The University of Portsmouth is committed to delivering globally recognised research and innovation solutions that improve society.

Jeremy Howells

5 minutes

The University of Portsmouth is committed to delivering globally recognised research and innovation solutions that improve society. To achieve this, we have established four interdisciplinary research themes that address the major issues and challenges facing the planet and humanity. These themes are:

  1. Building an inclusive and growth-led economy and society
  2. Improving health and wellbeing
  3. Protecting our environment
  4. Developing enhanced technologies

These themes are not fixed or isolated, but rather they interact and overlap with each other, creating opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration and impact. They also align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the UK Research and Innovation Strategy, ensuring that our research is relevant and responsive to the needs and priorities of the world.

But how did we come up with these themes, and what are we doing to make them work? In this blog post, I will share with you the process and the rationale behind our new research theme framework, and how it will help us achieve our vision of becoming the Top Modern University by 2030.

The journey so far

Our research themes were first introduced in 2016, based on the idea of creating broad areas of strategic focus that would unify our research endeavours across the university. The original themes were:

  1. Democratic citizenship
  2. Future and emerging technologies
  3. Health and wellbeing
  4. Security and risk
  5. Sustainability and the environment

These themes served us well for a while, helping us to increase our research impact and reputation nationally and internationally. However, over time, we realised that there were some limitations and challenges with the way the themes were functioning. For example, we found that:

  1. There was a disconnection between the themes and the faculties, schools, centres, and institutes, which made it difficult to coordinate and communicate our research activities and achievements.
  2. There was a lack of transparency and clarity around the governance and funding of the themes, which created a sense of exclusiveness and distrust among some researchers.
  3. There was a mismatch between the themes and the external funding landscape, which had shifted from broad challenges to more targeted opportunities.

To address these issues, we commissioned an external review of our research themes in 2021, led by Professor Allister McGregor, an expert in interdisciplinary research. The review involved consultations with key senior stakeholders, including the Vice-Chancellor, the Executive Deans, the Associate Deans for Research and Innovation, the Theme Directors, and other research leaders across the university. The review also analysed the performance and achievements of the themes, as well as the alignment with the university strategy and the external environment.

The review confirmed that the principle of having interdisciplinary research themes was still valid and valuable, but it also highlighted the need for some radical changes in the structure and operation of the themes. Based on the findings and recommendations of the review, we developed a strategic action plan to redefine, restructure, and relaunch our research themes.

The new framework

The new framework for our research themes is based on three main changes:

  1. Theme coverage and range: We reduced the number of themes from five to four, and reformulated them to reflect the current and emerging priorities and opportunities for research and innovation. We also embedded the security and risk theme across the other four themes, recognising that it is a cross-cutting issue that affects all aspects of society.
  2. Theme governance and operations: We are moving from a leadership-based model to a project-based model, where the themes are driven by specific research projects that are aligned with the theme objectives and the external funding opportunities. We also simplified and streamlined the funding and reporting processes, making them more transparent and accountable.
  3. Theme metrics, review, and funding: We are establishing clear and measurable key performance indicators for each theme, and a regular review mechanism to monitor and evaluate the progress and impact of the theme projects. We are reviewing the funding given the reset agenda for the themes, to establish an appropriate sustainable budget based on the strategic priorities and the expected outcomes of the University.

The new framework is designed to make our research themes more agile, responsive, and effective, as well as more connected and inclusive. It will also enable us to showcase and celebrate our research excellence and innovation, and to demonstrate our contribution to society and the world.

Jeremy Howells, Pro-Vice Chancellor (Research, Innovation & External Engagement)

What’s next

We are currently in the process of implementing the new framework for our research themes, with the aim of launching them officially in the academic year 2024/25. This involves:

  1. Finalising the theme objectives, strategies, and plans, in consultation with the relevant research stakeholders and partners.
  2. Identifying and supporting the theme projects based on the Thematic R&I Fund (TRIF) funding calls criteria that will be issued annually.
  3. Communicating and promoting the theme activities and achievements.

I am excited about the new direction and the potential of our research themes, and hope you are too. By working together, across disciplines and sectors, we can make a difference and create a better future for everyone.

Join the conversation

I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback on our new research theme framework. What do you think of the new themes and their objectives? How do you see yourself getting involved or benefiting from the theme projects? What are the challenges and opportunities that you foresee or experience in relation to the themes?

Please share your comments and questions with me at the next Café Conversations on Thursday 15th February, or contact me directly at I look forward to hearing from you and engaging with you on this important and exciting topic.