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A Harvard Medical School (HMS) institute set up to study gambling addiction has come under public scrutiny for receiving funds from the National Center for Responsible Gaming (NCRG), whose board is partially comprised of gaming industry representatives.
The Institute for Research on Pathological Gambling has received nearly $5 million in funds from the gambling industry over the last four years, the Boston Globe reported Saturday.
Critics argue that this arrangement compromises the institute’s independence, leading researchers to conduct studies that serve the gambling industry’s interests rather than focusing on the broader social impacts of addiction.
“They’ve raised legitimate questions about not only the appearance, but how the research grants are being conducted and what paths they’re going on at this point,” said the Rev. Thomas Grey, executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling.
Henry Lesieur, a psychologist at Rhode Island Hospital and former NCRG advisory board member, agreed that the institute’s financial ties to the gambling industry might have an effect on the type of research being conducted.
“I don’t expect the gambling industry to sponsor research that goes against them,” he said.
But Howard J. Shaffer, the director of the HMS Division of Addictions, defended the integrity of the research conducted at the institute, which has focused on understanding pathological gambling and its relation to other disorders, such as substance abuse.
“The industry segments that are involved are dealing with Harvard on Harvard’s terms. It’s not the other way around,” Shaffer said.
He noted that initial studies funded by NCRG grant money showed high rates of gambling.
“If the industry were going to buy an estimate, they wouldn’t buy a high estimate,” he said.
The NCRG was founded in 1996 by Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr, president and CEO of the American Gaming Association, to fund scientific research on pathological and youth gambling.
Shaffer disagreed with the characterization of the NCRG as “industry-funded,” arguing that the center’s board includes academic and charitable figures in addition to representatives of the gambling industry.
But Grey said the gambling industry’s presence on the NCRG raises concern about its ability to fund objective research on gambling. He called for a government-funded council on gaming that would fund independent research.
“They’ve got them cheap,” he said, referring to the NCRG’s relationship with Harvard. “[Shaffer’s] a scientist, there’s no doubt he’s a scientist, but he’s a scientist that’s being used.”
Grey also criticized the institute’s research for what he said was a move away from addressing the social impacts of gambling out of fear of an outcry from the gambling industry.
But Shaffer called this notion “completely false,” adding that the field of addiction research is only beginning to reach a point where scientists can investigate the social impact.
“It is really unfair to ask a field to be more advanced than it is,” he said. “The fact that people on both sides of the issue make use of it, I think, suggests that our research is moving along in a reasonable direction and in an unbiased direction.”
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