2021 was a great year of success for the Research Accreditation Panel (RAP) and the Research powers in the Digital Economy Act (DEA) 2017. As Chair of the RAP, it’s been wonderful to welcome new members to the Panel, introduce new processes to make the accreditation journey quicker and more efficient for the research community and accredit new processing environments to improve the geographic availability of data across the UK. I look forward to building on these successes in 2022 to further improve the efficiency of research accreditation in the wider data access journey, but here I want to focus on what has already been achieved.

One of the key achievements of the last year has been the changes made to accrediting research projects, which has created a more efficient research accreditation process and resulted in 170 projects being accredited in 2021. This compares to 122 projects in 2020 and 23 projects in 2019.  This year’s projects range from the ‘The Economic and Social impact of COVID-19’ to ‘A ticking ‘social timebomb?’ An investigation into racial bias in court case outcomes in England and Wales’.

This impressive increase will have resulted from more requests to access data, but also from the new approaches we have put in place to make the accreditation process more effective.  At the beginning of the year, projects were accredited at monthly meetings which resulted in waiting times to accredit projects being between 6 and 8 weeks. We’ve since introduced an online collaboration platform where Panel members can accredit projects on a rolling basis over the course of a week. This change has been further supported by the introduction of a risk-based approach to project accreditation, where those projects that clearly comply with the Research Code of Practice and Accreditation Criteria can be accredited by UK Statistics Authority officials with the RAP’s delegated authority. This has resulted in a reduced waiting time to only 4 days for projects to receive accreditation – significantly improving on the previous process.  It also means that we have doubled our monthly capacity to accredit projects. We hope that researchers are aware of these tangible improvements, as our fundamental aim is to make our system as effective as possible such that it supports the vital research that provides real benefit to the UK. It has been wonderful to see these achievements recognised in the research community, particularly in the DARE-UK landscape review.

Our panel has been excited to see not only the increasing number of projects, but also the impressive quality of projects, that have been accredited. At the December RAP meeting, we were fortunate to hear researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of Oxford present an accredited project which used Test, Trace and Isolate data to advise SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) on levels of coronavirus infection across the UK during the pandemic. This is a fantastic example of administrative data being used for public good research which has had a significant impact on government decision making during these challenging times. It has also been reassuring to spot references to the findings of accredited research projects that have been published in the news, such as the project ‘Estimating the subjective wellbeing of scams’ recently undertaken by Which?, which calculated the cost to scam victims’ wellbeing as a monetary total of £9.3bn a year.

Our panel also accredits the processing organisations who provide the data for these projects. We have made great strides this year, adding National Records Scotland (NRS) to the list of accredited processor organisations. In Scotland, the Scottish National Safehaven operated out of the electronic Data Research and Innovation Service (eDRIS) can now make full use of the Digital Economy Act powers, and each nation in the UK can finally host data under the Act. In total there are now 10 accredited processing organisations in the UK.

I have also been really encouraged by the engagement of the RAP in the development of ONS’s planned Integrated Data Service (IDS). The IDS will make a wealth of data and linked data from across government and other organisations easily accessible to analysts and data scientists via a secure cloud-environment. As the IDS prepares for its accreditation, as a secure processing environment under the DEA, I am encouraged to see that the Digital Economy Act will be the default legal gateway under which projects will be accredited. We hope the IDS will be another example of improving the data access process by making access to data for accredited research purposes simpler and more efficient.

This year, we hope to further build upon the successes of 2021. Although, we have had success in making improvements to the speed and efficiency of the accreditation part of the data access process, we hope to further increase the impact of our services in 2022. We look forward to doing this by undertaking a programme of engagement with government departments and accredited processors to further publicise what data is available for public good research via the Digital Economy Act powers and how actively we are working to improve data access processes for the research community.

Finally, I would like to thank RAP members, the UK Statistics Authority Secretariat team, and all the processing environments for all their hard work throughout 2021. I believe the projects we are overseeing are of great value to the UK and the innovations in reviewing processes are helping to make fundamental changes in the way administrative data is being utilised for public good research. I would also like to praise researchers for all the excellent research they’ve undertaken this year. I look forward to continuing this work throughout 2022.

If you have any feedback on the Research Accreditation Panel or the Digital Economy Act (DEA) powers, please contact the RAP Secretariat at research.accreditation@statistics.gov.uk.

Professor Paul Boyle

Chair of the Research Accreditation Panel