The politics behind the ice bucket challenge

The ice bucket challenge has gripped people across the world and apparently raised more than $80 million for motor neurone disease, but asks Dominic Jones, what does it say about the state of medical research that it relies on people emptying water over their heads for funding

George Bush reminded the world of his penchant for waterboarding when he did the challenge.

George Bush reminded the world of his penchant for waterboarding when he did the challenge.

The past few weeks has seen the ice bucket challenge go viral with millions of people soaking themselves in cold water for charity. The popularity of the ice bucket challenge has caught on as different people use it to spread their own particular message. Palestinians started rubble bucket challenge, Matt Damon doused himself in toilet water (to highlight the issue of poor sanitation in developing countries), while Macmillan cancer research came under fire for running ice bucket adverts.  But, what does this say about the state of medical research today?

Part of the challenge is a donation campaign and similar to the #nomakeupselfie a few months ago. The charities of choice are mostly ones based on medical research (initially focusing on ALS, more commonly known as motor neurone disease). Public and non-profit medical research in the UK (as distinct from medical research carried out by private companies) primarily takes place in universities and sources most of its funding from two major sources; the government and charities.

When the coalition government came to power and started its comprehensive spending review there was much fear in the scientific community about how the funding cuts would hit scientific research.  After a strong lobbying effort the government decided to “ringfence” science funding and freeze it at 2010 levels rather than cutting it.  This was better than many other sections but it has still led to a real terms spending cut. Scienceogram UK calculated that in 2010-11 science funding was the equivalent of £89 per person. This is projected to fall to £75 per person in the current financial year leading to greater competition for funding grants and cuts to staff in university departments.

In addition to this the increased influence of neoliberalism in universities has meant that some funding is made contingent on working with private companies on projects, pushing research that can be used to make a profit as opposed to for general human good.

Charity funding

These cuts can lead to looking to other sources of funds for medical research namely the already large charitable sector.  Charitable contributions make up a significant amount of medical research spending in the UK.  On the one hand this is positive since it shows that lots of people clearly care about looking after others and give large amounts of donations however there are also drawbacks.

Different charities will focus on different conditions and are forced to compete with each other to raise funds.  This means certain conditions end up getting much more research into them not necessarily based on anything in particular.  Few carrying out the ice bucket challenge could provide a reason why you should fund ALS research as opposed to research to prevent blindness (and why should they since surely both things need funding?).

ice bucket

The largest amount of money is spent on cancer research.  The government spent £4.30 per person and charities £5.30 per person.  However when we look at other conditions that are no less serious, such as strokes, the sources of funding are much lower and the other way round, with the bulk of contributions coming from government funding (28p per person versus 9p per person from charities).  There may be many reasons why funding for cancer research should be higher than that going into strokes. Three times as many people die from cancer as do from strokes, but the funding proportion is much greater than that.

Money for ending lives, not for saving them

Medical funding needs an overall strategic direction and whilst charities can and do contribute to long term planning they are inevitably pulled by their own particular focus.  There should be a much greater government contribution to this vitally important sector so that charitable funds are an extra source of funding rather than an important pillar for the sector.  Overall the government spends just under £6 per person a year on research into cancer, strokes and heart disease which are responsible for just over half of all deaths.  This compares to a spend of £700 per person on defence spending.

To me there seems to be something wrong about the priorities of a system that will spend billions of out money on wars but when it comes funding into new medical treatments it is left up to individuals to empty buckets on their head to raise money.

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