. To produce ground-breaking research in biology, medicine, and biotechnology requires a kind of passion that does not get extinguished just because one’s day-to-day material needs have been satisfied. By getting the material worries out of the way, that passion is allowed full and free rein. Innovation becomes the dominant motive force of further projects, and further research and breakthroughs can proceed without fear of running out of funding.
The people funding the prize are themselves excellent exemplars of meritocracy. They became wealthy by their own efforts – not through inheritance, political pull, or expropriation of others, but through providing services that millions of people voluntarily sought out and recognized as enhancing their lives. It is not surprising that these entrepreneurs of merit would seek to reward the merit in others – particularly merit that, through its further exercise, can eventually save the lives of us all, from the wealthiest to the poorest. The ideal of a societal meritocracy is one in which personal wealth is directly proportional to earned achievement. Meritocracy does not require central planning, because people of merit will naturally seek to exchange values and reward one another on a free market – provided that central planners do not distort the incentives toward doing so. The distribution of wealth will, over time, approach a purely meritocratic one solely as a result of such enlightened and free interactions. Of course, we are far from having a pure meritocracy today, for the incentives are significantly distorted by special political favors, barriers to entry, and the cultural corruption they engender. However, given the slightest opening, the meritocratic ideal will gradually penetrate into an ever-expanding array of endeavors. By the accident of history, computer and internet technologies have been some of the least centrally controlled in the 20th and early 21st centuries. The result was the emergence of a group of merit-based entrepreneurs who could use their wealth to fund productive benefactors of humankind in other fields.
Another ubiquitously known member of the larger group of merit-based achievers is Bill Gates, who has recently expressed his personal desire not to die during a Reddit AMA. This makes perfect sense: a man who has everything that wealth in today’s world can provide, and who leads a happy and fulfilling life besides, must still confront the fundamental injustice of his personal demise – an injustice that the wealthiest among us have not been able to rectify, yet. While Bill Gates is not sponsoring the Breakthrough Prize (at least not at present), his philanthropic efforts are already going a long way toward alleviating many life-shortening diseases in the less-developed parts of the world. We can all hope that, over time, he and others like him will devote increasing shares of their wealth toward overcoming the more formidable barriers of biological senescence.
For now, the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences is an excellent start. It will raise the profile of life-extension research and inspire others to pursue ambitious projects in hopes of earning the prize. Unlike the Nobel Prize, which scientists earn many decades after their most prominent achievements, this prize will come much sooner to those whose transformational work strikes blows against some our least tractable adversaries. With the accelerating pace of technological progress, it only makes sense not to wait over a generation before recognizing their accomplishments. Not only the recipients, but also their benefactors – Milner, Brin, Zuckerberg, Chan, and Wojcicki – are to be saluted for giving a critical and ongoing boost to life-extension efforts on many fronts.