Funding opportunity

Funding opportunity: Forensic science for the justice system sandpit

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Apply for funding to attend a 5-day virtual interactive sandpit to develop innovative and novel projects linked to the theme of forensic science for the justice system.

You must be based at a UK research organisation eligible for UKRI funding.

You will be asked to complete an expression of interest form to apply for the sandpit.

The sandpit will take place virtually (online), 1 day each week for 5 weeks.

Attendance for the full 5 days will be mandatory for those selected to attend. Attendance at the sandpit does not guarantee UKRI funding.

We expect to fund up to £2 million (100% full economic costing) for all research projects arising from the sandpit. We will aim to fund projects linked to our priority themes:

  • digital evidence, tools, and techniques
  • DNA transference and persistence
  • projects covering aspects of both these 2 themes

Projects can be up to 12 months in duration. UKRI will fund 80% of the full economic costs of successful projects.

Who can apply

Standard UKRI eligibility rules apply.

Applicants must be based at a UK based research organisation eligible for UKRI funding.

Eligible organisations are:

  • UK higher education institutions
  • research council institutes
  • UKRI-approved independent research organisations
  • public sector research establishments
  • NHS bodies with research capacity

Check if your institution is eligible for UKRI funding.

At the sandpit, you will have the opportunity to interact with individuals from across the forensic science community and wider justice system.

Stakeholders, including those from forensic science industry and professional practice, will also attend the sandpit. Stakeholders will set the scene for researcher participants, highlighting challenges and areas of interest. Stakeholders have been invited to participate in the sandpit separately and are not eligible to apply as applicants via this opportunity. Those invited to take part in this process as stakeholders will be able to collaborate with research participants and can be included in project proposals as project partners.

International collaboration is not allowed under this funding opportunity.

What we're looking for

Sandpit aims

The sandpit will be an intensive, interactive, and inclusive environment where a diverse group of participants from a range of disciplines will work together for 5 days (1 day each week for 5 weeks).

The aim will be to immerse participants in collaborative thinking processes and ideas sharing in order to construct innovative research projects. The process will facilitate inter-institutional collaboration through which leading academic experts can form partnerships with relevant stakeholders to tackle the most pressing forensic science research challenges.

We wish to fund innovative, interdisciplinary forensic projects on the recovery, analysis and interpretation of relevant materials and data in criminal and non-criminal investigations and court proceedings. We will fund activities in 2 priority areas:

  • digital evidence, tools, and techniques
  • DNA transference and persistence

We expect to see projects that offer broad application and benefits across the justice system’s stakeholders and in contexts from crime scene to courtroom.

Sandpit process

The sandpit will be led by a director, Professor Derek McAuley, University of Nottingham, who will be supported by a team of expert mentors. Stakeholders from relevant organisations and industry will also participate in the sandpit as ‘problem owners’ who set the scene for participants. Sandpit sessions will be facilitated by a professional facilitation company.

The sandpit process can be broken down into several stages:

  • defining the scope of the challenges
  • evolving common languages and terminologies amongst participants from a diverse range of backgrounds and disciplines
  • drawing upon perspectives from relevant stakeholders and the expertise brought by the participants to share understandings of the challenges
  • taking part in sessions focused on the challenges and using creative thinking techniques to identify approaches to help tackle these challenges
  • capturing the outputs of the process in the form of highly innovative research project proposals
  • reaching a funding decision on projects developed at the sandpit using ‘real-time’ peer review

Scientific scope

The research ideas developed at the workshop could investigate some or a combination of the following challenge areas.

Digital evidence tools and techniques

This includes:

  • once access has been legally gained to data from digital devices, developing trusted and usable tools for users (at any point of the justice system process), including providing trusted automation when dealing with large and complex data sets
  • making advances in handling, managing, processing, interpreting, and storing digital evidence
  • tools or approaches that will improve how digital evidence is prepared, shared, and presented through the course of investigations and considered during court proceedings
  • consideration of ways in which humans or organisations interact with and understand tools and techniques and the associated risks. These may be:
    • human
    • related to the tools or technologies
    • at the intersections of these
  • the potential of other, transferable advances in digital technologies and methods for delivering reliable evidence. This could include but is not limited to, a focus on automated techniques, artificial intelligence, or machine learning approaches
  • all planned projects should consider the social, legal, and ethical implications of digital techniques and technologies for criminal justice policy, practice and decision making and for those who have contact with the justice system

Projects could include a focus on any or multiple digital assets (we recognise here that digital assets are much broader than computers and phones).

