RSS convenes meeting on use of evidence in public debates

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In January, the RSS convened a workshop of around 15 senior people from leading organisations in the UK focused on improving the use of evidence, facts and statistics in public and policy debates.

Organisations represented at the event included the UK Statistics Authority, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Full Fact, the Alliance for Useful Evidence, Sense About Science and the House of Commons Library. The event was focused on considering the terrain in this area, and asking what if anything the organisations should be thinking about or doing collectively to strengthen their impact.

A number of think pieces and provocations were shared by participants in advance of the meeting (while these are publicly accessible, they were primarily drafted for the meeting and have not been edited for a wider audience).

Broadly speaking, the participants of the meeting rejected the idea that there was some kind of ‘post truth crisis’ and instead were concerned with more practical issues about improving evidence usage. There is no sign that the British public have had enough of experts –  there is high and rising trust in scientists and academics.

The workshop participants discussed how far organisations could present themselves as impartial and generally preferred the idea that they should present themselves as seeking to give a fair view. It was recognised that the social science academic community had a critical role to play, and that funding in this area should help build leaders who could communicate. Long-term funding for more centres or bodies that do public engagement on core issues of public concern - such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Migration Observatory - would help.

A particular theme that emerged from the workshop was a gap in synthesised knowledge around communication of evidence. All of the practitioners in the room agreed they could be helped with improved insight into what communication works well with different audiences, what types of mediation and leadership is successful in this space, and how best to open up the process of evidence creation so that it is more user led. The group agreed to develop a proposal on this topic and take it to funders to see if work in this area could be commissioned.

Other themes explored in the workshop included thinking how evidence organisations could ensure they were there to support the public in holding institutions to account; how to support critical thinking skills; and the role of funders in supporting evidence synthesis and empirical experiments of how facts and evidence are used.

Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society said ‘This was a valuable space for some senior people in the UK evidence community to discuss our shared challenges and opportunities. I hope it will lead to greater collaboration between the organisations represented there.’

Policy