How the #nomakeupselfie text gave cancer research funding a huge boost

In the name of science … morningireland, CC BY

It wouldn’t normally be cause for celebration when something related to cancer goes viral, but the recent #nomakeupselfie trend has been great news for charity-funded cancer research. The campaign has already raised more than £8m, after women posted photos of themselves wearing no make-up to social media websites. So what sort of a contribution does this make to science funding? And how does that compare with the rest of the world’s charitable giving to scientific research?

During the #nomakeupselfie campaign, women were encouraged to post a ‘selfie’, and then make a text-message donation of £3. That doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but in the UK only £5.20 per person per year is spent on charity-funded cancer research. Many of those who donated won’t have thought twice about donating £3 and yet, taken on average, they have boosted personal charity funding of cancer research by nearly two-thirds.

When compared with research into other diseases, the numbers are even more stark: a £3 donation to stroke research would be more than eight times the research spend per person per year—for government and charity combined. This kind of comparison drives home the point that small investments in science can nonetheless make significant contributions.

Scienceogram UK

The combined economic impact of these diseases comes to more than £800 per person per year—a figure combining the cost to the health service with other indirect costs to the economy, such as people giving up work as a result of their condition. This £800 is pitted against our combined research spend of around £13 from both government and charitable sources.

Thus, charity provides an important contribution to UK medical research – but its impact on science more generally is less significant. First, while charities researching specific diseases find it comparatively easy to raise funds (and it is important to emphasise the “comparatively” here – they are still only able to spend around £20 per year on behalf of the average UK citizen), it is not so easy to find charity support for research into less emotive and widely-known topics.

Whether you are researching fundamental organometallic chemistry, nuclear fusion, or even understanding the ageing process which gives rise to many of these diseases, charity funding is relatively hard to come by. Taken across all areas of research, the UK non-profit spend on research and development is about eight times less than the £160 per capita spent by the government.

The UK is a world leader when it comes to charity-funded scientific research: spending of £20 per capita places the UK fourth in the world. In pole position, the US spends around £30 per person and, as you move down the rankings, the amount spent drops off significantly. Turkey, in 20th place, spends just £3.30 per capita on research funded by non-profits – equivalent to just over one #nomakeupselfie donation per person per year.

Scienceogram UK

Another source of potentially significant resources for scientific research is high net-worth individuals. From Bill Gates funding research into global health to Intel’s Gordon Moore donating towards projects from astronomy to ecology, the super-rich are making inroads into science funding. The world’s 100 wealthiest individuals are worth a combined £1.2 trillion, which is probably enough to develop nuclear fusion, add a few years to global life expectancy, send humans back to the Moon, and still have change.

However, loosening those purse strings will undoubtedly prove tricky: the $125bn offered by signatories to Bill Gates’s Giving Pledge represents around £70 per citizen of the developed world, or around three months’ worth of global public-funded spend on research and development. While still a significant amount of money, it seems clear that it won’t be supplanting state funding of science any time soon.

So, while non-profit funding makes up a significant fraction of medical research funding in certain countries, neither non-profits’ nor big philanthropic spending can replace the vital contributions made by the public and private sectors. The #nomakeupselfie campaign is one lens through which to view this: a £3 personal donation is both a lot, when it comes to charitable spending on research, and comparatively little, in the landscape of global funding of scientific research.

However, the success of #nomakeupselfie does demonstrate a public appetite for supporting medical research, and putting these numbers into context shows that a little extra money from each of us could make a difference. For those seeking an increase in science funding, while charitable donations can help, it is important to get governments on board too.