1. COVID-19 update

We continue to follow Government guidelines on social distancing, with Office for National Statistics (ONS) staff now working from home.

We know that many people rely on access to our service for research, to support rapid policy analysis and complete wider research for the public good. During these challenging times, we remain committed to keeping the Secure Research Service (SRS) running, but there will be an impact on how we operate and who can access the service.

All SRS safe setting rooms remain closed until further notice. Therefore, please follow the advice provided for:

Continuing to support research

We want to continue to support research, particularly that which is important to the day-to-day operation of the government, but we also need to ensure we meet our legal obligation to protect the confidentiality of data subjects.

We have put a range of measures in place to ensure the service can continue to be supported by Office for National Statistics (ONS) staff, and we are working to limit the impact on your work.

We have been asked whether it is possible for researchers to access the SRS from home, to enable their work to continue. This is not usually permitted because of data security concerns.

This is an extraordinary situation, and we have been working closely with our suppliers, security experts and ONS senior leaders to agree a policy to temporarily modify our approach to remote access while restrictions are in place.

It has been agreed that some work can be permitted but that this should be prioritised according to the importance of the research, and not an automatic extension of access for all.

This will help us manage the change while continuing to ensure that we protect data and demonstrate that our controls are robust. In making this decision, we have consulted with Administrative Data Research UK (ADR-UK) and the Department for Education (DfE), who support an increasing range of research in the SRS. We have also consulted with the UK Data Service (UKDS), who also provide secure access to some ONS data. This ensures that our approach is supported and consistent.

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2. Introduction

The Office for National Statistics Secure Research Service (SRS) gives accredited or approved researchers secure access to de-identified, unpublished data in order to work on research projects for the public good. We have been accredited as a Digital Economy Act (DEA) 2017 processor by the UK Statistics Authority for the preparation and provision of data for research purposes.

The SRS provides a safe setting, as part of the Five Safes Framework to protect data confidentiality. The framework is a set of principles adopted by a range of secure labs, including the ONS.

Most datasets are available to access through remote access to the SRS. In some instances, the data can only be accessed from an approved safe setting. Our data catalogue (XLSX, 51.8KB) lists all available datasets and any associated access restrictions.

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3. The Five Safes

For safe use of secure data, the Secure Research Service (SRS) uses the Five Safes Framework. This is a set of principles adopted by a range of secure labs. These protocols provide complete assurance for data owners. The Five Safes are:

Safe People

Trained and accredited researchers are trusted to use data appropriately.

Safe Projects

Data are only used for valuable, ethical research that delivers clear public benefits.

Safe Settings

Access to data is only possible using our secure technology systems.

Safe Outputs

All research outputs are checked to ensure they cannot identify data subjects.

Safe Data

Researchers can only use data that have been de-identified.

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4. Working on research projects

Most access to data in the Secure Research Service (SRS) will be under the Digital Economy Act 2017 (DEA). There are four ways in which a researcher can be associated with a research project using the DEA:

In some instances, access can be granted under the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 (SRSA) Approved Researcher.

Full accredited researcher under the DEA

Becoming a full accredited researcher under the DEA allows researchers to carry out analysis and produce outputs on projects in an Accredited Research Environment such as the SRS. To be a full accredited researcher, individuals must have an undergraduate degree (or higher) including a significant proportion of maths or statistics or be able to demonstrate at least three years quantitative research experience.

Full accreditation conditions for researchers are set out in Part 2 of the Research Code of Practice and Accreditation Criteria.  

Researchers should apply for accreditation through the Research Accreditation Service (RAS). Please do not email your application form to us.

Provisional accredited researcher under the DEA

A provisional accredited researcher under the DEA can work on projects in a Accredited Research Environment, such as the SRS, under the supervision of an accredited researcher. This role suits individuals without the appropriate experience or qualifications required for full accredited researcher status.

After meeting the necessary conditions, accredited researcher status will now be valid for three years. Previously provisional accredited researcher status was valid for one year. Anyone who already has a one-year provisional accredited researcher status will not have this extended to three years, but if this is renewed, the three year time period will be applied at that point.

Project Roles within the SRS

Peer reviewer with access to data in the SRS

This role enables individuals to access a project in the SRS to validate work done within a project and assess the validity and quality for publication. Individuals will need to be fully accredited researchers under the DEA to perform this role.

Peer reviewer with access to cleared outputs only

This role enables individuals to view pre-publication outputs that have been cleared from the SRS but with no access to data within the SRS. This role does not require accreditation but individuals fulfilling this role must be named on the project application.

