The funding of gambling research: Some personal observations
In the academic world, there are arguably only two units of currency – refereed publications and research grant income. In this article, I briefly outline some of my own general observations about the latter – particularly in relation to the funding of gambling research.
I am probably one of those individuals who has – for the majority of my academic career – operated on intellectual passion rather than research funding. At my previous university institutions, my perception was that there was a passive tolerance of my research rather than any active support. I survived for the first 15 years without major grant income. Based on my early experiences, my initial thoughts about the whole issue of research funding was that the informal ‘network model’ carried more weight than anything more formal, and that it was really a case of ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’. However, when the money for my gambling research started to flow in to my institution, there was a noticeable change in thinking about the value of my research.
However, another by-product of the significant increase in funding for gambling research that occurred in the UK is my perception that the relatively small gambling research community went from being strategically collaborative to being far more competitive with each other. Obviously, competitive tendering increases the chances of higher quality research bids but the process does not necessarily enhance collegiality and partnerships within the gambling studies field.
One of the most fundamental problems that academic researchers face in the UK is that there is a conflict between what their peers and university hierarchy view as beneficial for academic advancement, and what stakeholders outside of the university see as desirable and/or worthy. To progress academically, great emphasis is placed on the publication outlet and the source of funding. Was the work published in a high quality journal? Has the journal got a high impact factor? How often has the work been cited? Who funded the research? In short, most academics are more concerned about their own career progression than whether their research has any applied use and/or impact in the real world. One ageing professor who I used to work with was promoted to the very top of the academic career ladder but whose research papers had only a handful of times in the whole of his academic lifetime! In the real world, published academic papers have much less importance to the gambling industry, whereas research that directly impacts on policy than theory is typically preferred by governments. For such a situation to change, there is an urgent need to change the academic promotion criteria if academics are to fall in line with what the outside world (including stakeholders in the gambling field) wants. This is at least beginning to happen as individuals now have to demonstrate to their university – and funders and stakeholders more generally – how our research is making an impact in the world outside of academia.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome is the increasing conflict of interest – particularly by those who carry out research that is directly funded by the gambling industry. Almost all of the ‘big names’ in the gambling studies field have (at some point) carried out research funded by the gambling industry and this often calls into question their academic ‘independence’. This appears to be an increasing economic reality particularly in countries like the UK that live by the governmental philosophy of ‘polluter pays’. One researcher that I have worked with (now retired from day-to-day university life) refuses to carry out research if it is sponsored or funded by the gambling industry (even indirectly via our independent funding body because the money is accrued from voluntary donations by the gambling industry). Furthermore, he will not attend conferences that have gaming industry sponsorship and declines invitations to speak if they are held on gaming premises. Although laudable and highly principled, young researchers who now want to pursue a research career in the gambling studies field will almost certainly find that taking such principled actions will become a barrier to career enhancement.
Another major problem that arises from being funded (directly or indirectly) by the gambling industry is that the industry tends to have a large say in what should be researched in the first place. In my view, far too much research is done on individual risk factors such as research into biological and/or genetic predispositions, personality factors, and cognitive determinants. While this is clearly important research, it sends out the message that problem gambling is solely located within the individual rather than being the result of an interaction between the vulnerable individual, the gambling products, and the gambling environment.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Psychology Division, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham
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