Where does the money to fund basic aging research come from? After all, scientists need to be paid, purchase supplies for their research, and somehow find the money to attend conferences to talk about their results. In the US at least (the funding situation is different in the UK), money comes primarily in the form of grants from the federal government, which both pay the salaries of researchers and provide them with money for their experiments.

The National Institute of Health (NIH, a federal agency) is huge and awesome. The main mechanism by which money it distributes money is through “R” grants. These are large (~$1 million), multi-year grants awarded to principal investigators (usually professors) at research institutions who go through a competitive process to apply for them. About 90% of non-profit aging research project funding comes from the NIH, and most of that is in the form of “R” grants. If you’re a scientist, you already knew this and can skip ahead. If you’re a layperson who somehow wandered onto this blog, then listen up: NIH funding has shrunk in real terms by 11% since 2003. There are 9 billion blogs dedicated to how this has changed people’s careers and the competitiveness of getting research grants. Thankfully the NIA, the wing of the NIH, is one of the few institutes who have seen extra budgetary support in recent years. Congress specifically supported a $100 million research initiative on Alzheimer’s Disease (the argument being that Medicare and Medicaid spend roughly 300 times more paying for the disease and those baby boomers aren’t getting any younger). However, a substantial amount of aging-related research (particularly that directed at specific diseases) is funded by other agencies within the NIH (NINDS—the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke—is an example), which have faced large funding cuts in the last decade.

The information below is from the 2014 enacted budget (Table 1).

Table 1. NIH funded aging research.

Source Total Annual Budget Mechanism Notes Website
National Institute on Aging (NIA) – Total $1.2 billion $80 million increase in Alzheimer’s funding for 2014. http://www.nia.nih.gov/about/budget/2014/fiscal-year-2015-budget/fy-2015-budget-mechanism-table
NIA – R grants $808 million
NIA – Intramural $120 million http://www.nia.nih.gov/about/offices/nia-intramural-research-program
NIA – Research Centers $80 million Includes 5 centers of excellence – UTHSCSA, Jackson Lab, U of Michigan, U of Washington, and Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
NIA – Training/Fellowships $24 million
Other NIH funding for aging research without “aging” in the title
A lot, hard to estimate (Total of roughly $30 billion for the whole NIH) For example, besides the NIA, Buck researchers have grants from the NCI (cancer), NEI (eye), NIA, NIAMS (arthritis), NIDDK (diabetes, digestion, kidney), NIEHS (Environmental health sciences), NIGMS (general medical), NINDS (neuro disorders and stroke), and NLM (National Library of Medicine). http://www.nih.gov

Apart from the NIH, there are several private foundations that support aging research and specific diseases of aging. Budgets are from the latest available information (mostly 2013 and 2014 data) in Table 2. Frankly, I was surprised by how small this chunk is. Don’t get me wrong, each of these foundations are great and their funds support promising scientific projects and programs. But all together, they’re less than 10% of the annual R-grant budget (note that a different situation exists in the UK, where the giant Wellcome Trust funds about $600 million in biomedical research). A lot of private giving to aging research is not structured as annual grant programs, though. For example, at the Buck we receive generous one-time donations from local businesses, individuals, and some of the aging foundations listed below to support our facilities.

Table 2. Private foundations that support basic aging research.

