Nancy Rothwell

January 14, 2005

Being summoned as an expert witness is nerve-racking. Especially if the summons comes from the 'committee from hell'

I'd never received a summons before. Now I have, though not to a court of law but to give evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology.

The occasion was part of the committee's inquiry into the Medical Research Council's recommendations for the future of the National Institute for Medical Research at Mill Hill in North London. This is a sensitive topic on which many people have deeply held views, so perhaps it is best not to dwell on the detail.

In essence, an MRC task force has recommended the NIMR be relocated alongside one of the major London universities and hospitals and that has met with considerable opposition from the institute's staff. So the select committee decided to investigate, as it often does.

Indeed, it has something of a record of mounting such inquiries and has been quite critical of the MRC in the past. The committee's chairman, Ian Gibson - described as "colourful" by one journalist, and "outspoken" by others - has been vocal on many scientific issues. Dr Gibson himself even refers to his "committee from hell".

Initially, I was invited to attend. I politely declined, saying that while I fully understood the seriousness of the inquiry, unfortunately I had a very important commitment in Manchester. So they summoned me. My commitment had to be cancelled.

Then I was inundated with paperwork relating to the inquiry. Since I'd been summoned, I assumed I had to read it all: pages of submitted evidence, transcripts of earlier sessions, including a teleconference with two eminent US members of the MRC task force and various reports, letters, email exchanges and comments.

Everything you say at such inquiries is considered to be under parliamentary privilege, which basically means that you can't be sued for it. An interesting thought.

The hearing itself, earlier this week, was a fascinating but quite bizarre experience. It was attended by various interested parties, the Press and MPs who came and went.

The setting is rather like a surreal court room (and some of the committee members do seem to have aspirations to be barristers).

The chairman opened the meeting with the cry: "Order, order! Welcome to the friendly committee dealing with the friendly subject". He had an ever-so-slightly evil grin on his face.

The questioning was penetrating and quite nerve-racking but polite and respectful. Unlike a court of law, there is no prosecution or defence and certainly no independent judge to bar ambiguous or leading questions. The chairman actually asked many questions himself.

Throughout, there was a strong sense of numerous pairs of eyes and ears behind you listening to every word, while stenographers typed away and committee members passed notes between each other.

It was not obvious who, or what exactly, was on trial. But I certainly felt as though I was in the spotlight.

The committee had clearly read the mountain of paperwork and knew their subject well. The questions were generally challenging and appropriate. But they tended to jump from one subject to the next, and included a barrage of requests for factual accounts of events and statements, while witnesses (as we were called) were pushed to give opinions, even in areas where we had little professional knowledge.

It was a curious mixture of formality (particularly from the aspiring Perry Mason members) and friendly chat. Formal titles were mixed up with the first names and phrases such as "guff" and "scurrying about" were interspersed among the fairly tough questions.

Fortunately, the 45 minutes passed quickly. It was much more interesting, and definitely more relaxing, watching other witnesses in the hot seat.

Now I await (with some trepidation) the transcript of the proceedings, to see what I actually said and to kick myself for missing important points.

Remembering the "parliamentary privilege" helps.

I will also await the select committee's final report with interest. If past reports are anything to go by, it should, at the very least, be newsworthy.

Until then, I'll reserve my judgement on whether I appeared before "the friendly committee" or "the committee from hell". Or perhaps they are just trying to get to the bottom of difficult but important scientific issues - albeit in a sometimes unorthodox way. Perhaps a review of the Science and Technology Select Committee itself might prove interesting.

Nancy Rothwell is MRC research professor in the faculty of life sciences at Manchester University.

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