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Wednesday 20 April 2016 3:05pm

Otago's Research Themes are varied.

Have you ever wondered how and why the University selects the Research Themes it formally recognises and supports?

We asked Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research & Enterprise) Professor Richard Blaikie about the latest round of decision-making, which was the first in four years:

Do the Research Themes that have been chosen signal any particular strategic direction for the University?

Themes were chosen principally on the basis of the excellence of the research and coordination activities that were proposed. Secondary consideration was given to ensure that the Themes spanned the broad areas of strength across the university with topics that had the greatest potential for impact in their external communities of relevance. There were 34 applications received for Theme status across all four of our academic divisions, with a mix of well-established and newly-formed collaborations proposed. The 13 successful Themes all align to our strategic intent to ensure that the application of knowledge is advanced alongside traditional academic scholarship; the translational opportunities for the research cover Otago's strengths in technologies for agricultural science, global environmental sciences and advances in human health, to the development of cultural and aesthetic innovations. Of note also is the integration of strong pedagogical research and exceptional outreach activities in the Themes, exemplifying the Otago principle of valuing and enhancing the interplay between teaching, research and service.

How have the Research Themes at Otago changed over time and why?

We do not expect out Themes or Centres to remain static, as our academic departments are the places where continuity of knowledge generation and scholarship to support discrete and longstanding disciplines is most naturally supported. Themes are expected to be dynamic, and even in those such as the Otago Energy Research Centre (OERC) that has been with us for a decade, the topical areas and special projects that are studies change and evolve over time. The fact that nine of our current suite of 13 Research Themes are new exemplifies this expectation for evolution.

Do they signal an increasing emphasis on collaboration and, if so, why?

Collaboration is essential in modern societally-linked research, given the breadth and complexity of the issues that face the world and its people today. This was a cornerstone of the establishment of our Research Theme structure in 2006, and a decade later it remains equally strong. Quite naturally the nature of the collaborative effort has broadened in many Themes as they have developed over time, with many of our newly-formed or re-endorsed Themes including strong researchers from all four of academic divisions, recognising the fact that business, science, health and the humanities all have valid and equal contributions to make to outcome-driven research. Notwithstanding this, the need to support strong discipline-focussed activities, in which collaboration might occur between individuals with strongly overlapping interests, is also important for some issues (for example the understanding of the causes and effects of ocean acidification), which is also reflected in some of our Themes.

How do you hope to see the Themes further develop?

By looking at past Themes, which have now grown and matured to become self-sustaining activities in many case, we can identify the expected pathways for the development of our new Themes. In some cases the problems are finite, such as the ASPIRE 2025 Theme with its goal to contribute research to help make Aotearoa tobacco free by 2025, in which case the research collaborators will consider their work well done and move on to new challenges once this goal is achieved. In other cases, such as in bioarcheology or human evolutionary genetics, common advanced techniques across the Themes will be applied to new and different problems and the Themes have the opportunity to grow to become enduring nationally or internationally significant centres of research excellence. The exciting thing to watch, alongside these clear developmental pathways, will be the trajectories that the other new and exciting research networks will take as the research they pursue now leads to new questions and new opportunities over time.

Where do Research Themes sit in the wider context of the University's research effort?

Research Themes are one of the structures that the University uses to support the Excellence in Research imperative that we reaffirmed in our Strategic Directions to 2020 document, and they sit alongside University of Otago Research Centres as collaborative activities supported and endorsed by our Research Committee. Through Research Themes interdisciplinary networks of scholars from within and outside our University community can engage in research activities leading to common goals, leading to stronger and more effective collaborations or better engagement with end users. The coordination of graduate student training and the provision of opportunities for early career researcher development are also encouraged through Themes and Centres alike. Whilst Centres normally have strong and established national or international presence, Themes are often in growth areas where such presence or mana will develop rapidly through the delivery of coordinated activities.

Otago's Research Themes:

• Allan Wilson at Otago: A research theme for Human Evolutionary Genomics
• Ag @ Otago
• Asia-Pacific Biocultural Health: Past and Present
• ASPIRE2025 Research for a Tobacco-Free Aotearoa
• Collaboration of Ageing Research Excellence (CARE)
• Integrated Catchment Management (Catchments Otago)
• NZ Ocean Acidification Research Cluster
• Otago Energy Research Centre
• Pain at Otago
• Performance of the Real
• Polar Environments Research Theme
• Poutama Ara Rau
• Te Koronga: Indigenous Science

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