Criticism of how gambling research is produced: a new report

Written by Professor Jim Orford on .

A half day conference was held at Goldsmiths, University of London, on March 3rd 2014, to launch an important report which addresses the controversial issue of how gambling research is produced. The title of the report is, Fair Game: Producing Gambling Research. The Goldsmiths Report. It was introduced and summarised by Rebecca Cassidy and Claire Loussouarn. The report is based on semi-structured interviews with 109 gambling researchers, policy-makers and industry members, over half from the UK, with others from elsewhere in Europe, Hong Kong/Macau, Australia and North America. The conclusions do not make comfortable reading. There is much here about lack of research funding, the comparatively low status of gambling research, absence of cross-fertilisation between gambling studies and related fields, and difficulties in accessing data. The biggest theme, however, is the dependence of gambling research on industry support, a lack of transparency about this, and a poor understanding in the field about conflicts of interest. As the report puts it, ‘The interests of funders are reproduced in diverse ways, including in the questions that are prioritised, ...the ways in which applications are assessed and the ways in which research is disseminated. Voluntary contributions... are conceptualised as gifts... This allows the industry to maintain a sense of ownership over research.’

In addition to the report's authors, there were three main presenters who provided valuable background to the report. The first, Peter Adams from the University of Auckland, New Zealand, spoke about the way in which life in his country has been ‘infiltrated’ by gambling and how community groups have become dependent on gambling income. He used the notorious Harvard case in the USA to illustrate the practice of ‘ethical sanitising’, a kind of money-laundering of research funds which originate with the gambling industry but which give researchers a feeling of safety from industry contamination because, before reaching them, the money has passed through a number of different committees and organisations. He spoke of a continuum of ‘moral jeopardy’ and the need for researchers and others to consider the extent to which taking money jeopardises one’s ethical position, depending upon such factors as the extent to which the purposes of the organisations giving and receiving funds are similar or different, the extent and nature of their links, and the type and degree of harm caused by the product in question. He concluded with a call for a new sub-discipline of addiction studies – one that focuses on the industry, such as the gambling industry, and its activities.

Mark Petticrew of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine talked about the way in which an industry whose products are a danger to health can use academics for their own ends. He took Hans Selye as a case example. Selye wrote prolifically about stress – he was often described as the ‘father of stress’ – and was enormously influential in his field. It turns out that he took a lot of money from the tobacco industry and was very useful to them. The industry made much use of his work and it can be seen clearly now that the idea of stress served as a diversion from a focus on tobacco products.

Justin Parkhurst, also from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, presented a critical view of the idea of ‘evidence-based policy’, an idea which originated in the field of medical research and policy but which the Government is keen to extend to other policy areas – see for example the current UK Government’s ‘What Works Network’. A principal criticism of evidence-based policy has been that there is a danger of removing political values from policy debates – a process of ‘depoliticisation’ as Justin called it. By suggesting that policy decisions can be made on the basis of objective evidence, it may appear to leave out of consideration the need to choose what ‘the good society’ consists of. Justin’s recommendation is that whenever ‘evidence’ is called for, we should be asking the question, ‘Evidence – to do what?’

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Friday, February 24, 2017
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