Access using the SRSA approved researcher  

In some circumstances, researchers may access data for research purposes using the SRSA Approved Researcher Legal Gateway The pre-requisites and process for becoming an approved researcher are the same as those for accredited researchers under the DEA, as set out above. Consequently, all approved researchers are recognised as accredited researchers and vice versa.

Governance of the SRSA Approved Researcher is overseen by the Research Accreditation Panel (RAP) which ensures that the process for granting access to de-identified data to accredited researchers under the DEA is independent, consistent and transparent.

Researchers can apply for accreditation through the Research Accreditation Service (RAS).  

Further information on the criteria being used, and required to be met for accredited and approved researchers, can be found in Part 2 of the Research Code of Practice and Accreditation criteria.

Further information

A record of all accredited and approved researchers is published on the UK Statistics Authority website to ensure transparency of access to research data under the DEA and SRSA (from 9 September 2021 onwards).  

More information and advice as to whether the ONS Approved Researcher scheme is suitable for your research is available by contacting srs.customer.support@ons.gov.uk.

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5. Research project accreditation

To request access to data in the Secure Research Service (SRS), researchers must submit a research project application for accreditation.  

Before submitting a research project application, researchers must adhere to the conditions of accreditation. Projects must comply with UK law, including data protection legislation, and meet the ethical standards appropriate to the nature and intended use of personal information. Additionally, projects must demonstrate a primary purpose to serve the public interest, with results made transparent in an open and accessible way. Researchers should acknowledge the public authority which is the source of the data and engage with core stakeholders.  

For the full conditions, please read Part 2, Section C of the Research Code of Practice and Accreditation Criteria.      

Accredited researchers can complete an application for project accreditation in the Research Accreditation Service (RAS). All Digital Economy Act 2017 (DEA) and SRSA Approved Researcher research project applications will be considered by the Research Accreditation Panel (RAP), established by the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) to independently consider applications for research, researcher or processor accreditation. Researchers are advised to use the project application example guidance and an exemplar of a research project application to understand the information that is required for a research project application to be considered.  

If, having received your application, we consider that the SRSA process is not the best approach we will contact you to discuss your options.  

A complete record of accredited researchers and their projects will be published on the UK Statistics Authority website to ensure transparency of access to research data.

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6. Matching and linking in the Secure Research Service (SRS)

Matching

Researchers can match together different datasets they have access to in their Secure Research Service (SRS) project using common variables.

Where data have been provided with an operational ID, we will pseudonymise it (transform it into a mix of numbers and letters) to become an Office for National Statistics (ONS) ID that is meaningless outside the SRS environment. The ONS ID enables the researcher to match tables within the SRS environment. An example of an operational ID that has been pseudonymised is the "entref" variable, which is included in many of the business datasets held in the SRS. 

The matching of datasets should not be referenced in the linkage section of the project application form. This section of the form relates to linkage using identifiable data.

Linking

For research projects accredited under the Digital Economy Act 2017, researchers are unable to link datasets in the SRS based on direct identifiers (such as name, address, date of birth or operational IDs, such as an NHS number) as all data are de-identified before they come into the environment.

We do not offer a service to link datasets using direct identifiers on a project by project basis as it would be an inefficient use of the specialist resources required to do the work -- the only exception is for Inter-Departmental Business Register (IDBR) data. Researchers are welcome to make a request for datasets to be linked by the ONS if they can demonstrate that there is a wider research benefit beyond their individual project.

We will assess a number of factors before any proposed linkage work can progress:

  • strength of user need

  • support from all data owners

  • feasibility and level of complexity of the linkage

  • resource required within the ONS to carry out the linkage

If a request is agreed, we will create the linked dataset internally (that is, outside of the SRS) and then transfer the de-identified version to the SRS so that all accredited researchers are able to make a project application to use it.

Researchers wanting to make a request for a linked dataset should contact adrcuration@ons.gov.uk to discuss their requirement.

Inter-Departmental Business Register

If you need to identify a specific subset of businesses within datasets held in the SRS and/or match data in the SRS to data you already hold for a subset of businesses, this can be done in two ways:

  • Using a Companies House Reference Number (CRN) - this matching work can be carried out by the SRS team if you can supply the relevant CRNs.

  • Using business names and addresses - this linkage work needs to be carried out by a separate team within the ONS and there will be a charge for it; researchers wanting to make a request for a business-linked dataset should contact idbrdas@ons.gov.uk to discuss their requirement (if this service is required, you will need to confirm that you are happy to proceed with your project on this basis and will be willing to pay for the matching work before the application is submitted to the Research Accreditation Panel for approval).

