Wednesday, 28 March 2018

The sugar tax evaluation farce

Last week I complained to the National Institute for Health Research about the decision to get the sugar tax evaluated by academics who have campaigned for the tax, staked their reputations on it working and, in at least once case, believe that God wanted it to be introduced.

By any reasonable definition, this is a conflict of interest. You can read my complaint here. Yesterday I received a stock reply from the NIHR which basically says that they intend to do nothing about it.

Dear Chris,

The Public Health Research (PHR) Programme funds independent research to generate evidence to inform the delivery of non-NHS interventions intended to improve the health of the public and reduce inequalities in health.

The PHR researcher-led work stream funds research questions proposed directly by researchers. All applications to the PHR Programme undergo a comprehensive assessment as described in the general assessment criteria. Applications are assessed by the Programme Advisory Board for their importance to the public health practitioner community, and by the Research Funding Board whose members are appointed for their academic and research expertise. External review also takes place by both professionals and members of the public. The board looks at whether the study is designed to achieve its objectives in an appropriate, feasible and ethical manner. They will also judge whether the proposal is methodologically and scientifically robust and if the team expected to carry out the research have the necessary skills, experience, project management and infrastructure for success.

Each NIHR funded project has an independent steering committee who are appointed in line with NIHR governance guidelines and is monitored through the duration of the project. On completion, all projects are published in the open access, peer reviewed NIHR Journals Library.

Best wishes


If you click on the links to their Programme Advisory Board, which assesses applications, you will find a link to their conflict of interest policy but this relates only to committee members, not to applicants. In any case, it only includes financial interests. Merely believing that 'God is calling me to work towards the introduction of soft-drink taxes in this country' does not disqualify somebody from evaluating soft drink taxes.

Interestingly, the minutes from their February 2017 meeting which resulted in sugar tax campaigners being given £1.5 million of our money to mark their own homework show that a proposal from MacGregor was rejected. It seems likely that this is Graham MacGregor, the chairman of Action on Sugar. A truly shameless application if so, but then MacGregor has previously evaluated the salt reduction scheme that he campaigned for as chairman of Consensus Action on Salt and Health, so he must have thought he was in with a shout.

To its partial credit, the NIHR rejected MacGregor's proposal and instead gave it to Martin White and his team. You will notice that Martin White is mentioned as having a conflict of interest. And indeed he does. He happens to be the Director of the Programme Advisory Board.

What a small world.

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