Film-maker Steven Spielberg did it. Nobel laureates Thomas Südhof and Shinya Yamanaka did it. The fashion world’s Naomi Campbell and Victoria Beckham did it. Physicist Stephen Hawking — who has the disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) — watched as his children did it on his behalf. They, perhaps you, and millions of others all took the ‘ice-bucket challenge’.

Even if the name is unfamiliar, the images are unlikely to be. The challenge involved being filmed as you had a bucket of iced water thrown on you. For the privilege, most people pledged money for research into ALS, also known as motor-neuron disease, and then nominated others to take the challenge. The resulting little movies were posted on the Internet. It was a lot of fun.

As many of the people who took the challenge understand, ALS is a dreadful illness. Motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord degenerate and lead to paralysis. It is relatively rare, affecting 4–7 in 100,000 people. But there is no cure, and no good understanding of its cause.

The ice-bucket challenge emerged in the United States in July and went viral around the globe, peaking in August. During that month, the ALS Association in Washington DC received more than US$100 million in donations, compared with $2.8 million collected during August 2013. Already, the association has distributed some $20 million of that for research. ALS societies in Germany and the Netherlands hauled in more than $1 million each. Australia managed more than $2 million and Japan more than a quarter of a million. The UK Motor Neuron Disease (MND) Association in Northampton attracted 910,000 donations in just three August weeks, compared with its average monthly score of 13,000. Research has never benefited from a social-media phenomenon to this extent before.

The success of the activity is an endorsement of medical research by the general public. The associations that benefited have been careful to explain that the money will be distributed through expert review. This means that only the best research will be funded. Yet during all the excitement, what mention was made of the fact that research leading to effective treatments will eventually, one way or another, require the use of animals?

The research collaborations chosen on 2 October in the ALS Association’s first round of funding are mostly based on human genomic and stem-cell approaches, which tactfully avoids the animal issue. By contrast, beneficiaries of the MND Association’s windfall include both clinical research and research that uses animal models. ALS is a disease that can be caused by different factors in different people. Because its aetiology is so poorly understood, the animal models generated so far — in, for example, flies, mice and monkeys — are not totally reliable. Much will be gained from the human-genetic approaches now under way. They could help to develop better animal models.

There are many ways to support medical research.

Would members of the public have participated so joyously in the activity if they had known that research on animals might benefit from their donations? Had that sensitive question been raised, the mood might have been different and its consequences for medical research damaged. But glossing over the reality of such research is not a good strategy for avoiding crises; instead, life scientists and their organizations should take every opportunity to say when animals have been used in research, and to explain why. Societal discussions about responsible animal research need to take place outside periods of crisis.

It is encouraging to see the tide slowly turning towards such openness — witness the MND Association’s upfront funding of the full spectrum of necessary research. And outside the ice-bucket excitement, last week saw another major advance. On 13 October, the US Society for Neuroscience and the Federation of European Neuro­science Soci­eties combined their might to publish, for the first time, a public statement in support of a neuro­scientist under attack: Nikos Logothetis, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, who works with monkeys. His lab had been infiltrated by an animal activist who filmed the primates there, and the videos were used as propaganda by organizations opposed to any research on animals. (An independent investigation at the institute declared that there were no systematic problems with animal care there.)

This sort of vocal support for research is important. Logothetis’s work on the brain is fundamental, but applied research on degenerative diseases, including ALS, will be aided by a better understanding of the complex organ in which the diseases originate.

There are many ways to support medical research. Engaging people’s enthusiasm with actions such as the ice-bucket challenge is an important one. Public support by scientific organizations for the responsible actions of their members is another. The challenge is great, the need even greater.