If you require one of these services, this should be clearly specified in the linkage section of your project application. For either method, the results will be de-identified before being made available to you in your project.

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7. Accessing the Secure Research Service (SRS)

Once researchers and their research projects are accredited or approved, projects using the SRS will have a project space created. Data sets requested for projects will be mapped to the project space. Researchers may also send data to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Statistical Support Team to be added to the project space. For more information on this process please contact us at srs.customer.support@ons.gov.uk.

Researchers named on projects will then be provided with their account details and instructions on how to access the SRS. Access to the SRS is through a safe setting. Safe settings may be in safe rooms on ONS sites, in safe rooms on other certified sites, or through an organisation which has an Assured Organisational Connectivity Agreement with ONS and which maintains a current certification.

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8. Safe setting access

Safe Rooms

Data owners may determine how Secure Research Service (SRS) access is permitted. Where access to the SRS is restricted to safe rooms only, the researcher will need to book a terminal at one of our safe rooms or a safe setting provided by another approved organisation. Bookings for Office for National Statistics (ONS) safe rooms can be made by accredited researchers through the Research Accreditation Service (RAS). If you are interested in booking secure rooms at other approved organisations, please contact customer support and instructions can be given where appropriate.

Before a researcher may access one of our safe rooms, they will need to complete a security declaration.

Our safe rooms are located within our offices in London (Drummond Gate), Titchfield (Hampshire) and Newport (Gwent, South Wales). We have additional safe rooms within the Scottish Government in Glasgow and at the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency in Belfast. Safe rooms are open Monday to Friday from 9am until 5pm. Any changes to these hours are advertised in advance.

SafePods Network

SafePods are an alternative way of accessing a standardised safe setting with the necessary security and controls to enable researchers to access and use secure datasets from more locations across the UK than before.

SafePods will primarily be based at universities across the UK, which will be available to approved researchers to book and use.

Remote Connection

Remote connection to the SRS is available to organisations that can meet the safe setting criteria and achieve certification under the Assured Organisation Connectivity Scheme. Organisations interested in joining the scheme may contact research support to discuss certification requirements.

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9. Software

Research is conducted in the Secure Research Service (SRS) environment using software that has been tested and installed by the SRS operations and security team. The SRS makes every effort to provide software that is as up to date as possible. Table 1 provides a list of the software that is currently available to use.

Researchers can also request that code they have written is ingested into their project space. For more information please contact srs.customer.support@ons.gov.uk.

At this time, we are unable to ingest packages from open source code repositories such as CRAN or GitHub.

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10. Requesting outputs

If you want to remove any work from the Secure Research Service (SRS), you will need to submit the file(s) for clearance to the Statistical Support Team. Statistical disclosure control will be applied to your file(s) to ensure that they are not disclosive and do not identify any individual entity. There are three types of clearance you can request:

  • pre-publication clearance
  • publication clearance
  • code file clearance

There is currently a high level of demand for the SRS and projects that are directly informing the government response to COVID-19 are being prioritised. This means that it is currently taking us longer than normal to clear other output requests. We will process all requests as quickly as possible, however, this could take up to five working days. This does not include time taken for you to respond to any requests for clarification from the Statistical Support Team. Please plan your work around these timescales, and help us to be able to clear your outputs quicker by making sure that the outputs are clear and non-disclosive. We appreciate your understanding at this busy and challenging time and will let you know when we are able to revisit these timescales.

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11. Pre-publication clearance

You can request pre-publication clearance when you want to remove files from the SRS for writing up results, or for further discussion with members of the project team. These clearances can only be shared with the project team and those that have commissioned or sponsored the research as long as they are names on the project. Under no circumstance should they be published.

On completion of the project, pre-publication clearances must be destroyed. Failure to comply may result in your accredited researcher status being revoked.

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12. Publication clearance

A publication clearance is the final intended output of your research that you want to publish or share beyond your research team. This can be in the form of a report, publication, presentation or speech but must include everything that will be disseminated, including graphics and words around the data accessed in the SRS. These clearances should be provided with any underlying data used to create tables and graphics.

Publication clearances can be kept indefinitely and distributed freely after they are approved by the Statistical Support Team.

Both pre-publication and publication clearances must show all underlying, unweighted counts, which should adhere generally to a threshold of 10 (in some instances this may be lower or higher depending on the data). Outputs with counts below the threshold may be considered in exceptional cases, where you can demonstrate the necessity to your research and that the output is still safe.