Non-NIH Foundations Total Annual Budget Mechanism Notes Website
Ellison Medical Foundation ~$18 million Alas, not actively granting money for aging research anymore. http://ellisonfoundation.org/program/aging
Alzheimer’s Association $14 million 88 grants in 2014, focus on Alzheimer’s Disease. http://www.alz.org/research/alzheimers_grants/funded_studies.asp – 2014
Glenn Foundation NA Several mechanisms- fund parts of aging departments at a consortium of not-for-profits. http://glennfoundation.org/programs/
Larry L. Hillblom Foundation ~$9 million Only California-based research, startup and fellowship grants, focus on aging and diabetes, supported lab renovations at the Buck Institute. https://www.llhf.org/funded-research
SENS Research Foundation $4.6 million Mix of intramural, do sponsor extramural projects in US and UK. http://www.sens.org/about/organizational-reports
American Federation for Aging Research (AFAR) ~$4 million Several training and honorary awards, $100,000/ 1-2 year awards, some programs are funded by the Glenn Foundation. http://www.afar.org/research/funding/
Huntington’s Disease Society of America $2 million Summer fellowships and Huntington’s disease grants, $75K/1-2year awards. http://www.hdsa.org/research/grant-applications/index.html
Hereditary Disease Foundation ~$1 million Focus on Huntington’s Disease, $50K/1 year grants. http://www.hdfoundation.org/funding/grants.php
Progeria Research Foundation ~$500,000 3 grants per year, 1-2 years duration http://www.progeriaresearch. org/grants_funded.html
Methuselah Foundation $200,000 Connected to SENS by fundraising and founders. They support bowhead whale research, and companies with aging interests. They’re interested in organ banking and making new organs, “Mprize” for breaking the mouse lifespan record. http://www.mfoundation. org/work


There are also a bunch of institutes and research departments dedicated to basic aging research (Table 3). A lot of universities and medical schools have some department with “aging” or “gerontology” or “geriatrics” in their name. Most of these are patient-oriented, so I’ve focused on a short list of institutes. Each of these typically distributes intramural funds. Want their money? Get a job there. Honorable mention goes to the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Aging, who just missed the cut by not being in America.

Table 3. Aging research institutes.

Institute Name Location Website
Barshop Institute at University of Texas Health Sciences Center San Antonio San Antonio, Texas http://www.barshop.uthscsa.edu/
U-M Geriatrics Center and Institute of Gerontology Ann Arbor, Michigan http://www.med.umich.edu/geriatrics/research/index.htm
Buck Institute for Research on Aging Novato, California http://www.buckinstitute.org/
Albert Einstein Institute for Aging Research Bronx, NY http://www.einstein.yu.edu/centers/aging/
University of Washington Seattle, Washington http://www.uwaging.org/

But if we move outside academic research to money spent on commercialized research applications by private companies, the pie changes quite a bit (Table 4). In aggregate, drug companies outspend the NIH on R&D every year by over $20 billion. The precise portion of this going towards “aging research” is hard to measure. While most aging research at drug companies is not focused on aging itself, diseases of aging such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer are intense areas of study. Recent years have seen the founding of private companies dedicated specifically to aging research. Both of the biggies are in California where people are preternaturally terrified of aging. Calico is a Google-funded research company that has recruited famous researchers on aging like Cynthia Kenyon and David Botstein. They have not announced much about their plans beyond collaborations with AbbVie, UT-Southwestern, The Broad Institute, and UCSF’s QB3 to develop therapeutic approaches to aging-related diseases. Human Longevity Inc. (HLI) was founded by Peter Diamandis and Craig Venter, who sequenced the human genome, made partially synthetic bacteria, and beat Elon Musk in arm wrestling. As far as I can tell, HLI is building a stockpile of human genome and microbiome data to mine for biomarkers of diseases of aging. It is hard to guess at annual budgets for these new players, but they’re pretty huge. Calico’s $500 million in committed funds, for example, is over half the amount the NIA spends on R grants in a year.

Table 4. Industry funded aging research.

Source Backing Funds Notes Website
Pharma and Biotech Lots The top 10 Pharma companies spend $50 billion annually on R&D. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_pharmaceutical _companies
Calico At least $500 million in backing Calico has announced collaborations with AbbVie, UT Southwestern, The Broad Institute, and UCSF’s QB3. These collaborations are focused on understanding the biology of aging and developing therapeutics to treat aging-related diseases. http://www.calicolabs.com/
Human Longevity Inc. $70 million in backing Making a large database of microbiome, genomes, and clinical outcomes, and hiring a lot of informatics people. http://www.humanlongevity.com/

So… the moral of the story is to get an R01 or go to industry. But, you probably already knew that. Get back to work, labbie!