Bucket of ice water – dose of reality


A Bucket of Ice  

The summer of 2014 was marked by friends, relatives, neighbors, celebrities and politicians pouring ice-cold buckets of water over their heads in support of the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Association and donating to research funds to help us better understand the underlying mechanisms of the disease. By all measures, the Ice Bucket Challenge was a rousing success. In August 2013, through the course of normal summertime donations, the ALS Association collected $2.3 million. In August 2014? More than $100 million.

Many in the science advocacy community first turned blue from the cold but then green with envy. Suddenly, seemingly everyone in the country was talking about donating to the ALS Association for research. Other disease groups took the opportunity to redouble their own efforts, saying, in effect, “ALS is important, but so is our disease of choice.” Some charities took a different approach and issued press releases saying the Ice Bucket Challenge, while doing a great good for those with ALS, actually was stealing donations from other worthy causes.

Benjamin Corbs Ice Bucket Challenge  
Watch Benjamin Corb's Ice Bucket Challenge  

Eventually, the conversation cycled to the research community and the cold, hard fact that biomedical research investments in this country have been falling for a decade. While people nationwide dumped ice water on their heads, scientists in labs all across the country sweated more than a few buckets’ worth while stressing about where their next grants were coming from and how they could continue their investigations in a funding environment that had run cold.

By and large, the American public doesn’t understand how biomedical research is funded – particularly academic research. The connections between taxpayer, university, researcher and patient are dots that the average citizen rarely connects. Many believe that the $100 million donated to the ALS Association is such a large amount of money that a cure for ALS is surely right around the corner. While well-intended, the amounts of donations for research don’t correlate with the mortality rates of diseases.

What is the leading cause of death in this country? Heart disease. Total dollars donated per heart-disease death last year? A mere $90. What disease received the most in donations for research? Breast cancer. Dollars donated per breast-cancer death? A staggering $6,400*. 

Charitable donations for research on a disease that means something to you are noble and should continue. No one should suggest that you not cut a check to the disease charity of your choice in honor – or memory – of a loved one. However, researchers know that investments in biomedical research have been stagnant for more than a decade. Researchers also know that the more likely path to treatments and cures for deadly diseases is to increase the federal investment in basic research.  

So the next time someone challenges you to do something for a disease charity, make sure he or she knows the role of the federal government in research. And the next time you write a check or pour water on your head, challenge your friends and family to register to vote or to pick up the phone to tell their elected officials just how important supporting federally funded research is to this nation. And make sure you do the same.

*Figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 2011

Photo of Benjamin CorbBenjamin Corb (bcorb@asbmb.org) is director of public affairs at ASBMB.