Professor Peter Saunders
reviews the unpublished, non-peer-reviewed research report behind a press release
from the UK government Economic and Social Research Council claiming “UK farmers
upbeat about GM crops”
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ESRC breaks the rules and misleads the public
was not intended as a survey of the views of UK farmers in general and it was not designed in a way that would allow that. But it is
what the research report claims was done; it is entitled: Farmers’ understandings
of genetically modified crops within local communities , so it is not just the title and the
first sentence of the ESRC press release about this research that is misleading.
Why did ESRC fund what looks very much like a marketing exercise for the biotech
industry and why did it accept, apparently without question, a final report
in which the researchers claim to have shown something that they obviously have
not? And why did the ESRC put out a press release that perpetrated and even
exaggerated the false claims of the research report which had not been published,
and as stated on the ESRC website, not even peer-reviewed , despite assertions
to the contrary  (see “UK
farmers upbeat about GM crops” debunked, SiS 38).
The UK government and its agencies take peer review very seriously, when it
suits them. While he was Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King produced a
‘universal ethical code for scientists’ (see Box ), which includes in the Commentary:
“ensuring that work is peer-reviewed before it is disseminated.” The Food Standards
Agency recently refused even to consider action based on a report it had itself
commissioned about the dangers of food additives on the grounds that the work
had not yet appeared in a peer-reviewed journal  (Food Colouring Confirmed Bad for
Children. Food Standards Agency Refuses to Act, SiS 36). But when
the results appeared to support the biotech industry, the ESRC had no such compunction.
Of course it is just possible that a proper peer reviewer might have commented
on the difference between what was claimed and what was actually done.
The research that never was
The title of
the report implies that information was obtained about the views of British
farmers. And indeed, this is what we read in the body of the report. From
the Aims and Objectives and the list of Key Findings right through to the
appendices, the researchers make statement after statement about what “farmers”
think. In no way can this be justified on the basis of the research that was
The researchers interviewed 30 farmers in 2005; at the
time there were about 150 000 full time farmers in the UK. Not
only was the sample far too small, it was far from random, since only large-scale
commodity farmers were included. What is more, half of them had participated
in the Farm Scale Evaluations and could therefore safely have been assumed
to have been in favour of GM crops in the first place.
The report is
a summary of the views of a very small and unrepresentative sample. What was
learned, therefore, cannot legitimately be claimed to be true of UK
farmers as a whole, and indeed that is not what the project was for.
The real goal is stated clearly in the Aims and Objectives (p7):
1. To explore
how farmers construct their understandings of GMHT [genetically modified herbicide
tolerant] crops through their interactions with others, in particular family
members, neighbouring farmers, seed companies, farming advisors and the local
2. To ascertain
the acceptability to farmers (both those with experience of GMHT crops and
those without) of recommended management practices for GMHT crops used in
Farm Scale Evaluations (FSEs).
3. To develop
models of social learning systems appropriate to support individual farmers
within informal social settings who decide to adopt contentious new technologies
such as GMHT crops.
Translating from the sociological jargon into as plain English as
I can manage, these become:
1. To find out how
best to convince farmers to adopt GMHT crops
2. To find out if
there was anything about the FSEs that put farmers off
3. To learn how to
support farmers growing GMHT crops in case they run into opposition from their
friends and neighbours.
The research was never designed to survey the opinions of UK farmers about GM crops. The researchers were wrong to imply
that it had anything to say about that issue and the ESRC was wrong to publicise
it as though it did.
Should the ESRC have funded the work
in the first place? According to its web site, the ESRC’s aim is to “provide
high quality research on issues of importance to business, the public sector
and government”. Is a marketing campaign for GM seeds a legitimate part of
this? Would it not have been appropriate for the biotech industry to pay for
the research itself?
The results that were actually obtained, as distinct from those that were
claimed, were very modest indeed, and it seems unlikely they will be much
help to the seed companies.
One of them is, however, interesting though in a way that the researchers may
not have intended. We are told that there is a need for independent, trustworthy,
sources of research and advice for farmers. Yet the aims and objectives of the
report make it clear that the goal of this project was to discover how best
to convince farmers to grow GM crops and to support those who do against any
opposition they may encounter from other farmers.
Rigour, respect and responsibility: A universal ethical code for scientists
Rigour, honesty and integrity
(by Sir David King)
· Act with skill and care in all scientific work.
Maintain up to date skills and assist their development in others.
· Take steps to prevent corrupt practices and
professional misconduct. Declare conflicts of interest.
· Be alert to the ways in which research derives
from and affects the work of other people, and respect the rights and reputations
for life, the law and the public good
· Ensure that your work is lawful and justified.
· Minimise and justify any adverse effect your
work may have on people, animals and the natural environment.
Responsible communication: listening and informing
· Seek to discuss the issues that science raises
for society. Listen to the aspirations and concerns of others.
· Do not knowingly mislead, or allow others to
be misled, about scientific matters. Present and review scientific evidence,
theory or interpretation honestly and accurately.
There are already
powerful incentives for individuals and for institutions to adhere to the
principles set out in these guidelines. These include: the high professional
and ethical standards upheld by the scientific community; structures put
in place by employers, professional bodies and funders to enforce these
standards; and national and international conventions, treaties and laws.
and institutions are encouraged to reflect on and debate how these guidelines
may relate to their own work. For example, acting with rigour, honesty and
integrity may include: not committing plagiarism or condoning acts of plagiarism
by others; ensuring that work is peer reviewed before it is disseminated;
reviewing the work of others fairly; ensuring that primary data that may
be needed to allow others to audit, repeat or build on work, are secured
and stored. Similarly, in communicating responsibly, scientists need to
make clear the assumptions, qualifications or caveats underpinning their