Social Issues Research Centre

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The Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) calls itself

an independent, non-profit organisation founded to conduct research on social and lifestyle issues, monitor and assess global sociocultural trends and provide new insights on human behaviour and social relations.

It says it

aims to provide a balanced, calm and thoughtful perspective on social issues, promoting open and rational debates based on evidence rather than ideology... SIRC operates a permanent ‘social intelligence’ unit, engaged in continuous monitoring and assessment of significant social, cultural and ideological trends.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3]

HRT and Big Pharma

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.[4] The research received widespread coverage in the broadsheet, tabloid, and broadcast media.[5] Neither the press nor SIRC mentioned that HRT Aware was funded by drug companies, including Janssen-Cilag, Wyeth, Solvay, Servier, Organon, and Novo Nordisk.[6] SIRC mentioned, on the back cover of the report, only that HRT Aware was "industry supported."[7]

SIRC's report for HRT Aware "won a Communique award from the magazine Pharmaceutical Marketing in the public relations and medical education category. SIRC's research linked the improved lives of modern day postmenopausal women to HRT." It led to "widespread - and supportive - media coverage in the UK".[8] The Evening Standard, for instance, ran the headline, "HRT 'leads to better sex and a happy healthy life'".[9]

But, like virtually all the other media coverage of the SIRC report, the article made no mention of the fact that the SIRC's report had been commissioned by a front group for the pharmaceutical industry - HRT Aware - and that it formed part of an industry-fashioned campaign.[10]

Risk

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,"[11][12] 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,[13] 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.

Other corporate reports

In some cases SIRC does say which corporation has sponsored its reports. Ebay funded a report on the "ebay generation"[14]; Tio Pepe, a drinks company, funded one on dinner parties[15]; the Prudential, an insurance company, one on risk[16]; and pub chain owner Greene King on "the local."[17]

Freemasons

The SIRC were commissioned by the United Grand Lodge of England to produce a report that considers the future of freemasonry. The SIRC are the first non-Masonic or external group invited to research the Freemasons. "The Future of Freemasonry" was commissioned as part of the build-up to the United Grand Lodge of England's tercentenary in 2017. [18]

MCM Research

Although SIRC’s publicity material regularly uses the term "social scientists" to refer to its own staff,[19][20] 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.[21] 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."[22]

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."[23]

Reports for government

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"[24] — a position consistent with that advanced by elements of the food and advertising industries.

SIRC and genetic modification (GM)

SIRC claims it seeks to establish a "serious, rational and calm debate" on GM to counteract "deceitful, agenda-driven campaigning". For this reason, says SIRC, it is working "in conjunction with the Royal Institution, to seek a remedy to this dangerous state of affairs."[25] The SIRC, in the words of a profile in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), "fosters the image of an ultraconcerned public spirited group" and of "a heavyweight research body".[26] In fact, it is neither.

As the BMJ notes, "on closer inspection it transpires that this research organisation shares the same offices, directors and leading personnel as a commercial market research company called MCM Research."[27] Both are based at the same Oxford address.

SIRC, MCM and the food and drinks industries

SIRC has received funding from the food and drinks industry (e.g. Bestfoods, the giant US food group now part of Unilever, Kelloggs, Mars), and from its sister organisation MCM Research Ltd, whose clients come from the food, drinks, oil and pharmaceutical industries.[28]

On its website MCM says that it is "well-known for its research aimed at positive communication and PR initiatives".[29]

MCM's website used to be more explicit about what it had to offer:

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... Our reports are credible, interesting and entertaining in their own right. This is why they capture the imagination of the media and your customers.[30]

According to an article in the BMJ in 1999, MCM’s clients included Bass Taverns, the Brewers and Licensed Retail Association, the Cider Industry Council, the Civil Aviation Authority, Conoco, Coral Racing, Grand Metropolitan Retail, the Portman Group (jointly funded by Bass, Courage, Guinness, etc), Pubmaster, Rank Leisure, and Whitbread Inns, as well as several Australian brewing concerns and several independent television companies.[31]

Guidelines to journalists on how to report science

In 2000 the SIRC set up a Forum to lay down guidelines for journalists and scientists on how they should report science stories in the media. It was co-convened with the Royal Institution, whose director, Susan Greenfield, is also an advisor to the SIRC. Among those taking part in the Forum were Food Standards Agency chief Sir John Krebs, David Boak of the Royal Society, Lord Dick Taverne, and Michael Fitzpatrick - a stalwart of the Living Marxism network.

