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Major funding for Harvard problem gambling research

Harvard University research endowments of $34.9 billion make it the world's richest school, claims an interesting article by Oliver Staley in Bloombergs business news this week, which reveals that since 1996 up to $9.1 million of this financial support has come from the gambling industry in its fight against problem gambling.

Howard Shaffer and the [gambling research] institute he heads at Harvard has used the money to fund important research into addictive behaviour, but critics have claimed that industry backing clouds the legitimacy of his research.

Shaffer's work shows that fewer than 2 percent of US citizens are pathological gamblers, and critics allege that he wins corporate support because his research shows that gambling addiction is rooted in brain chemistry and not casino practices.

"The casinos love the biological research because it points to the gambler as the source of the problem, rather than pointing to things like casino policy," Henry Lesieur, a psychologist who treats addicts at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence claims.

Shaffer counters the claims by asserting that his funding sources were fully disclosed, his findings were published in peer-reviewed journals and casino companies had not interfered with his research.

A 1999 Shaffer study funded by an industry-backed organisation found that casino employees had a higher rate of pathological gambling addictions, as well as higher rates of smoking, alcohol and depression, than the general adult population - evidence that his work was unbiased, he said.

"Good science is good science,'' Shaffer, an associate professor of psychology in Harvard's Department of Psychiatry and the director of the Division on Addictions, a program of Harvard Medical School and the Cambridge Health Alliance, based in Medford, Massachusetts, said. "It is possible to do very good research independent of the funding. It is also possible to be swayed by funding. My job is to have integrity and I think we have it.''

Three Harvard Medical School psychiatrists were accused on June 4 this year of ethical violations by Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, for failing to disclose they received $3.2 million from drugmakers for consulting and speaking. The allegations are being investigated.

Close ties like this with industry can lead to a bias called "the funding effect'', said Merrill Goozner, director of the Integrity in Science Project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based advocacy group. There also is pressure on professors to garner corporate sponsors because universities evaluate academics by how much outside research money they bring in, Goozner said.

Shaffer's research complies with Harvard's strict guidelines for receiving funding from industry, David Cameron, a spokesman for Harvard Medical School, said.

Shaffer's most important role has been in facilitating research into gambling and physical addictions, and synthesising the results, said Linda Cottler, a professor of epidemiology in psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

"Howard is the guru of pathological gambling research,'' Cottler said. "He has brought the field together.''

In 2004 Shaffer developed the "syndrome model,'' showing that addictions to chemical substances such as alcohol, and to behaviours, including excessive gambling, are a result of similar biological, psychological and environmental causes.

"Exposure does not necessarily provide a direct path to addiction or even gambling related problems,'' he wrote with co - author Debi LaPlante in the October, 2007 issue of the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.

Shaffer's Institute for Research on Pathological Gambling and Related Disorders at Harvard was created in 2000 with funding from the Washington-based National Center for Responsible Gaming, which in turn, was created in 1996 by the American Gaming Association. The center has received commitments for more than $22 million from casino companies and slot-machine makers, led by Las Vegas-based Boyd Gaming Corp. and Harrah's, the world's largest casino company. Last year the NCRG gave Shaffer its National Scientific Achievement Award.

US states with [land] casinos have doubled to 20 since 1996 and revenue climbed from $17.8 billion to $37.5 billion last year, according to the American Gaming Association.

Source: InfoPowa News

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