28 July 2016

It doesn’t matter if the Ice Bucket Challenge gave us a “breakthrough” or not

We are in the middle of a science news hype cycle.

First, the inflated expectations. Lots of news sources reporting that funds from the Ice Bucket Challenge were used to make a “breakthrough” in ALS. Note that the original press release didn’t say “breakthrough” anywhere in the headline or the main text. It said a “significant... discovery” was made.

We’re now in the trough of disappointment. Serious science journalists are poo-poohing the claim that the results reported can be described as a “breakthrough.” Some are warning that just proves this whole crowdfunding thing is a dangerous idea. Boing Boing, for instance:

As useful as the funds raised by the Ice Bucket Challenge are, they can’t replace the big, institutional, steady spending that has been under assault since the Reagan era.

I’m right with people saying that neither pretentious press releases nor hyperexcited news coverage do us much good.

But I worry that downplaying good new research (which as far as I can see, everyone admits this was) because it’s not a “breakthrough” accidentally reinforces the notion that only the “breakthroughs” matter. It also implies that because the results are not a “breakthrough,” that they are trivial findings. Of course, the “not a breakthrough” article admits:

This is intriguing and important research.

Guys, if you’re going to criticize press coverage for bombastic headlines and burying the qualifiers and nuance near the end of the story, I think it’s fair to ask for the same in return.

Focusing on the resulting science also buries some of the less tangible benefits of the crowdfunding campaign. People had fun with the Ice Bucket Challenge. People might have learned what ALS was for the first time. Scientists got to do their research were less likely to shut their labs down. Those are positive benefits regardless of whether the money raised led to any particular scientific outcome.

I’ve seen the argument that crowdfunding somehow poses a threat to federal funding since I got involved with #SciFund. What’s been missing every time I see this claim is any actual evidence. I have yet to hear one politician say something like, “We’re thinking of cutting funding to ALS research because we saw the Ice Bucket Challenge was a big success.”

All I see is fear. And I get that fear. Many people’s labs and careers have depended on federal funds for so long that anything that gives the hint of deviating from the cry of “MOAR funding!” is open for criticism.

But what else are we supposed to do?

Yes, we’re supposed to advocate for our science to politicians. We’re supposed to communicate our discoveries to the broader public. We do that. And, in the United States, all that advocacy over more than a decade has yielded us... 

A set of flat research budgets in real dollars (check the “nondefense” line). Labs shutting down, and an endless stream of complaints about the amount of time spent trying to get money for research instead of doing research.

It’s frustrating to be told that scientists should not even try any other plan because it might threaten the plan that is not making any progress, even after more than ten years.

Related posts

What the Coburn report has in common with arsenic life

External links

Here's the Exact Way That the Ice Bucket Challenge Helped ALS Research (from September 2015)
Remember the ice bucket challenge? It just funded an ALS breakthrough
Ice Bucket Challenge “breakthrough”? Experts pour cold water on superficial reporting
The Ice Bucket Challenge did not fund a breakthrough in ALS treatment
Federal Budget Authority for R&D in FYs 2014 and 2015 Turns Modestly Upward, but Extent of Increase in FY 2016 Uncertain

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