We will not fund projects linked to advances in technology that involve breaking into encrypted devices and data disclosure.

DNA transference and persistence

This includes:

  • detection, persistence, transfer and analysis of DNA, body fluids, molecules in finger-marks, and particulate material under a range of conditions and in different environments
  • the potential of advances in DNA sequencing to deliver high quality reliability in the criminal justice context, especially in relation to mixed or partial profiles
  • human factors and decision making in the recovery of DNA
  • how DNA related evidence is prepared, shared, and presented through the course of investigations and discussed during court proceedings
  • the potential of other advances in DNA technologies and methods for delivering reliable evidence

Research projects could cover aspects of both of these 2 challenge areas.

Inputs, project considerations, outcomes, and impact plans

We do not require participants to develop specific plans for research activities prior to the sandpit. Ideas for activities will be developed collaboratively during the process.

Projects that emerge from the process might:

  • build new knowledge and design and develop new technologies for application in forensic science
  • further test or explore repurposing existing knowledge and technologies for application in forensic settings

Projects developed through the process will pitch for funding on the final sandpit day. We seek to support project proposals that show:

  • novel, highly interdisciplinary approaches, clearly reflecting the distinctive opportunity for creating such projects that the sandpit provides
  • clear evidence that the team has the capability to deliver their project as a high-quality multidisciplinary activity, provided both through the presentation and their activity during the sandpit
  • clear relevance and the potential to make a distinctive and novel contribution to addressing the research challenges in this area

Project proposals will need to make clear their plans for output, outcomes, and impacts. When participants pitch for funding, we expect to see consideration of:

  • application in a justice system context
  • activity feasibility and scale
  • technology readiness levels (where appropriate)
  • plans for impact beyond the project in the short to medium term
  • challenges linked to accreditation, validation to forensic standards, risk assessment, training, and support

Expertise

Achieving the sandpit aims will require participants from an appropriate mix of diverse backgrounds and relevant disciplines. Researchers from a diverse range of disciplines are therefore encouraged to apply to attend this sandpit.

We are not defining the disciplines that should be represented but asking applicants to indicate how their expertise can address the challenge of improving the use of forensic science in justice system contexts.

Applicants need not have worked on the problem before. However, emphasis will be placed on working across disciplines to foster new collaborations and bring new thinking to the problem.

Funding available

It is expected that up to £2 million of funding (100% full economic cost) will be made available to fund research projects arising from this sandpit.

Projects can be up to 12 months in duration. UKRI will fund 80% of the full economic costs of successful projects.

UKRI will look to fund projects within and across both our identified priority areas.

How to apply

Assessing applications to attend

Applicants are asked to complete an expression of interest online survey to be considered for the sandpit.

Your expression of interest will be used to assess the suitability of your expertise, skills, and attitude to participate in the sandpit. No further documentation will be accepted.

Applicants must be available for all 5 sandpit days, and will be asked to confirm their availability in the expression of interest form. We expect the sandpit days to be on the following dates:

  • 8 June 2023
  • 15 June 2023
  • 22 June 2023
  • 29 June 2023
  • 6 July 2023

The deadline for expression of interests is 7 March 2023. Please note that late submissions will not be considered. UKRI will confirm selected participants and the sandpit schedule by the end of April 2023. Those selected to attend will receive a further briefing before the event.

Selected applicants will be required to inform their university research office, in advance of submitting the expression of interest form, that they are going to apply to attend the sandpit. If participants are part of a successful project, their institutions will be required to fund 20% of the full economic project costs (as standard).

How we will assess your application

Applications to attend the sandpit will be assessed by a selection panel consisting of the sandpit director, a cross-UKRI group and expert mentors.

The participant selection will be based on the following assessment criteria:

  • suitability and fit to the sandpit process and ability to develop new, adventurous, and highly original research ideas
  • the potential to contribute to research at the interface between disciplines
  • the ability to explain research to non-experts
  • the ability to work in a team

As a sandpit is predicated on an ethos of innovative collaborative working, you must demonstrate both enthusiasm and willingness for cross-disciplinary collaborative research in your expression of interest.

