Australian media and the nation’s major professional association for doctors have attacked an international deal sourced from global gambling company funds that will expand the University of Sydney’s gambling treatment and research unit.
The Australian Medical Association (AMA) on Thursday (August 17) said Sydney University should review its approval for the deal, which will see the newly-created Centre of Excellence in Gambling Research (CoEGR) receive A$600,000 ($385,000) from the US-based International Center for Responsible Gaming (ICRG).
Sydney University announced the formation of CoEGR on August 14, followed quickly by reports in The Guardian, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) on the ICRG’s role in distributing gambling industry and other corporate donations to research programmes.
CoEGR director Professor Sally Gainsbury, who runs the university’s Gambling Treatment & Research Clinic, said the deal is important not just for the funding, but also to secure access to “de-identified data” from companies that cannot be otherwise gathered in experimental settings.
“The operators will share de-identified data on gambling behaviours and allow us to evaluate new interventions, giving us a unique opportunity to create a dataset with a high level of detail on gamblers,” Gainsbury said in a statement.
“We aim to have a consumer-centric approach to reducing gambling harms,” she said.
“We want to use different ways to approach key problems and consult and learn from individuals who use gambling products as well as stakeholders throughout, to develop solutions which will work in the real world.”
Gainsbury told several media outlets, including ABC Radio in a longer interview on Thursday, that the Gambling Treatment & Research Clinic and CoEGR sources of funding have had and will have no bearing on research practice.
Still, the announcement quickly drew criticism from high-profile anti-gambling interest groups and academics, objecting to both the ICRG funding and additional support to CoEGR from Entain Group and Flutter Entertainment-owned Sportsbet, Australia’s leading corporate bookmaker.
But additional pressure is now coming from the AMA, whose president Steve Robson told The Guardian on Thursday that university management should “reflect on the credibility that industry-funded research will have with the community and read the room”.
“I’d be very concerned about industry funding of gambling research. This is exactly the issue we see with tobacco companies funding vaping research, big alcohol funding research, and fossil fuel ‘thinktanks’,” he said.
The AMA has become more aggressive toward the gambling industry in recent years, with Robson telling a federal parliamentary committee report into harmful online gaming impacts in March that sports-betting advertising should be banned in its entirety.
Also joining the critics of Sydney University’s initiative was Monash University associate professor Sean Cowlishaw, an addiction researcher and fellow with the university’s Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health.
Cowlishaw told The Guardian that the ICRG and other gambling industry funding flies in the face of recommendations from the parliamentary committee report.
Criticism of the Sydney University operations’ links to gambling companies is not new, but it has been largely restricted to conversations on the sidelines of academic and industry conferences.
But a wider public, media and government backlash against various gambling segments in Australia, particularly land-based casinos, corporate bookmakers and now slot machines, has encouraged fractures among behavioural scientists and media criticism of wider gambling industry influence, ranging from sponsorship packages for sports teams to scholastic activity.
However, none of the critics of the university’s gambling research has identified any flaws in Gambling Treatment & Research Clinic research methodology that would suggest invalid analysis or bias.
When VIXIO asked on Friday if her unit’s research has been subject to granular criticism, Gainsbury said: “No one has criticised any of the research conducted or had any methodology issues.
“Everything is peer reviewed,” she said.
The board officers and members of the Beverly, Massachusetts-based ICRG are predominantly from gambling companies, but they also include lawyers, former regulators and Indian gaming experts. A six-member scientific advisory board includes experts in public health, psychiatry and addiction.
The ICRG’s largest funders are four US casino companies and US sportsbook FanDuel, with casino interests, payments companies, gaming technology companies, consultants and lottery companies among the rest of the funding sources.