Postgraduate research opportunities Rethinking Human Rights Implementation in the Era of Data-Intensive Technologies: Machine-Learning Based Decision Making and the Duties of Public Authorities


Key facts

  • Opens: Friday 12 May 2023
  • Deadline: Friday 9 June 2023
  • Number of places: 1
  • Duration: 3.5 years
  • Funding: Home fee, Stipend


This project aims to contribute to (a) understanding the contours of the legal responsibilities of public authorities to respect, protect and fulfil human rights in this context; (b) identifying and informing ‘responsible’ methods for the technical design of ML-based tools in an effort to safeguard human rights; and (c) providing legal and policy recommendations to public authorities, policy makers, legislators, and private sector tool designers.
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Candidates must have a background in a relevant research area (broadly conceived). As this is an interdisciplinary project, we are happy to discuss research possibilities with candidates from areas including law, computer science, information science, social sciences, or Science and Technology Studies (STS). Please see ‘Project Details’ below for more information.

Specialism in human rights law is desirable but not essential. Training in human rights law will be provided.

Previous experience with qualitative research methods and previous experience of interdisciplinary research are also desirable but not essential.

This opportunity is open to candidates who have (or expect to achieve) a Master’ degree in a relevant subject area, and a UK Honours degree at 2.1 or above, or equivalent for non-UK qualifications.

For international qualifications, the University equivalent entry requirements.

 An IELTS (Academic) score of 6.5 minimum is required (with a minimum 6.0 in each component, or equivalent) for candidates for whom English is not a first language and this must be evidenced at point of application. The University of Strathclyde accepts a variety of equivalent qualifications.

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Project Details

Digital data is an increasingly important asset in UK public governance, with public authorities turning to the exploitation of large-scale databases to provide more effective and efficient service delivery. Reflecting global trends, this includes the use of machine learning (ML) based decision-making tools. ML tools can be used to automate decision-making with minimal oversight by public officials. There have been numerous examples of such technologies being deployed in the UK, including in welfare, social care, criminal justice and immigration decisions.

Significant questions remain regarding the use of ML-based tools in ‘rights-critical’ contexts, that is, where decisions taken by public authorities may interfere with, or indeed require interference with, human rights. Concerns have been raised regarding, for example, automation bias (i.e., that decision-makers will automatically defer to the calculation of a machine, rather than exercise the discretion conferred upon them by the law), and the potential for discriminatory decision-making. Only very few legal cases have directly engaged with issues in this context – primarily focused on the Article 8 right to respect for private life under the European Convention on Human Rights. Despite these cases, and the judicial guidance contained within, the duties and responsibilities of public authorities who wish to deploy such tools in the UK remain unclear. As such, there are no settled legal and policy standards relating to human rights protection to which public authorities can refer during the design process, which may leave individuals affected by decisions made using ML-based tools vulnerable to adverse effects generated by interferences with their human rights. In addition, until these concerns are addressed in a more satisfactory way, any potential for ML-based decision-making to not only avoid human rights interference but help advance the positive fulfilment of human rights will remain underexamined.

This interdisciplinary PhD project will suit students with a keen interest in the socio-legal implications of machine learning-driven decision making, including the contexts and realities of where, why and how ML-based tools are designed, used, and experienced. The project may incorporate qualitative research activities such as interviews with relevant public authorities and/or citizens who experience the effects of these tools, public policy analysis, alternative methods of qualitative analysis including Freedom of Information (FOI) based investigations, or research grounded in computer science that understands ML-based decision-making tools as socio-technical systems.

This project aims to contribute to (a) understanding the contours of the legal responsibilities of public authorities to respect, protect and fulfil human rights in this context; (b) identifying and informing ‘responsible’ methods for the technical design of ML-based tools in an effort to safeguard human rights; and (c) providing legal and policy recommendations to public authorities, policymakers, legislators, and private sector tool designers. We expect that the research will achieve these aims by engaging with questions such as those listed non-exhaustively below:

  • How can existing theoretical frameworks be rethought to address the challenges and opportunities of ML-based tools more effectively?
  • How can public authorities ensure that processes relating to the design and use of machine learning-based decision-making tools attend to their legal obligations to respect, protect and fulfil human rights?
  • What are, or ought to be, the responsibilities of private and third-sector organisations in facilitating the protection and advancement of human rights in this context?

The successful candidate will work closely with our team to develop their research focus in a way that is tailored to their own skills and interests, but proposals should fit with the broad aims of the project.

Further information

Strathclyde Centre for Doctoral Training in Human Rights-based Decision Making

This project is hosted within the newly launched Strathclyde Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Human Rights-based Decision Making. The PhD projects affiliated with this CDT should enhance understanding of the complex challenges and opportunities related to human rights-based decision making by a range of actors/institutions in the public, private, and third sector. The CDT’s aim is to bring together a cohort of postgraduate researchers to build interdisciplinary skills and knowledge needed to help tackle the major challenges of translating international legal protections into more just institutions, processes, and equitable outcomes for people in their everyday lives. 