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13. Code file clearance

You may also request code files for clearance, which can be shared freely once approved. These code files must not contain identifiers or any commands that may attempt to search or identify individual entities. The code should also be annotated or have commentary provided to show the intended outcome of the code to assist the Statistical Support Team with the clearance.

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14. Completed projects

We will contact the lead researcher when a research project is approaching its expected completion date. The researcher will have the option to extend the project if more time is required.

If the research project is complete, we ask researchers to provide us with any final publications associated with the work. In some cases, we may seek to produce a case study where we see examples of innovative methodology, strong public benefit, or outstanding collaboration.

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15. Research Support Helpdesk

The Research Support Helpdesk is available Monday to Friday from 8am until 5pm.

The Research Support Helpdesk can be contacted by telephone on +44 (0)1329 447871 or by email at srs.customer.support@ons.gov.uk.

The Statistical Support Team are available through the Research Support Helpdesk.

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16. Other secure data services

Becoming an accredited researcher under the Digital Economy Act (DEA) 2017 will also allow access to other secure data services accredited under the DEA. A complete list can be found on the UK Statistics Authority website.

Office for National Statistics (ONS) approved researchers may only access secure data through the Secure Research Service and the UK Data Service (UKDS) Secure Lab.

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17. Assured Organisational Connectivity to the Secure Research Service

Researchers based in organisations that have an Assured Organisational Connectivity (AOC) agreement in place with us can access the Secure Research Service (SRS) from their employers' offices, and this arrangement has worked well since its introduction.

To help limit the impact of current travel restrictions on research, it has been agreed that:

  • researchers in organisations with existing remote connectivity can continue to work from their offices as normal

  • limited home working will be permitted; in the first instance, this will be where researchers work for organisations with an AOC agreement in place and the research is important to the current operation of the government and public services

  • access to projects from home will be subject to approval from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and data owners; this will be decided on a case-by-case basis

  • access must be from a machine provided by the organisation the researcher works for, connecting to the SRS through their corporate virtual private network (VPN)

  • access must be from within the UK; access to the SRS from outside the UK is not permitted

  • all researchers accessing the SRS from home will need to read and sign an extended Security Operations Procedures (SyOps) document

To be considered for approval to access the SRS from home, you will need to request an application form by email from srs.customer.support@ons.gov.uk. You will then need to complete and return the form by email to srs.customer.support@ons.gov.uk. The form will request the following information:

  • details of the project(s) you wish to access

  • which members of the project team require access

  • an explanation of the importance of this work to the UK government, and the impact of delays on its completion

  • confirmation that the researchers will access the SRS from home using a machine provided by the organisation, with a connection to the SRS through their corporate VPN and that their organisation has or will have an AOC in place

Additionally, applicants should provide information about their research project against one (or both) of the criteria in (A) and provide information for the criteria in (B).

A. Purpose of project

Is the research project important to the current operation of the government and public services? This includes research to support, inform or evaluate the government's (or its partners') COVID-19 response activity.

Is there another reason why it is important that work on this project continues given the current COVID-19 situation and related restrictions?

B. Urgency and timescales

What is the level of urgency and the timescales for delivery or analysis and outputs for the research project? What would be the impact of delays to this project?

Each request will be considered in discussion with data owners and experts from across the ONS, and you will be informed of the decision as soon as possible. Requests will be reviewed and responded to within two working days. Where agreed, you will then be advised on how to access the SRS from home.

If the current restrictions are extended, it may be possible to extend home working for additional important research. We will keep this under review as government advice changes and once the first tranche of such connections have been shown to work effectively and securely. Any such access will continue to require that your organisation has an AOC agreement in place.

If you work for an organisation with remote access through a legacy agreement but that has not yet finalised the transition to an AOC agreement, this will need to be completed before home access will be permitted. In this circumstance, please email srs.connectivity@ons.gov.uk for further guidance on AOC agreements and completing this transition.

No Assured Organisational Connectivity agreement?

If you work in an organisation with no remote connectivity to the SRS, you can apply for an AOC agreement. However, please be aware that this may take longer to arrange with the current restrictions in place and applications will be prioritised in accordance with the importance of your research to the government.

To apply for an AOC agreement, please email srs.connectivity@ons.gov.uk. You will be sent the appropriate application forms and guidance.

Once again, each request will be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

We will continue to monitor remote use of the SRS. Any user attempting to access the SRS remotely without explicit approval will be in breach of our security policy. This will lead to action that could remove access for the individual and their organisation.

