The discovery that the research councils have spent almost £100,000 on hiring private-sector consultants to train members to withstand scrutiny by select committees is alarming (page 1). It is also unpalatable to think that public money might be spent on keeping difficult information out of the public domain, while good research ideas fail to secure funding. But anyone who has observed a House of Commons science and technology committee session will know why a research council chief executive might be wary of giving evidence.
Ian Gibson, the committee's chair, is open about his desire to give witnesses a bit of a bruising, and questioning is usually fast and furious.
A scathing report about the Medical Research Council in March 2003 sent shockwaves through the science community and left the councils in little doubt that this committee had the power to damage their reputations. It is, therefore, not surprising that these bodies should spend time doing their homework before they face the MPs.
Yet, well-paid research council chief executives should be able to defend themselves without the aid of consultants. After all, it is obvious without a body-language lesson that being overly aggressive or defensive will antagonise the committee. But perhaps council chiefs have a right to expect to appear before a committee of thorough scrutiny and not an inquisition.