In September 2000, Guidelines on Science and Health Communication for the media, "Prepared by the Social Issues Research Centre in partnership with the Royal Society and the Royal Institution of Great Britain",[32] were published. These guidelines were later fused with a separate but similar set of advice developed by the Royal Society.

The Guidelines[33][34], say GMWatch's Jonathan Matthews and Dr Maewan Ho of the Institute of Science in Society, focus on how to avoid overstating risk and alarming the public. They have nothing to say about the danger of understating risk, i.e. the kind of false reassurances that go to the heart of the BSE crisis.[35]

The Guidelines, similarly, have little to say about the dangers stemming from conflicts of interest, arising through industry funding of research, etc.[36] This despite a whole series of recent scandals centering on the issue of how commercial interests can undermine free, fair and objective communication about science.

In the words of Dr Richard Smith, the editor of the BMJ:

These competing interests are very important. It has quite a profound influence on the conclusions and we deceive ourselves if we think science is wholly impartial.[37]

The BMJ asked SIRC co-director and MCM consultant, Kate Fox, whether she didn't think SIRC faced a conflict of interest in laying down how science should be reported. "No, I don't think so," Fox told the BMJ. "The kinds of work we have done at MCM have been fairly worthy things... They are fairly uncontroversial."[38]

Revealingly, the Forum that drew up the guidelines on science and health reporting, did not include anybody from the BMJ, The Lancet, or the British Medical Association (BMA), all of which have been very alert to the issues surrounding conflict of interest. The BMA has also been cautious over the GM issue. The Lancet published Dr Arpad Pusztai and Prof Stanley Ewen's research showing adverse effects from GM potatoes. Its editor has also been critical of the Royal Society and the tactics it has adopted in its repeated attacks on Dr Pusztai and his research.

However, while The Lancet, the BMJ and the BMA were all absent from the Forum, it managed to include several fairly obscure clinicians, suggesting attitude rather than eminence was the real basis of selection. Forum member Dr Roger Fisken provides a case in point. He first came to public notice with a letter to Private Eye: "Prof. Krebs is right and you are wrong: the whole GM debate in the British media has been a disaster as far as public information is concerned. The experiments carried out by Pusztai were, in scientific terms, a pile of steaming horse-shit."[39]

This savage disparagement of Pusztai's work came from a little-known hospital consultant without a single research publication to his name. Dr Fisken also wrote to The Lancet, furious at its publication of Pusztai and Ewen's paper. In the context of an attack on the views of the Lancet's editor, Fisken bemoaned the failure of scientists to attack the media in general with more vigour, saying, "we as scientists have not been nearly aggressive enough in attacking the scaremongering and sheer nonsense put out by the lay media on a variety of medical and scientific topics."[40]

On the SIRC's website those with opinions differing from the SIRC's on genetic engineering are given short shrift. For his "predictable attack on genetic engineering" during a Reith lecture, the Prince of Wales merits an article entitled, "The madness of Prince Charles".[41] In an SIRC article attacking another contributor to the Reith lectures, the Indian scientist and farmer Dr Vandana Shiva, the SIRC suggests "more appropriate for a Reith lecture than the ramblings of Dr Shiva", when it comes to the plight of Indian farmers, would have been the contribution of right-wing Daily Telegraph columnist Matt Ridley.[42]

The identity of opinion of an organisation which has the Director of the Royal Institution on its Advisory Board and 'Vox Rationis' (voice of reason) as its motto, with a right-wing libertarian such as Ridley, should come as no surprise given that many of the SIRC's complaints about the media coverage of the GM issue bear a marked similarity to ones which have surfaced in the output of those, like Ridley, associated either with the far-right free market think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs or with Living Marxism (LM).

Among those who helped to produce the guidelines on science and health reporting or were consulted by SIRC were:[43]

Links to front groups

Another indication of what the SIRC apparently regards as models of sound, evidence-based communication is given by its recommended websites. These include the American Council on Science and Health, which the SIRC says has a "Sensible, balanced approach to a wide range of health issues".[44] In fact, controversy has raged throughout ACSH's over twenty-year history, focusing particularly on the issue of linkage between its extensive corporate backing (e.g. Monsanto, Dow, Cyanamid) and its tireless crusading against "health scares" and the "toxic terrorists" who promote them.[45] Other organisations that SIRC regards as worthwhile include the LM network associated entities Sense About Science and Spiked.

