The Economic and Social Research Council has come under fire over its handling of a research project on farmers' attitudes to genetically modified food that critics say is biased in favour of the biotechnology industry.
The ESRC publicised the results of the project by issuing a media release that begins: "Farmers are upbeat about genetically modified crops, according to new research."
After the media release, the findings were reported by a number of newspapers, including one prominent Sunday paper whose report on the study was headlined: "UK farmers want to grow GM crops".
The press release detailed the results of a £131,000 ESRC-funded study led by Andy Lane at The Open University, entitled "Farmers' understandings of GM crops as new technology".
One of the four "key findings" listed in the researchers' "project findings leaflet" was that farmers "believed that GM crops offer clear economic and environmental benefits to themselves and the wider public".
But critics have pointed out that the results were based on interviews with 30 selected large-scale commodity farmers, half of whom had been participants in farm-scale evaluations of GM crops and could therefore be assumed to be favourably disposed towards GM.
The project was also advised by the Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops, which describes itself as "a grouping of industry organisations ... to support the carefully managed introduction of GM crops in the UK".
"The researchers make statement after statement about what 'farmers' think ... but this cannot be justified on the basis of the research that was carried out," said Peter Saunders, a professor of mathematics at King's College London and the co-founder of the Institute of Science in Society, a group that says it is dedicated to "promoting social accountability and ecological sustainability in science".
Professor Saunders said that the researchers were "wrong" to extrapolate their work to represent the opinions of UK farmers, and that the ESRC was "even more wrong" to issue the press release it did.
He questioned why the ESRC had funded the study, which he believed was, in effect, "a piece of market research for the biotech industry". He asked: "Why did they accept ... a final report in which the researchers claim to have shown something they obviously have not?"
Carlo Leifert, a professor of ecological agriculture at Newcastle University, said: "It is a very small sample size, and by selecting half (of the survey participants from among) farmers who made money from GM trial sites ... it is a bit of a biased approach."
A letter issued by the ESRC to its critics, including an anti-GM pressure group, accepts that the "phrasing of the opening line of the press release could have been more precise" but defends the work.
The ESRC told Times Higher Education that the research "was never intended to be, nor presented as, a poll of the opinions of the UK farming community as a whole and it had a particular focus on the experiences of those who had participated in GM trials. The ESRC press release makes this very clear ... ".
It added: "We are satisfied that no one funded or employed by the ESRC has misrepresented this research or acted in a way that could be described as deliberately misleading or dishonest."
Both the initial research proposal and the final report had been subject to peer review, it added.
Professor Lane, the lead researcher, said it was necessary to get help from the Supply Chain Initiative to gain access to farmers.
Another of the researchers, Sue Oreszczyn, said: "We have never claimed our research is representative of all farmers but that we researched a specific group (those with experience of growing GM crops and those likely to grow them if they become available) ... It is not unexpected that the anti-GM lobby have chosen to ignore this."