The interaction between human rights-based decision making and data-intensive technologies is the theme for the phase of projects beginning in 2023.

The CDT supervisory team includes academics in Law, Humanities, Computer and Information Sciences, Government and Public Policy, and Economics. The multidisciplinary supervisory team will continue to evolve in line with future projects. As a CDT postgraduate researcher, you will be trained by, and collaborate with, the supervisory team to grow a critical knowledge base around understanding how human rights standards can become integrated in strategic and operational decision making.

Research culture, supervision and training

At Strathclyde, Centres for Doctoral Training aim to provide you with an innovative, engaging, and supportive student experience that promotes world class research in an interdisciplinary environment. You will benefit from a range of excellent training and opportunities and be part of our vibrant research culture.

The Primary Supervisor for this project is based in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences (CIS), which hosts a community of over 100 PGRs. Within CIS the Strathclyde iSchool Research Group (SiSRG) is currently home to over 40 PGR students. The group’s goal is to help people make the most of the information available to them. Much of its work is inspired by the desire to create a fairer society and it has an excellent reputation for human centered computing research. A large number of PGRs in SiSRG are part of cross-disciplinary, cross-Faculty/School supervisory teams and are engaged in relevant research related to public sector concerns in domains such as health, education and cultural heritage. SiSRG PGRs actively participate in relevant staff/student initiatives, such as CIS’s departmental seminar series and annual Engage with Strathclyde week, and present at relevant events such as Strathclyde Doctoral School’s Multidisciplinary Symposium and SiSRG’s research meetings. The Secondary Supervisor is based in the Law School. Strathclyde Law School has, in its 60 year history, established and consolidated its reputation for research excellence and provides a vibrant and inclusive research environment for PGRs.

A key focus of the CDT will be training, to support your development as a highly skilled researcher able to work at the interface of different disciplines and methods. CDT-specific training will sit alongside research skills training offered within your home faculty, and you’ll also enrol in the University’s Postgraduate Certificate in Researcher Professional Development (PG Cert RPD). This programme offers a tailored suite of workshops, courses, events, online provisions and resources designed to meet your development needs. This is a unique qualification, where students can gain credits for academic-related activities, such as conference presentations, event organisation, and public engagement. This programme is aimed at developing skilled, confident researchers and effective and valuable potential employees. You will graduate with the University’s Postgraduate Certificate in Researcher Professional Development.

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

The University of Strathclyde is a socially progressive institution that strives to ensure equality of opportunity and celebrates the diversity of its student and staff community. Strathclyde is people-oriented and collaborative, offering a supportive and flexible working culture with a deep commitment to our equality, diversity and inclusion charters, initiatives, groups and networks.

We strongly encourage applications from Black, Asian and minority ethnicity, women, LGBT+, and disabled candidates and candidates from lower socio-economic groups and care-experienced backgrounds.

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Funding details

Funded candidates will receive a maintenance grant in line with UKRI guidance to cover their living expenses, with an annual cost of living increase. Home fees are included in the studentship.

International candidates are very welcome to apply but will be required to pay the difference between the home student fee and the international student tuition fee. 

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Dr Emma Nicol

Lecturer In Information Behaviour
Computer and Information Sciences

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Dr Adam Harkens


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Interested candidates should forward a CV (3 pages max. and to include undergraduate and postgraduate degree grade point averages) and project proposal (1500-2000 words) to the Centre for the Study of Human Rights Law: You will receive an email confirmation of receipt within 3 working days. If you do not receive this, please email the named contacts below.

This proposal should indicate: 

  • Motivations for researching in this subject area
  • Your understanding of the research context, to demonstrate your knowledge of the subject area
  • A suggested research question or questions, and how these fit in relation to the suggested questions above
  • A possible case study or area of focus (e.g., welfare, social care and child protection, immigration, or criminal justice)
  • Potential research methods.

Please indicate in your email if you are available on both of the interview dates and whether you agree to an interview via Zoom, or whether you are requesting an in-person interview.

If your application is not shortlisted, we aim to let you know within 2 weeks.

Number of places: 1

Shortlisting will be carried out by three members of the supervisory team at the Strathclyde Centre for Doctoral Training in Human Rights-based Decision Making. 

It is anticipated that shortlisted applicants will be invited to interview on 14th or 20th June 2023. 

All staff involved in shortlisting and interviewing have undertaken recent unconscious bias training.

Interviews will take place via Zoom. Applicants can request an in-person interview if preferred and this will be accommodated if possible depending on availability of the interview panel.

To read how we process personal data, applicants can review our 'Privacy Notice for Student Applicants and Potential Applicants' on our Privacy notices' web page.

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Contact us

For further details, please contact Dr Emma Nicol ( and/or Dr Adam Harkens (