Alcohol industry clients

With regard to MCM's many alcohol industry clients, it is worth noting that in the view of Dr Griffith Edwards, editor in chief of the journal Addiction, this is an industry tainted not only by the exploitation of vulnerable populations but by the mounting of attacks on valid research and independent researchers. There is also evidence for the industry's use of front organisations to mount such attacks. Thus, the Portman Group, which presents itself as a drink industry "watch dog", sought to pay academics substantial sums of money to support "an anonymous attack on a report by the World Health Organisation that had documented evidence on the relation between alcohol consumption and drinking problems".[46]

This media and research handling front organisation is on the client list of MCM Research Ltd., SIRC's sister organisation.[47] SIRC director Peter Marsh is on the Board of Trustees of Sense About Science.[48]

Funding

2006

According to SIRC's website (version of February 2006), funding sources as at February 2006 were as follows:

SIRC is a non-profit organisation, funded partly by income from our sister organisation MCM Research, which specialises in applying social science to problems faced in both the commercial and public sectors. Clients include the Ministry of Defence, The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Home Office, the Portman Group, the Civil Aviation Authority, etc.
SIRC receives funding in its own right for research on a wide range of topics, including monitoring and analysis of media coverage of various issues. Recent clients and contributors to continuing programmes include: '3', Alliance and Leicester, BT, Cadbury Schweppes, CBA, Department of Health, Diageo, eBay, Egg, Esure, European Union, Fisher Price, Halifax, Home Office, Kellogg's, Kimberly-Clark, Masterfoods, Mattel, Palm One, Pimms, Renault, Sugar Bureau, Telewest, etc.[49]

2009

According to SIRC's website (version of June 2009), funding sources as at June 2009 were as follows:[50]

'3' | Automobile Association | Alliance and Leicester | BBC Trust | BMW | British Airways | BT | Cadbury Schweppes | Canon | Carphone Warehouse | Children's Mutual | Children's Workforce Development Council (CWDC) | Coca Cola | Department of Health | Diageo | Department for Children | Schools and Families (DCSF) | eBay | Egg | Esure | European Commission | DG Research | Fisher Price | Flora | GSK | Greene King | Friends Provident | Halifax | Hallmark | Home Office | Hudson | Kimberly-Clark | Lloyds TSB | Masterfoods | Mattel | Office of Science and Technology | Palm One | Pimms | Prudential | Rackspace | Renault | Roche | Sugar Bureau | Telewest | Tio Pepe | Wine Trade Action Group

People

Staff

In 2009, SIRC's staff are listed as follows[51]. There is a notable correlation between the SIRC and marketing company MCM Research with Directors and Consultants of the two companies being the one and the same:

Advisors

Resources

Contact

Website: http://www.sirc.org/

Address:

