How UK data protection reform can help drive the R&D ecosystem

Research published by the National Centre for Universities and Business show collaborations between the private sector and academic institutions are in decline. The UK’s upcoming data protection reform may be able to help.




Research and innovation is one of the cornerstones of the UK Government’s strategy for driving economic growth, encouraging UK organisations and businesses to remain competitive, invest in technologies and research areas that can solve real-life challenges, and keep pace with the global economy. 

The importance of a healthy research and development (R&D) ecosystem was underscored by the UK Government’s commitment to expand the UK’s R&D Tax Credit in the Autumn 2021 Budget and Spending Review. This provision, welcomed by techUK allows businesses to claim the credit back against cloud computing and data input costs for R&D, allowing the R&D system to meet the expectations of modern businesses.  

Initiatives such as this support the UK’s efforts to maintain its position as one of the global leaders in research and innovation. The UK is home to some of the most highly ranked academic institutions in the world, attracting the best talent and highly skilled workers globally, and has been described as punching above its weight as a research nation. 

The UK accounts for 2.7% of worldwide R&D spend, 4.1% of researchers and produces 6.3% of worldwide articles, 15% of which are the world’s most highly cited articles. UK researchers and innovators also think globally, with 54% of all publications the result of international collaboration, significantly higher than the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average of 31%


Businesses dominate UK R&D 

In the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy’s Research and Development Roadmap, the UK Government has recognised that the business community significantly contributes to UK R&D. In 2018, over two thirds of all R&D funding was contributed by business, amounting to a staggering £25 billion.  

As well as stimulating the UK economy, private sector R&D has historically been able to support policy making by national and local governments, as well as providing data-driven insights on key issue-areas in the public interest. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the value of collaboration between the private sector and academia in supporting recovery from the pandemic:



  1. Google collaborated with institutions globally to evaluate the impact of policies on mobility and subsequent COVID-19 trajectories. Google’s Community Mobility Reports employs a vigorous anonymisation process that ensures personal data including an individual’s location, movement or contacts cannot be derived from metrics, while providing public health authorities valuable insights to help inform official decision-making. Through this collaboration Google identified several valuable lessons that companies and academic institutions may apply to future data sharing collaborations to ensure a high standard of data protection is upheld. These include: 

  • Developing robust partner criteria for research partners to ensure that academic researchers are proven stewards for privacy-protected research. 

  • Considering differential privacy to provide mathematical assurances that no individual data could be manually inspected, studied or re-identified. 

  • Sharing aggregated data to provide further assurance that location and behaviour could not be attributed to any single individual. 

  • Tailoring formats and privacy protections to the audience to meet the needs of both a publicly available data set and one that could be shared under the terms of a specific agreement. 

    Read more details on this project here.

    Economists, including those from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have also used information collected by Google’s Places API and Google Trends data to better understand consumer spending patterns during the pandemic, and how businesses were coping during lockdowns. This has enabled the IMF to track the health of the economy in almost real-time, and the IMF has encouraged others, including national statistics offices and central banks to do the same.

  1. BT is working with the UK Government to provide aggregated and anonymised network data, such as generalised patterns in the movement of people to assist with planning the public response to coronavirus, while ensuring no personal data is involved and individual users cannot be identified. Read more details here on the safeguards BT ensured were in place to uphold a high standard of data protection. 

    BT has also leveraged its Global Research and Innovation Programme (GRIP), which was created to bring BT’s research ecosystem together with leading international universities and research institutions. During the pandemic, BT launched its first Global Coronavirus Workshop to tackle emerging issues from the pandemic and identify shared concerns which included the future of work, the impact on SMEs, and in-person industries such as retail, food, and leisure. Based on the success of this first workshop, BT intends to continue to host more collaborative sessions to unlock the power of global R&D to help the world bounce back from COVID-19. 

  2. DreamLab is an award-winning crowdsourcing app, developed by Vodafone Foundation, that uses the processing power of mobile phones to accelerate scientific research. It launched in the UK in 2018 to facilitate cancer research. Downloaded 1M+ times across 17 countries, DreamLab’s users activate the app while they charge their phone, typically overnight. As they sleep, DreamLab calculates, analysing data faster than a supercomputer.

    In April 2020, DreamLab was repurposed to speed research into potential treatments for COVID-19 patients. It enabled AI to trawl through vast data sets and identify existing drugs and food molecules that may benefit those with COVID-19, potentially curtailing the duration or severity of the illness. To date, the DreamLab Corona-AI project has completed 300m calculations, tested 450bn molecular combinations, and provided some 11,664 years of computing time. Findings from this and the cancer projects have been made available to the medical community to facilitate clinical trials. 


Collaboration between private sector and academia in decline 

According to research published by the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB), the total number of interactions between universities and businesses fell by 31% between 2018-2019 and 2019-2020. There was a 39% fall in the number of SME interactions and a 2% fall in the number of interactions with large businesses.  

Dr Joe Marshall, Chief Executive of NCUB said “University-business collaboration is vital to recover, grow and attract private R&D investment. Collaboration is essential to achieve the Government’s target of spending 2.4% of GDP in R&D by 2027, as well as developing the highly skilled workforce for the future.” 

The UK Government has found that R&D carried out by the private sector is largely influenced by a wide range of rules such as the many and often overlapping regulatory frameworks that oversee the digital and tech industry.  

In some cases, the UK General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has caused several limitations for UK businesses when pursuing research projects which include the processing of personal data. Based on feedback from our members, these include: 

  1. Legal uncertainty and lack of knowledge related to identifying the correct legal base to process personal data for research. 

  1. Constraints on resource to take on the legal and administrative burdens to correctly implement GDPR when handling personal data. 

  1. Overreliance on consent for personal data collection, which poses limitations on the re-use of data and scope of research, which is oftentimes serendipitous in nature. 

  1. Lack of clarity on definitions and comprehensive guidance on data use for research. 

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How the UK Government’s data protection reform could help 

In September 2021, the UK Government launched a significant consultation, Data: a new direction on the future of the UK’s data protection framework and seeks to build on GDPR. Under Chapter 1 of the consultation, Reducing barriers to responsible innovation the Government proposes a number of sensible reforms, which have been welcomed by techUK and its members.  

If these reforms are implemented with the appropriate safeguards and complimentary guidance from the regulator, they could be essential in offering UK businesses greater confidence and legal clarity in pursuing data-driven research, reducing barriers related to lack of resource, and begin to reverse the decline in private sector research collaboration with academia: 

Clarifying definitions and bases for (re)processing of data 

This will offer UK businesses, including SMEs greater confidence in using personal data for research purposes, and in turn increase the attractiveness of the UK as a research destination. A clear statutory definition of “scientific research”, which includes commercial and industry-led research, alongside clarification on (re)processing activities, with regulatory guidance and examples will support organisations in research projects.  

Fostering greater public-private collaboration 

Clarification on how organisations can share data with Government agencies where a clear public interest test is met, will foster collaboration that can help solve some of society’s most pressing challenges such as recovery from the pandemic, climate change and social inequalities. 

Re-use of data 

Underpinned by appropriate safeguards to be set out by the ICO, provisions that allow the re-use of personal data could help accommodate the serendipitous nature of research. 

Please see here for techUK’s full response to Data: a new direction. 

This blog is part of a series exploring the UK's upcoming reform to its data protection regime. Learn more here.

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