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Learning from the #IceBucketChallenge: Views of a Biomedical Researcher

How grad students can help influence the scientific funding climate.

September 1, 2014

Jason McSheene is a Princeton University Molecular Biology PhD student and creator of the PhD in Progress Podcast (Twitter @PhDPodcast).

You knew it was coming. Your social media feeds were filled with videos of friends and family dumping buckets of ice water on their heads. After a week or two of dodging, you thought you were in the clear. The fad had to pass soon, right? But then, your Aunt Nora Mae blindsided you with a nomination to either do the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge or donate to the ALS Association. Did you appease the Internet and continue the fun, highly successful viral fundraising campaign by dumping the chilly water over your head? Did you opt for donating to a worthy cause?

Or did you fail completely?

I failed the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. By missing the prescribed time window to douse myself in barely-above-freezing water, I decided to pledge to donate money to the association when my tight monthly budget next allowed for it. Honestly, I felt a bit of shame specifically because organizations like the ALS Association, the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, and others purposely raise money to distribute as grants and fellowships to doctoral students such as myself. They also provide grants to labs for crucial experiments and equipment. Of course, the contributions of these myriad groups to research funding often pale in comparison to that committed by the US National Institutes of Health. (See a breakdown of NIH funding by category here.)

The challenge provided a great opportunity to raise awareness for research funding. According to an ALSA press release, “The ALS Association has topped $100 million in donations from people all over the globe who were moved to action by this summer’s Ice Bucket Challenge. As of August 29 the Association has received $100.9 million in donations compared to $2.8 million during the same time period last year (July 29 to August 29).” This more than doubled the NIH planned budget for ALS research of $40 million. Such success proves a point: The ability to create fun and sticky methods for generating charity contributions is within reach. Unfortunately, it is unreasonable to believe each support organization for diseases like ALS can raise enough to match the NIH planned research spending.

A common conflict: Why ALS instead of other very important organizations? Many other graduate students and postdocs familiar with biomedical research shared my sentiment: “Why is ALS so special that it deserves my donation over ________?” While always said in an understanding manner, this question came up each time we had an extended conversation about watching our favorite people follow through with the challenge. We always agreed that every disease, condition, and syndrome deserved dedicated research, but it is difficult to fund those that have a smaller number of patients.

In short, “It’s a numbers game,” one colleague said. That thought alone contributes to a cruel depiction of scientists in media and literature, showing them as ultra-pragmatists lacking in sympathy. Thankfully, new groups like the San Francisco-based biotech startup Perlstein Lab focus on treatments for rare “orphan diseases” that struggle for research funding. The Perlstein Lab relates their mission in light of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in a passionate blog post and video.

Grad students: You can help influence the scientific funding climate. Harvard graduate student Matt Woodruff, like me, did not have the money to donate on hand. However, unlike me, he succeeded in his “Liquid Nitrogen/Dry Ice” Bucket Challenge. With newly printed thesis in hand, Woodruff points out that an important factor to increasing scientific output for the majority of biomedical research is to increase the funding budget for the NIH.

He also issues the following challenge to the viewer: “Take a minute, call your Congressman, get the science flowing [by calling the Capitol Hill switchboard at 202-224-3121]”. On this note, I invite you to take Matt’s NIH funding challenge. It only requires a minute of your time, and may lead to better science.

Those who started this internet meme should be happy with the results. Besides creating a wildly pervasive rally to raise hope (and money) for the ALS Association, they started a trend. While I failed the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge for now, I am eager to see what new challenge is around the corner.

How did you fulfill your Ice Bucket Challenge? Did you happily donate, or recreate a scene from Titanic?

[Image by Flickr user Anthony Quintano and used under the Creative Commons license]

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