Friday 10 May 2019

The cronyism of the sockpuppet state

The Economic and Social Research Council is funded to the tune of £212 million by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. In 2017, it announced the creation of the UK Prevention Research Partnership (UKPRP), a £50 million project aimed at developing ‘robust new knowledge which contributes to demonstrable changes in policy and practice’ by ‘working closely with policy makers'.

I suggested in Still Hand In Glove? that this had the hallmarks of another slush fund for political pressure groups. Some news yesterday removed all doubt...

We are delighted to announce that UKCTAS has been successful in securing future funding through a multi-funder research initiative; the UK Prevention Research Partnership (UKPRP). UKTCAS academics joined forces with new collaborators and a range of public and private sector organisations to apply to the UKPRP. The new consortium has now been awarded £5.9 million funding over five years and is called SPECTRUM (Shaping Public hEalth poliCies To Reduce ineqUalities and harM). 

UKCTAS is the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies. It claims that it is not a ‘lobbying group, but we do have close links with advocacy organisations and will assist them where appropriate.’ As a result of its ‘meaningful and sustained collaborative relationships with advocacy organisations’, UKCTAS is able to list the following political victories:

'We performed new analyses for the Scottish Government on the comparative effectiveness of Minimum Unit Pricing and alcohol taxation, and this work formed a key part of their successful defence of Minimum Unit Pricing in the Scottish courts...'

'Academics from UKCTAS worked with Scottish groups including Alcohol Focus Scotland and Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems to advocate for a reduction in the ‘drink-drive limit’ in Scotland...'

'Legislation prohibiting smoking in cars carrying children in England and Wales came into force in October 2015. UKCTAS played a leading role in bringing this legislation into place...'

'Legislation to introduce standardised packaging for tobacco was passed in the UK parliament in the spring of 2015 and will be fully implemented from May 2017. This covers all parts of the UK. UKCTAS research played a key role in this decision.'

Linda Bauld is the Deputy Director of UKCTAS. She has also been ‘closely involved in the development of the UKPRP and is a member of the steering group for this new initiative’.

Guess who's just been appointed director of the £5.9 million Spectrum project? Linda Bauld. Small world, eh?

The list of SPECTRUM's 'co-investigators' features some other familiar faces, including John Britton (director of UKCTAS), Alan Brennan (Sheffield University fantasy modeller), Anna Gilmore (Tobacco Tactics conspiracy theorist) and Mark Petticrew (anti-alcohol crank), plus two senior staff from Public Health England.

And it gets worse [or does it? See update below - CJS]. Look who else has got their snout in the trough...

A new consortium involving the Alcohol Health Alliance has been awarded £5.9 million funding from the UK Prevention Research Partnership, a group of twelve funders including charities, research councils and government. 

The SPECTRUM Consortium (Shaping Public hEalth poliCies To Reduce IneqUalities and harM) is one of four consortia successful in the inaugural round of UKPRP funding. SPECTRUM builds on and expands the work of the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies, one of the AHA members.

SPECTRUM’s focus will be on the commercial determinants of health and health inequalities, considering alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy food. Commercial determinants are strategies and approaches used by commercial companies to promote products and choices that are detrimental to health.

SPECTRUM brings together the AHA as well as the Obesity Health Alliance, Smokefree Action Coalition and other alliances...

This is a scandalous use of taxpayers' money. At least UKCTAS has the decency to pretend to be a serious research organisation. These groups don't even pretend. The Alcohol Health Alliance is a political lobby group, plain and simple. So is the Obesity Health Alliance. So is the Smokefree Action Coalition. They exist solely to campaign for policy changes and make no bones about it, so why hell is the Economic and Social Research Council giving them our money? 

These are the financial arrangements of a failed state. While 'public health' groups complain about (modest) cuts to the 'public health' budget, there seems to be a bottomless trough of money for a small clique of activists to give to their mates.

Earlier this week, I wrote about the £635,000 of public money that has so far been given to the pressure group Obesity Action Scotland. Last year we discovered that the National Institute for Health Research had given £1.5 million to a handful of blatantly partisan academics to evaluate the sugar levy, including Martin White who just happens to be the Director of the National Institute for Health Research's Programme Advisory Board.

The cronyism is becoming increasingly blatant, with the same people appearing again and again with their fingers in ever more pies. Anna Gilmore, for example, was a board member of Action on Smoking and Health before joining UKCTAS and becoming the director of the Tobacco Control Research Group. She sat on the Steering Committee and Programme Board of Smokefree Southwest during which time Smokefree Southwest granted £135,000 to Gilmore’s Tobacco Control Research Group, and NHS Southwest gave the Tobacco Control Research Group £165,284 for ‘research and evaluation support’ for Smokefree Southwest. She is now on the board of Spectrum which, in turn, is funding UKCTAS.

Taxpayer funding for overt lobby groups such as the Obesity Health Alliance is the final insult. It is now seven years since Eric Pickles called on local government to "cease funding ‘sock puppets’ and ‘fake charities’". Pickles is gone but the sockpuppetry continues. The only thing that has changed is that they cannot get their cash direct from government departments and have to launder it through organisations like Public Health England, the National Institute for Health Research and the Economic and Social Research Council, as well as through newly created organisations like the £5 million Obesity Policy Research Unit - and now SPECTRUM.

Whatever your view of alcohol, tobacco and food policy, this is a racket.


Linda Bauld has been in touch with some good news. She assures me that the alliances that are involved with SPECTRUM will not be seeing any of its money.

She writes:

'Just to clarify - the funders are led by the Medical Research Council, not the ESRC. There are 12 funders involved (research councils, charities, government). The alliances like AHA etc are not receiving any funding - in fact in contrast they are contributing staff time in kind, as is PHE, Health Scotland, Public Health Wales and the two small companies involved. The funding is for academic staff time (primarily post docs etc) and data costs like extending the Smoking and Alcohol Toolkits that UCL runs to Wales and Scotland.'

UKPRP's core funders are: British Heart Foundation, Economic & Social Research Council, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, National Institute of Health Research and the health departments, Medical Research Council, The Wellcome Trust.

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