Dr. Leonard P. Guarente is an American biologist and director of MIT's Glenn Laboratory for the Science of Aging, where he is also a Novartis Professor of Biology. He is best known for his research on longevity and specifically for uncovering the gene in yeast that governs the organism's life span. He is the author of "Ageless Quest: One Scientist's Search for Genes That Prolong Youth," which was published in 2003 by Cold Spring Harbor Press.
Question: What do you find frustrating in your field?
Leonard Guarente: I think that at least for the aging field, one disappointment I would say that I've had is that aging is fundamental to so many diseases, yet I really think it's underfunded in terms of an approach to treating these diseases. And to give you an example, I think the past 10 to 20 years has been an amazing time in the field of aging. But the fraction of the NIH budget that goes to research on aging hasn't changed over that period. And to me that's disappointing, because I think that this is one leverage point to really improve human health.
Question: What type of research is over-funded?
Leonard Guarente: I'm not sure anything is overfunded, to be perfectly honest. You know, I think at least most major areas of research that I know of are meritorious. And you know, if you review grants, usually the number of grants you see that are worthy of funding far exceeds the number that actually get funded. So you know, I'm not saying -- I realize it's ultimately a zero-sum game, but I do think that aging in particular probably is a little bit underfunded now.
Question: Which countries are best at encouraging medical innovation?
Leonard Guarente: The U.S. has always been the best country in terms of encouraging innovation. And I think, you know, the rise of the NIH and the granting system after World War II to now is a really good example of that. And I know when I was a young scientist, you know, people would apply for grants, and they weren't so hard to get. The fraction funded maybe was 25 percent, something like that, and so that you could propose things that were a little bit out of the box and have a chance of getting funded to do it, which encourages innovation. I think now, once things become so tight, and instead of 25 percent you have 10 percent of grants funded, then I think, you know, any grant that seems the least bit risk is not going to be funded. And I think you tend to encourage sort of precise, calculated science at the expense of creative science. So historically this country has been the best. I think -- I'm a little concerned now that that might be trailing off, although I can't offhand tell you that it's better any other place.
Recorded on November 9, 2009