Observations Lobby Watch

The Social Issues Research Centre

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c484 (Published 03 March 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c484
  1. David Miller, professor of sociology1,
  2. Marisa De Andrade, doctoral candidate1, visiting affiliate2
  1. 1Department of Geography and Sociology, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow G1 1XN
  2. 2University of California, Los Angeles
  1. Correspondence to: D Miller davidmiller{at}strath.ac.uk

    The Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) is an “independent, non-profit organisation”1 that says it carries out “balanced, calm and thoughtful”2 research on lifestyle issues such as drinking, diet, and pharmaceuticals. However, it may be perceived that the company acts more like a public relations agency for the corporations that fund its activities. These include Diageo, Flora, Coca-Cola, GlaxoSmithKline, and Roche, among others.3 Although SIRC does publish this partial list of funders, it is not immediately apparent which company has sponsored which study. And in some instances this information is not included in media reports.4

    SIRC has produced guidelines for journalists on the reporting of science and health issues,5 but the guidelines include little on transparency or avoiding conflicts of interest.6 SIRC is not always transparent about its own funding. For example, it was commissioned by HRT Aware to produce a report that concluded that “well-informed women” taking hormone replacement therapy are “benefiting” and feeling happier, healthier, and sexier.7 The research received widespread coverage in the broadsheet, tabloid, and broadcast media.8 Neither the press nor SIRC mentioned that HRT Aware was funded by drug companies, including Janssen-Cilag, Wyeth, Solvay, Servier, Organon, and Novo Nordisk.9 SIRC mentioned, on the back cover of the report, only that HRT Aware was “industry supported.”7

    SIRC’s science reporting guidelines focus on the exaggeration of risk by the media but have little to say about risks that may be underplayed by the media. SIRC is sceptical that there is such a thing as an obesity “epidemic,”10 11 which may fit well with the interests of funders such as Coca-Cola, Cadbury Schweppes, Masterfoods, and the Sugar Bureau. It has coined the term “riskfactorphobia” to suggest that we are too averse to risk,12 which fits the interests of the food companies as well as the raft of alcohol firms for which SIRC works. None of the reports mentioned in the foregoing paragraph contain information about the source of funding, so it is difficult to tell how “clients” feed into particular activities.

    In some cases SIRC does say which corporation has sponsored its reports. Ebay funded a report on the “ebay generation”13; Tio Pepe, a drinks company, funded one on dinner parties14; the Prudential, an insurance company, one on risk15; and pub chain owner Greene King on “the local.”16

    Although SIRC’s publicity material regularly uses the term “social scientists” to refer to its own staff,2 17 it uses the same personnel and office as a commercial market research company, MCM Research. SIRC’s codirectors, Peter Marsh and Kate Fox, work for both organisations.18 The MCM website used to ask: “Do your PR initiatives sometimes look too much like PR initiatives? MCM conducts social/psychological research on the positive aspects of your business. The results do not read like PR literature, or like market research data. Our reports are credible, interesting and entertaining in their own right. This is why they capture the imagination of the media and your customers.”18

    Recently, however, MCM has taken a lower profile. Its website now redirects to the SIRC one, and visitors are informed that the centre “has now taken over the task of hosting and publishing reports and materials conducted under the MCM Research name.”19

    Still, SIRC is taken seriously by some in government. It was recently commissioned to produce two independent reviews for an investigation by the Department for Children, Schools and Families of the commercialisation of childhood. The reports, published in late 2009, oppose a public health approach that is based on population level measures, including the restriction of advertising or marketing. The conclusion that SIRC reached is that “the issues involved are very much more complex”20—a position consistent with that advanced by elements of the food and advertising industries.

    Notes

    Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c484

    Footnotes

    • Lobby Watch is a regular column that looks at people and organisations who have an influence on public health and on how health care is delivered. It is put together with the help of the public interest research team at Strathclyde University and those who work on the Spin Profiles website (www.spinprofiles.org).

    • The authors have completed the Unified Competing Interest form at www.icmje.org/coi_disclosure.pdf (available on request from the corresponding author) and declare: (1) no financial support for the submitted work from anyone other than their employer; (2) no financial relationships with commercial entities that might have an interest in the submitted work; (3) no spouses, partners, or children with relationships with commercial entities that might have an interest in the submitted work; and (4) MDA edits the Pharma Portal on www.spinprofiles.org, and DM is an (unpaid) director of the non-profit company Public Interest Investigations, which runs spinwatch.org and spinprofiles.org (whose income comes from trusts and donations and not from corporations).

    References