We recognise that this policy will not allow all our users to continue to use the service within the current restrictions and that some research will be delayed as a consequence. However, it is essential that we do not create an unacceptable risk to data confidentiality.

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18. Case studies

Detecting high-risk cancer earlier

Researchers at the University of Bristol used data provided by the ONS Secure Research Service to investigate whether inviting men aged 50 to 69 years for a single prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test would help detect high-risk cancers earlier and if early treatment of these cancers would result in longevity.

The team used ONS microdata on mortality and cancer registrations. They recruited 408,825 men in the prostate cancer trial and monitored their progress for 10 years.

Findings showed that for every 1,000 men who received a PSA test, 43 were diagnosed with prostate cancer, compared to 36 diagnoses for every 1,000 men who were not invited for a test.

The research provided new evidence to inform the balance of benefits and harms of screening for prostate cancer. The research findings could help avoid unnecessary harm to men and save the NHS up to £1 billion a year in screening and follow-up treatments.

As well as winning the ONS Research Excellence Awards 2018, these findings are used by governments in the UK, Sweden and the United States, and they have been featured in newspapers, radio programmes, websites and blogs.

Burglary security effectiveness in England and Wales

This research was undertaken by researchers at Nottingham Trent University, using data provided by the ONS SRS, and it set out to explore whether increased use of in-home security products correlated with a fall in domestic burglary in England and Wales since 1993.

Previous research has suggested that burglar alarms are an effective deterrent. This study looked to corroborate these findings by linking data from the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) and the British Crime Survey to compare security profiles of burgled households against all households, based on the CSEW Crime Prevention and Victim modules data.

It found that a combination of measures, including window locks, lights on a timer and door deadlocks, provide 49 times more protection than no security. A surprising discovery was that homes with a burglar alarm and nothing else have a slightly higher burglary risk than homes with no security at all.

The published research won the ONS Research Excellence Awards 2019, and it has made a positive impact on Neighbourhood Watch, the Rosetta Burglary Task Force, Nottinghamshire Police, Leicestershire Police and Nottingham City Council.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Infection Survey

The ONS, in partnership with the University of Oxford, the University of Manchester and Public Health England, conducted an initial pilot survey of 10,000 households in England (later extended to cover Wales) to find out how many people have the coronavirus (COVID-19) and how many people are ever likely to have had the infection.

This research is being carried out within the ONS SRS and is continually being developed. The findings are published weekly.

The study has been used to advise the government’s response to the pandemic and to inform the public. It has also been frequently and continually referenced in the media, including by Sky News, BBC News, ITV News and The Independent.

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19. The Centre for Longitudinal Study Information & User Support (CeLSIUS)

The CeLSIUS team provides support to UK-based users of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Longitudinal Study (LS) from the academic, voluntary and public sectors. They are based at UCL and the ONS office at Drummond Gate, Pimlico, London. If you are employed in one of these sectors and would like to use the LS, CeLSIUS staff will help you through the application process. In addition to becoming an accredited researcher under the Digital Economy Act 2017 (DEA), you will also need to complete the LS supplementary form which is under ”Related downloads”.

More information is available on the CeLSIUS website.

If you are interested in using the LS but are not employed in one of these sectors, or are based outside the UK, please contact the LS Development Team on: LongitudinalStudy@ons.gov.uk.

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20. The UK Data Service (UKDS)

The UK Data Service (UKDS), based at the University of Essex, provides controlled access to a wide range of social and economic research data, including a number de-identified Office for National Statistics (ONS) datasets.

The Approved Researcher scheme is used to govern access to ONS data managed by the UKDS. Details of the data available and application process are available on the UKDS website.

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21. Administrative Data Research UK (ADR UK)

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is being funded to expand and improve the Secure Research Service (SRS) as part of the Administrative Data Research UK (ADR UK) partnership – an ESRC investment transforming the way researchers access the UK's wealth of public sector data, to enable better informed policy decisions that improve people's lives.

ADR UK is made up of three devolved partners (ADR Scotland, ADR Wales, and ADR NI), and the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which ensures data provided by UK Government bodies is accessed by researchers in a safe and secure form with minimal risk to data holders or the public.

The partnership is coordinated by a UK-wide strategic hub, which also promotes the benefits of administrative data research to the public and the wider research community, engages with the UK Government to secure access to data, and manages a dedicated research budget.

More information for researchers is available on ADR UK’s website.


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