Academics report poor quality and lack of independence in industry research

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A three-year study funded by the European Research Council has criticised the gambling industry for disabling research efforts that could lead to "necessary" reforms.

Researchers from the department of anthropology at Goldsmiths University, London produced the report, titled Fair Game. Its findings stated that research is constricted by its reliance on the industry for funding and access to data, leading to "banal" research questions and "conservative" findings.

Professor Rebecca Cassidy, one of the lead researchers producing the report, said: "The gambling industry, charities that are funded by contributions from the industry, and the government have too much influence over research. They control funding, prioritise banal questions, determine who can access crucial data and set the terms of that access. As a result, gambling research is not asking the right questions."

The report found that while the industry has the most accurate, recent and enlightening data they are reluctant to share it with researchers who often also risk being denied funding if they attempt to take a more critical stance. Suspicious of research, the government and industry tightly control the agenda, discrediting studies and driving some researchers to self-censor or opt-out of publishing all together. The resultant findings are politically guided, "used and misused to further agendas" and are redundant in terms of initiating significant changes where they are needed, the report said.

It added that this governmental and industry influence over the research process "lacks transparency" and forges "a poor understanding of the conflicts of interest" involved in research production.

One example can be found in the debate over FOBTs in the UK, marked by bookmakers' reluctance to contribute to the research process and hand over a live machine to researchers such as those at Cambridge University.

After public and parliamentary pressure the Responsible Gambling Trust, an industry-funded charity which organises the funding and commissioning of gambling research, education and treatment, granted researchers at the University of Lincoln one of the terminals for research purposes.

But it was quickly noted that Adrian Parke, the academic who lead the research, is the brother of Jonathan Parke, director of commissioning at RGT. Mark Etches, chief executive of the RGT, defended his choice as "good" to the Guardian and stated there were procedures in place to deal with the conflict of interest.

Etches told Gambling Insider that RGT's research is conducted by academics and research organisations with "global, first-class reputations". He said they "maintain confidence in the integrity" of their work through regulation by the Charity Commission, "robust governance arrangements" with the Gambling Commission and its independent advisor, the Responsible Gaming Strategy Board, and by using an independent research committee, overseen by an independent panel of academic experts, to commission their research which is then subject to peer review.

Etches added that "to ensure full transparency" the government, Gambling Commission and RGSB are invited to observe all RGT board and committee meetings.

But concerns have been raised about the structure of the RGT. Following the implementation of the Gambling Act, the Gambling Commission made recommendations in 2008 to ensure the unbiased working of the voluntary levy system for funding by the creation of three separate bodies – one for strategy, one for commissioning and another for fundraising. This would have prevented a conflict of interest that could have resulted in industry influence over research commissions.

The Responsible Gambling Fund became the commissioning body, provided funding by a second industry body titled Gambling Research Education and Treatment. In 2008 the trustees of RGF resigned, stating GREaT had too much influence over research commissions. GREaT then merged with RGF to form RGT which has both funded and commissioned research since, despite the original concerns surrounding such an arrangement.

The RGT, which states on its website its commitment to "independently commissioned" and "unbiased" research, is chaired by Neil Goulden, previously chief executive and chairman at the Gala Coral Group and, until very recently, chairman of the Association of British Bookmakers. Etches said that such "presence of industry figures... encourages the wider industry to understand and assist with our programme".

A spokesperson from the Gambling Commission told Gambling Insider: "We understand the concerns that many people have about the independence of the voluntary system to pay for research in the gambling field. However, the governance arrangements put in place by the RGT through its independent trustees provide some reassurance on the point."

He said that over the next few months the confidence that the system could “engender across the full spectrum of stakeholders" would be tested through a series of major reports that the RGT is expected to publish.

The RGT have commissioned Britain’s largest independent social research agency, the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) to conduct multiple pieces of research in recent years, including an upcoming study on FOBTs. NatCen have an extensive client list including government departments, the BBC and numerous charities, and are well known as a credible source of research.

Concerns regarding the structure of the system were raised in March at a House of Commons briefing by Matt Zarb-Cousin of the Campaign For Fairer Gambling as part of their latest Stop the FOBTs event. His criticisms to some extent exemplify another of the report’s findings – that research often becomes ammunition in "polarised" and "passionate" debates. It even goes as far to say that some will "co-opt or strongly criticise" research in favour of their specific political agendas.

Addressing the issue of research findings, Professor Cassidy says: "Part of the problem is that what counts as 'evidence' is very narrowly defined as irrefutable proof that particular machines or games cause problem gambling. This makes many of the questions asked by policy makers impossible to answer because they are too simplistic, because there are insufficient funds or because the data is inaccessible".

The report suggests that looking at problem gambling as being due to specific machines or specific 'problem' individuals creates "rhetorical" research which remains silent on the "existing relationship between research, the industry, and the state", allowing this, and policies that arise from it, to continue largely for the benefit of the latter two.

Based on interviews with over a hundred members of the industry, researchers and policy makers from all over the world, the report makes a number of suggestions including greater honesty from governments about their vested economic interest in the industry, a greater variety of more independent research that focuses on problem policies as well as games and individual gamblers, and a professional code of ethics for gambling studies.

Emma Rumney
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