Research council chiefs fork out £84K to withstand fearsome MPs

January 21, 2005

The research councils have spent more than £84,000 of public money on hiring consultants to train them to appear before Parliamentary select committees, The Times Higher can reveal.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has developed a fierce reputation for its interrogatory style.

A key part of the committee's role has been to scrutinise the work of the Government's seven research councils, which oversee the allocation of billions of pounds of grants.

Following a written question from Ian Gibson, MP for Norwich North and chair of the committee, Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt admitted that the councils had paid a total of £84,306 to external consultants to help them prepare for oral evidence sessions over the past two years. Dr Gibson said: "This is a lot of money and it alarms me not knowing what they get for it. We are just trying to ferret out the truth for the public."

A director of a leading political consultancy told The Times Higher that services would usually involve help in writing a submission during an inquiry as well as training in body language and fielding difficult questions.

He said: "This sort of inquiry can be potentially dangerous. Their budget could be under threat - as well as corporate and personal reputations."

Richard Joyner, chair of campaign group Save British Science, said: "This is simply disgraceful; £84,000 is not quite a three-year research grant but it is close to it."

Robert Key, Shadow Science Minister and a member of the committee, called for the councils to "use honesty and openness" instead of expensive consultants. He said: "We are used to meeting people who are not trained in spin and theatre. I hope that is not a trend for the future."

Dr Gibson's committee is looking into a bitter row between the Medical Research Council and its National Institute for Medical Research over proposals to move the institute. The MRC hired consultants for training and advice on how to approach the inquiry.

Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the MRC, said: "If you accept that there is value in this kind of scrutiny process, then it is important to be properly prepared."

He said: "Let's face it, this isn't a chat in the pub. These committees have to work very quickly and they employ deliberate techniques to extract information."

A spokesperson for the Research Councils UK strategy group, which is set to face the committee next month, said: "We do put a tremendous amount of effort into these scrutiny sessions, underlining the importance we attach to accountability as a way of ensuring public confidence in our operations."

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