Negative Headlines 'Erode Trust in Medical Research Charities'

The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE, April 21, 2016 | Go to article overview

Negative Headlines 'Erode Trust in Medical Research Charities'


Stories on a poppy seller harassed by charities and the collapse of Kids Company appear to be making the public more wary of major research funders. David Matthews writes

In May last year, 92-year-old Olive Cooke, the UK's longest-serving poppy seller, killed herself after being sent hundreds of letters from charities asking for money and being bombarded by phone calls requesting a donation.

The story garnered widespread coverage, with the Daily Mail denouncing "charities that prey on the kind-hearted and drove Olive to her death".

This was not the only blow to charities' reputation in 2015. Kids Company, which provided support to deprived children, closed last August after revelations alleging financial mismanagement.

Such negative coverage appears to be filtering through into wider public perceptions of medical research charities, according to a new survey of attitudes towards science released last week, eroding confidence in bodies that provide universities with huge amounts of money and drive the direction of new research.

The Wellcome Trust Monitor Report, released every three years, shows that just 37 per cent of respondents said that they had "complete" or a "great deal" of trust in medical research charities to provide "accurate and reliable" information about medical research.

This is a fall from the 60 per cent recorded in 2009 and 2012, and the report cites stories like that of Olive Cooke as a potential reason for this dive in confidence. In 2015, more than one in 10 people said that they had "very little" or no trust at all in the charities, up from one in 20 in prior surveys. Older people were particularly likely to have distrust.

"Last year was a difficult year for the charity sector," acknowledges Aisling Burnand, chief executive of the Association of Medical Research Charities. "I suspect that will have had an impact on the way the sector is viewed."

The drop in confidence appears to have been indiscriminate: the scandals of 2015 were about fundraising and management, but they nonetheless appeared to hit trust in the quality of information charities give out.

Patrick Sturgis, who led the survey's working group, suggested that a campaign - which prominently targeted the Wellcome Trust - urging charities to end their investment in fossil fuels could also have had an impact. …

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