How we use evidence – how we gather it, analyse it and communicate it – is a day-to-day concern for anyone working in science policy.

A large satellite dish

How we use evidence – how we gather it, analyse it and communicate it – is a day-to-day concern for anyone working in science policy.

But the way we use evidence is changing.

We have more information in the world than ever before (90% of it created in the last two years alone), and this raises the challenges of targeting the most relevant evidence and communicating a clear signal above the noise.

But with challenges come opportunities. And, fortunately, we also have increasingly sophisticated techniques for making sense of evidence in different situations. From the rapid accumulation of evidence in emergency situations; to the more reflective mining, interpretation and curation of evidence using artistic and historical methods; to the use of open data in modern businesses.

Clearly, those who can marshal the right evidence and tell the most persuasive story have the power to deliver new insights into our past, present and future.

With this in mind, I was delighted to chair the inaugural Royal Society Policy Salon on the topic of evidence and narrative.

Policy Salons are a new Royal Society experiment. They bring together research, analysis and policy communities to shed new light on a topic of shared interest and to build relationships between people and organisations.

For this one I was joined by a diverse panel of speakers:

  • Colin Armstrong – Head of International Resilience at GO-Science
  • Luke Blaxill – Historian, Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow and bestselling author
  • Julie Light – Artist, Masters student at Central St Martins and contributor to the Society’s Museum of Extraordinary Objects
  • Simon Dowell – Head of Biological Sample Management at GlaxoSmithKline

So, what did we learn from 90 minutes of presentations, Q&A sessions and breakout conversations?

Here are my top five takeaways:

  • Policymakers care about the totality of evidence that answers a particular question. This requires combining different types of evidence from multiple sources, including public attitudes, practitioners’ experiences and even anecdotes.
  • The same evidence can be viewed through different lenses, with different (sometimes opposite) decisions taken as a result. This was the case following the Fukushima disaster, when some countries advised their citizens to stay in Tokyo and others advised them to evacuate.
  • Text mining can help reveal patterns of ideas and language throughout vast volumes of literature. However, the jury’s still out on whether text mining significantly adds to our understanding of history.
  • Communicating evidence visually changes people’s response to it. Physical objects are a particularly powerful way of encouraging people to engage with complex ideas and interpret evidence in novel ways.
  • The biological sciences are generating huge amounts of data which people alone will struggle to interpret. Emerging ‘omics’ fields – genomics, proteomics, transcriptomics – can only yield the most valuable insights if coupled with machine learning and other forms of artificial intelligence.

The next Royal Society Policy Salon will take place on 11 October 2017 and will explore the topic of risk. For further details, please contact

The Society is also collaborating with the Academy of Medical Sciences to explore the role of evidence synthesis in policymaking. For further details, please contact


  • Emma Woods

    Emma Woods