Social Issues Research Centre
28 St Clements
Oxford UK
OX4 1AB

Telephone: +44 1865 262255

Fax: +44 1865 793137

Notes

  1. About SIRC, SIRC website, accessed June 23 2009
  2. [SIRC, SIRC’s sources of income, Accessed 17 December 2009
  3. SIRC. SIRC in the news, Accessed 17 December 2009.
  4. SIRC. Jubilee women: fiftysomething women—lifestyle and attitudes now and fifty years ago, Accessed 17 December 2009
  5. SIRC. [www.sirc.org/news/sirc_in_the_news_2002.html SIRC in the news: press coverage from 2002], Accessed 17 December 2009
  6. Clark J. A hot flush for Big Pharma. BMJ 2003;327:400
  7. SIRC. Jubilee women: fiftysomething women—lifestyle and attitudes now and fifty years ago, Accessed 17 December 2009
  8. Jocalyn Clark, A hot flush for Big Pharma, BMJ. 2003 August 16; 327(7411): 400
  9. HRT 'leads to better sex and a happy healthy life', Evening Standard, 7 May 2002, archived on SIRC website, accessed 10 July 2009
  10. Jocalyn Clark, A hot flush for Big Pharma, BMJ. 2003 August 16; 327(7411): 400
  11. Marsh P. An epidemic of confusion, Accessed 17 December 2009
  12. SIRC. Obesity and the facts: new study questions true prevalence of childhood obesity, Accessed 17 December 2009
  13. SIRC. Scaremongers: the new threat to children’s health, Accessed 17 December 2009
  14. Fox K, SIRC. Coming of age in the eBay generation: life-shopping and the new life skills in the age of eBay, Accessed 17 December 2009.
  15. SIRC. The Tio Pepe eating-in study, Accessed 17 December 2009
  16. SIRC. Risk!, Accessed 17 December 2009
  17. SIRC. The enduring appeal of the local, Accessed 17 December 2009.
  18. Freemasonry Today, 8th March 2012 The 'Future of Freemasonry' Report is Published accessed 9th March 2012
  19. SIRC. About SIRC, Accessed 17 December 2009.
  20. SIRC. SIRC guide to flirting, Accessed 17 December 2009
  21. Ferriman A. An end to health scares? BMJ 1999;319:716
  22. Ferriman A. An end to health scares? BMJ 1999;319:716
  23. SIRC. MCM Portal, Accessed 17 December 2009.
  24. SIRC. The impact of the commercial world on children’s wellbeing: report of an independent assessment, Accessed 31 December 2009
  25. Pusztai Published!, SIRC website, accessed 23 June 2009
  26. Annabel Ferriman, "An end to health scares?", BMJ, 11 September 1999, 319:716
  27. Annabel Ferriman, "An end to health scares?", BMJ, 11 September 1999, 319:716
  28. SIRC's sources of funding, SIRC website, version placed in web archive 30 October 2000, accessed in web archive 25 June 2009
  29. MCM Research, MCM Research website, accessed 23 June 2009
  30. Annabel Ferriman, "An end to health scares?", BMJ, 11 September 1999, 319:716
  31. Annabel Ferriman, "An end to health scares?", BMJ, 11 September 1999, 319:716
  32. Guidelines on science and health communication, SIRC, November 2001, accessed July 8 2009
  33. SIRC. Guidelines for scientists on communicating with the media, Accessed 17 December 2009
  34. Guidelines on science and health communication, SIRC, November 2001, accessed July 8 2009
  35. Jonathan Matthews and Maewan Ho, The New Thought Police, NGIN, 2000, accessed 8 July 2009
  36. [SIRC. Response to guidelines on science and health communication from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Accessed 17 December 2009
  37. Dr Richard Smith, quoted in Liz Lightfoot, “Scientists ‘asked to fix results for backer’”, Daily Telegraph, 14 February 2000, archived on the NGIN website at http://ngin.tripod.com/fix.htm, accessed 8 July 2009
  38. Annabel Ferriman, An end to health scares?, BMJ, September 11, 1999; 319(7211): 716.
  39. Roger Fisken, letter to Private Eye, 24 March 2000, p14
  40. The Lancet takes the flak, SIRC website, accessed 12 July 2009
  41. The madness of Prince Charles, SIRC website, accessed 12 July 2009
  42. Back to nature in India?, SIRC website, accessed 12 July 2009
  43. Guidelines on science and health communication, SIRC website, accessed 12 July 2009
  44. Worthwhile Links, SIRC website, accessed 10 July 2009
  45. The Top 10 Unfounded Health Scares of 2008, American Council on Science and Health website, December 23, 2008, accessed 10 July 2009
  46. Griffith Edwards, If the drinks industry does not clean up its act, pariah status is inevitable, British Medical Journal, August 1, 1998, accessed 10 July 2009
  47. Some of MCM's clients, MCM Research website,a ccessed 10 July 2009
  48. Board of Trustees, Sense About Science website, accessed 10 July 2009
  49. SIRC's sources of income, SIRC website, version placed in web archive 24 Feb 2006, accessed in web archive 25 June 2009
  50. SIRC's sources of income, SIRC website, accessed 25 June 2009
  51. Social Issues Research Centre About SIRC Accessed 25th June 09
  52. MCM Research About MCM Research Accessed 25th June 2009
  53. Social Issues Research Centre About:Roger Norum Accessed 25th June 2009
  54. Social Issues Research Centre About:Elanor Accessed 25th June 2009
  55. Social Issues Research Centre About:James Accessed 25th June 2009
  56. Social Issues Research Centre About:Lionel Tiger Accessed 25th June 2009
  57. Social Issues Research Centre About:Susan Greenfield Accessed 25th June 2009
  58. Social Issues Research Centre About:Jeya Henry Accessed 25th June 2009