The ICO Grants Programme and why the time is right to support independent research

“Once you stop learning, you start dying.”

So said Albert Einstein, and while the school year may be nearing its end and university students are already returning home for the summer, we at the ICO have launched our first ever Grants Programme for new, independent research into data protection and privacy enhancing solutions, and we believe it is a genuinely exciting development.

Its outcomes will help us stimulate innovative research and solutions into pressing and challenging privacy issues. The solutions should make a real difference to the public and the data protection practices of organisations.  The programme will also help us achieve many of the key goals set out in the ICO’s new Information Rights Strategic Plan – for example, staying relevant and keeping abreast of evolving technology, improving standards, increasing public trust and maintaining and developing international leadership and influence.

But why should the ICO, as a regulator, be funding research at all? Shouldn’t we be concentrating all our efforts and resources on investigating organisations which breach the Data Protection Act and sorting out unsatisfactory responses to Freedom of Information Requests?

Of course, we recognise and value the importance of our day to day work and this is where the core of funding goes. Our recent annual performance statistics revealed we were dealing with more cases and queries than ever before. Demand is increasing by the year and so is our response, whether through enforcement, conversations with stakeholders or engagement with the general public. When you add the work we are doing to prepare for the introduction of the new GDPR regime in May 2018, it’s clear that we have plenty on our plate – and we’re ready and gearing up for that demand.

But a regulator that concentrates solely on what’s right in front of its nose, that fails to look up and look around, is in danger of walking into a lamppost and banging its head.

We have, in fact, commissioned valuable research in the past. For many years the ICO has run research tenders to support specific policy projects and we have very much valued our interactions with the academic community, NGOs and innovators and the input they’ve had into our work.

We now want to do more to release the potential in these communities. This new programme will take a broader ‘horizon-scanning’ approach, encouraging them to develop new insight and solutions into key data protection and privacy challenges posed by new technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning. We are always willing to learn and this external research will feed into our own broader policy thinking and conversations.

This is the right time to launch this programme given the challenges we face and the need to enhance and tap into the expertise of others. The significant public and media interest in our current investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes is a good example of how quickly things can move and change in the information rights sphere.

By launching the ICO Grants Programme, we are also building on the success of similar schemes already operating overseas. Data doesn’t necessarily recognise physical borders and we believe the ICO should be a global player and always aware of the international implications of our work.

But rest assured, this is not a navel gazing exercise. Foremost in all of our thinking has been the importance of the programme’s practical focus. We want applied research and real solutions with genuine benefits for the UK public, not purely theoretical research.

We also recognise the importance of value for money – the programme will be run in line with the Government’s Minimum Grants Standards and will involve a panel of external experts providing recommendations on which proposals to fund. Successful applicants will be subject to continuous monitoring.

More information about the programme, eligibility and the application process is also available on our dedicated ICO Grants Programme web page. You can also watch our recent webinar outlining further details about the scheme.

Steve WoodSteve Wood is Deputy Commissioner for Policy and responsible for the ICO’s policy position on the proper application of information rights law and good practice, through lines to take, guidance, internal training, advice and specific projects.
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