On Research and Public Awareness (Re: #IceBucketChallenge)

In the last week or so, I’ve seen dozens of posts on various social media outlets promoting awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease) using #IceBucketChallenge.  This is awesome, and spreading public awareness about this disease is certainly an important step in the right direction.

You probably sense a “but” coming.  You’d be right.

Admittedly, I don’t work in ALS research.  I am, however, a researcher whose work is funded primarily by federal grant money.  And let me tell you one thing: getting funded is unequivocally difficult.

An inordinately large number of researchers spend a disproportionately large amount of their time engaging in grant writing, not research.

A 2007 study found that upwards of 40% of university faculty member’s time was spent on the grant securing process.  Since you may not work in research, allow me to frame that in a more accessible way:

Imagine you work in a factory making widgets.  Now imagine that every time you want to make a widget, which let’s remember is your primary job function, you must walk to your CFO’s office, and give him a 30-minute presentation outlining, in perfect detail, exactly why you want to make a widget.  He will consider your request, and 15-20% of the time, he will allow you to make a widget.  The other 80-85% of the time, he will say to you “I’m sorry, but right now we can’t give you the resources to make a widget.  Come up with a better reason why we should, then come see me again.”

You can probably imagine in this hypothetical situation, widgets are not produced with particularly high efficiency.

Supporting ALS awareness is great.  But what’s even better is funding the research that will ultimately allow us to find better treatments.

I’d ask that you do one of two things if you care about the progress of research for ALS treatment:

  1. Donate.  Give to the ALS Association, or give to the ALS Therapy Development Institute (a non-profit biotechnology firm).  Nothing will expedite the research and development process faster than money.
  2. Don’t have money to spare?  That’s fine, you can still help.  Call your federal representative.  Call your senator.  Tell them you think federal funding for biomedical research and development should be a national priority.
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