The #IceBucketChallenge, and iced-up budgets for scientific research [Updated]

Ice bucket screenshot

For science!

Well, it had to happen some time, I guess. A friend tagged me on Facebook in the “ice bucket challenge” to raise funds for the ALS Association. It’s gone massively viral: post a video of yourself getting soaked in ice water, donate to ALSA, and nominate more folks to do the same. So far, it’s raised more than $70 million, and it’s not slowing down yet.

My grandfather died of ALS, so I’m all in favor of funding research to find a cure. But as a working biologist, the idea of financing research in spurts of social media enthusiasm worries me a little. As Felix Salmon notes at Slate:

You need to fund scientists year in and year out; throwing a large grant at them in 2014 and then going away would probably end up causing more harm than good. As a result, most of this money will (and should) probably end up simply sitting on the ALS Association balance sheet, maybe earning some modest rate of interest, getting doled out very slowly over many years.

In terms of bang for the buck, then, giving money to the ALS Association is not much better than giving it to Harvard. Rather than being front-loaded and effective, it’s going to be back-loaded and (sadly, given the results of the $100 million that the ALS Association has spent to date) probably ineffective.

The real foundation of science in the U.S. is funding agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. And those agencies have had a rough decade.

The numbers are easily available via the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and, except for the one-time boost from the 2009 economic stimulus package, they’re not great. Since 2003, the inflation-adjusted budget for the NSF has been essentially flat:

NSF budget 1998-2014

Graph by jby, data from AAAS.

And the 2014 budget for NIH, which specifically funds research into the cures for diseases and other health issues, is actually 10% lower than in 2003:

NIH budget 1998-2014

Graph by jby, data from AAAS.

So when I took the ice bucket challenge, I added a twist: I’m challenging folks to call their elected representatives in Congress, and ask that our tax dollars go toward better funding for all scientific research. Call it the #IcedBudgetChallenge.

You can e-mail or write an old-fashioned letter, of course, but phone calls have the advantage of getting more attention than just an e-mail, and being quick enough to do over a lunch break. You can find the phone numbers for your Congresspeople at House.gov, and your Senators at Senate.gov. You get bonus points if you can yell at your representatives for taking the ice bucket challenge themselves after voting to cut funding to NIH. One of my own calls is in my challenge video, below, to give some sense of what you might say, and how little time it really takes.

Update, 29 August: In the comments, Alex Williams points out that the Accelerate Biomedical Research Act, which would restore the NIH budget to inflation-adjusted 2003 levels, is under consideration in committee right now. It might be a good idea to mention that bill in your phone call!

When you’ve made your calls, why not post about it with the #IcedBudgetChallenge hashtag? And tag some friends to make their own calls. If there’s one thing we can learn from the ice bucket challenge, it’s that a social campaign really can add up to something substantial—and an #IcedBudgetChallenge campaign for basic research funding could help people suffering from everything from ALS to cancer to MRSA.

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7 comments on “The #IceBucketChallenge, and iced-up budgets for scientific research [Updated]

  1. […] I was nominated in this viral fundraising scheme you may have heard about, and I did it my way. […]

  2. […] full story is at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense—but I’ll also post the video […]

  3. Cathy Newman says:

    This is great! I also emailed my Senators about the need for increased NIH funding for research on neurodegenerative diseases like ALS (which my grandmother had). I’m annoyed by people I see bashing this challenge as purely a fad, because as you noted it has raised a lot of money. But at the same time, I definitely agree that the bigger issue, which is largely being ignored, is that the government contributes the bulk of the funding for this research and it is being slashed.

  4. Love this idea. I was in fact thinking about making a similar video, and I still might. Also — you should know that there is currently a bill co-sponsored by Franken (the “Accelerate Biomedical Research Act”) that aims to restore the purchasing power of the NIH back to 2003 levels. So calls to congress are very timely. Everyone should mention this bill in their phone calls.

    https://www.harkin.senate.gov/press/release.cfm?i=355103

    P.S. the first step is for the bill to make it out of the senate budget committee. At least 7 of the 20 senators on that committee have taken the ice bucket challenge.

    • Jeremy Yoder says:

      Thanks, Alex! I wish I’d known about that bill from the start—having specific legislation to recommend is, I think, generally regarded as better.

  5. […] week, at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: Have you taken the Iced Budget Challenge […]

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