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ISIS Report 25/03/08

Marketing Masquerading as Scientific Survey

Professor Peter Saunders reviews the unpublished, non-peer-reviewed research report behind a press release from the UK government Economic and Social Research Council claiming “UK farmers upbeat about GM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

The project 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 [1], 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 [1], despite assertions to the contrary [2] (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 [3] (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 carried out.

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 community.

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 of others.

Respect 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.

Commentary

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.

Scientists 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 arguments.

(http://www.berr.gov.uk/dius/science/science-and-society/public_engagement/code/page28030.html

Accessed 17 March 2008 and reproduced in its entirety)

References

  1. Farmers Understandings of Genetically Modified Crops Within Local Communities. RES 151-25-0046, ESRC, accessed 17 March 2008, http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk/ESRCInfoCentre/ViewOutputPage.aspx?data=v9XrjLJ6xhHAvfnegLRANepe6cEGQrLO-CSSErr-n6lGkXrBh6Z6%2bL9nYAqwbsKihMQM9nn3CqKTec4oVrFNT5R5ALPqTkQhH2kaYtfbRbcIAgcqd9Q%3d&xu=0&isAwardHolder=&isProfiled=&AwardHolderID=&Sector=
  2. Ho MW and Saunders PT. “UK farmers upbeat about GM crops” debunked. Government funding industry to market GM crops. Science in Society 38 (to appear).
  3. Saunders PT. Food colouring confirmed bad for children. Food Standards Agency refuses to act. Science in Society 36, 30-31, 2007.
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