Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Gamekeepers turned poachers in gambling research

If it’s good enough for shock-jock Alan Jones to hammer Telstra until it pays him to shut up , and for a troika of Right opinionators to do the same to the ABC (albeit with the payola being bags of influence more so than money), then why shouldn’t academics specialising in problem gambling get on such a gravy train, too?

Such a thought seems to have lately run through the mind of Jan McMillen, professor at the ANU Centre for Gambling Research, and until recently a noted commentator on poker machine (“pokie”) problem gambling. Days ago, she was quoted as pooh-pooing what was hitherto accepted basic wisdom: the link between pokie density in poorer areas and problem gambling by those areas' residents. I can’t find a link for this, or remember the hardcopy reference, but this June 2006 abstract (full article is pay-walled) gives a flavour of what she is on about:

This paper examines the debate about possible relationships between problem gambling and accessibility to electronic gaming machines (EGMs), in the context of the Victorian Government's policy that imposed a ‘cap’ on EGMs in disadvantaged communities . . . Research revealed different relationships between spatial and social categories in the study localities, indicating the need for more systematic local area analysis. This research raises questions about the limitations of conventional methodologies and regulatory strategies based on simple measures such as gaming machine density. We propose improvements to the methodology to better measure the changing level of local supply and demand for machine gaming.

Translated, she (with co-author Bruce Doran) is saying that there is a serious gap in the empirics of problem pokie gambling research to date, with a necessary implication that such a gap has only recently been appreciated. Strange, because this rather begs the question: What has McMillen been doing for all these years – just making it up as she went along?

To which she might well answer with this quote by her in 2003:

"We can't wait for evidence that things work. I think the [problem pokie gambling] issue is so important that we have to try a number of strategies to see whether they are effective."

Since 2003 then, McMillen has evidently decided that the urgency of problem pokie gambling research has gone out the window, and that a glacial-pace, unimpeachably scientific mode is the way to go. Yeah right, Jan – and the fact that the gambling industry is paying you to have changed your mind has nothing to do with this?

I don’t know for sure the fact, much less the details, of McMillen’s arrangements with the gambling industry, but that there must be some arrangement seems to be the only logical explanation of the above. And it’s not as if this is unprecedented; in 2002, Sydney University psychology professor Alex Blaszczynski published an industry-funded study, which found that harm minimisation measures for modifying poker machines had little or no impact in reducing problem gambling (same URL).

By taking industry coin to coldly and tactically peddle stone-walling mischief, McMillen and Blaszczynski have forfeited their academic credibility, period. Assuming that the latter still works for Sydney University, the pair should be immediately sacked for gross misconduct, and be served with notice to repay all taxpayer-funded research monies that they have ever received. Such public research funds were provided to them in good faith, on a trust that has now been fundamentally abused.

While researchers are paid by the gaming industry or government to supply information, we will never get truthful research.

While researchers rely upon the honesty of subject participants to 'self-confess' as problem gamblers, research will always be skewed and true rates of problem gambling will always be (conveniently) under-reported.

While universities and other funding agencies threaten their academically ethical researchers with the sack, if adverse findings are published, that put the government in a poor light re poker machines, then our reasearch will always be 'suss' ...and....

While our media suppresses educational material that may just help to inform citizens of 'real' safety measures regarding poker machines, eg. consumer spending receipt records, smart cards and other workable ways to limit problem spending on poker machines, we will never have a solution to problem pokies.

Meanwhile a lot of opportunistic people including gaming industry players, politicians AND researchers will all profit out of the 'tragedy money' of pokies profits.

Libby Mitchell
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