You should not feel limited by conventional perceptions of research performed in this field. The sandpit approach is about bringing people together who would not normally interact.

Within the pool of applicants selected based on these assessment criteria, the panel will look to ensure a mix of discipline, experience, and background. It is therefore important to give evidence of your fulfilment of these criteria in your application. Please ensure you fully complete the expression of interest survey, as this is the only information on which potential sandpit attendees will be selected.

In the event of this funding opportunity being substantially oversubscribed as to be unmanageable, UKRI reserves the right to modify the assessment process.

Because of the large number of applications expected, we will not be able to give individual feedback to unsuccessful applicants.

If you have applied to or attended a UKRI sandpit previously, you are not barred from applying or attending again.

Post-sandpit process

Sandpit participants will be informed whether their project was recommended for funding within 2 weeks of the sandpit.

Following the funding decision, investigators involved in projects recommended for funding will be invited to submit a full proposal document detailing their intended activities as identified at the sandpit. Funding will be conditional on receipt of a full proposal.

These submissions should accurately represent projects or teams assembled at the sandpit. Researchers or other parties not involved in the sandpit cannot receive funding through the successful projects. Non-academic project partners can be added to successful projects after the sandpit process.

The deadline for submission of full proposals is expected to be September 2023 and the start date for the projects should be in November 2023.

Proposals will be submitted through the UKRI funding service. Further guidance on this part of the process will be available to the successful project teams.

Any collaborative project funded through this programme must have a signed collaborative agreement between the partners before the start of any grant.

We attach great importance to the dissemination of research findings and the publishing of information about the research they support in the public domain.

However, all dissemination and publication must be carried out in the manner agreed in the project’s collaboration agreement.

Please note that attendance at the sandpit does not guarantee UKRI funding. It is our intention that this sandpit will be a valuable experience for all attendees irrespective of whether funding is secured.

Contact details

Ask about this funding opportunity

UKRI forensic science team

Email: forensicscience@esrc.ukri.org

Additional info

Background

UKRI is inviting applications to participate in a virtual sandpit on the area of forensic science for the justice system.

Forensic science, is defined here as the application of scientific methods to the recovery, analysis and interpretation of relevant materials and data in criminal and non-criminal investigations and court proceedings. It is both an intelligence and evidential tool to assist all those involved in the wider justice system.

The justice system relies on forensic science to investigate incidents, to interrogate evidence, to bring perpetrators to justice, to exonerate the innocent and to learn lessons from what has worked and hasn’t worked. At a time when trust in many public institutions is in flux, the availability and fair, transparent application of high-quality forensic science to underpin proceedings from incident to the courtroom is increasingly important in maintaining public confidence in the conduct of justice.

In 2019 to 2021 UKRI conducted a review of its forensic science portfolio and funding mechanisms and undertook a consultation exercise to identify priority research areas for forensic science and help develop mechanisms for supporting activities in these areas.

UKRI’s consultation suggested that a dangerous disconnection is growing between cutting edge research, the development and testing of new technologies, and their application in judicial practice. As a result, the justice system is not keeping pace with advances in science and technology and possible tools and techniques at its disposal. More, higher quality, robust and validated forensic science focused on the justice system and embedding the judiciary as a valid and important impact domain is required.

In addition to the listed funding councils, the Science and Technology Facilities Council and Innovate UK have also supported the development of this initiative.

Equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI)

The long-term strength of the UK research base depends on harnessing all the available talent. UKRI expects that equality and diversity is embedded at all levels and in all aspects of research practice and funding policy.

We welcome applications from academics who job share, have a part-time contract, or need flexible working arrangements. We are committed to a policy of equal opportunities for our applicants for funding and encourage applications from those from under-represented groups.

We will collect participant demographics through the participant expression of interest survey. This data will only be used for monitoring and evaluation purposes. The data will not be shared with any third party and will not be used for the participant selection.

Find out more about EDI at UKRI.

Supporting documents

Expression of interest survey
Equality impact assessment (PDF, 174KB)

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