Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Dairy graduate school for Auckland

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Queen street farmers are about to become a whole lot brainier once a new joint graduate school in dairy research kicks off at Auckland University next year. Richard Rennie spoke to the man heading it up.

Kiwi agriculture has long prided itself on innovation born of a bloke tinkering in a shed, then spending much time protecting the Intellectual Property behind his device’s creation.

However, the head of Auckland University’s new joint graduate school in dairy research and innovation believes it is connecting ideas, not protecting them, that will drive the big farm sector forward, and the heart of New Zealand’s largest city is the place to do it.

Like many in Auckland the dean of science, Professor Grant Guilford, is something of an import, having spent 11 years heading up Massey University’s veterinary and animal science school.

However, he is now keen to see Auckland University’s myriad of quality faculties linking together with the dairy industry to push out the next generation of innovative processes, equipment and minds, often coming from the most unlikely of schools.

The graduate programme kicks off in the new academic year and represents a venture between the Auckland University, LIC, DairyNZ, and AgResearch to attract postgraduate students in fields relevant to the dairy sector, involving close collaboration between the partners.

“Looking across the landscape here there are a hell of a lot of students doing things linked to dairying without even realising it. So often they can complete their work and head off overseas not even realising the contribution their work could be making here.”

He points to work in the university’s engineering department around robotics and mechatronic design being applied in dairy sheds, or even within his own science faculty with advanced animal genetics work suitable for application in dairy genomics.

Stepping beyond the farm gate, significant work is being done around food and medical research, particularly through the strong connection to the Liggins Institute, the University’s large scale human health research unit.

There is also an element of commercial pragmatism behind the venture.

NZ undergraduate numbers are presently capped by funding constraints and Professor Guilford sees a change in focus to attracting good postgraduate students achieving a level of quality over quantity that enhances the university’s appeal to overseas students.

“It is a simple recipe that has been followed by United States universities for a long time, and it works well in building research excellence.”

The initial target for the graduate school is 50 students, a number already filling fast for next year and anticipated to grow to 100 over the next few years, split evenly between PhD and Masters students.

AgResearch CEO Dr Tom Richardson welcomed the opportunity to source more locally trained scientists to the research body through the venture.

Typically the CRI is recruiting over two thirds of its scientists from overseas due to local graduate shortages.

“It is recognised that the growth in our food and beverage sector is the area for NZ to make its mark in, with the government setting the goal for it to be providing 40% of export earnings by 2025.”

With Auckland the first stop for many young talented students, the exposure to the country’s largest export sector on their campus helps redress a drift Richardson believes has occurred in recent years.

Guilford acknowledges agricultural research has tended to take a “silo” approach in the past, even within the dairy sector itself. His experience at Massey saw the university recognise its future lay with a broader focus across agriculture and food production.

Survey work has shown the agriculture sector continues to top most for its innovation, but he notes NZ science has had an intense love affair with IP protection, and it was time to re-focus on connecting ideas.

The partners in the graduate school have only contributed a small sum to “oil the wheels” at the programme’s start, then scholarship revenue will play a big part in pulling in students.

“Each partner is not mandated to put specific funds in. However, if they have a project that suits a PhD or Masters student, then they can become involved.”

Conversely the university is also aiming to break down “ivory tower” labels, by enabling LIC, DairyNZ and AgResearch staff to be appointed as part time university staff members.

CEO for DairyNZ Dr Tim Mackle emphasised the programme would not be doubling up on affiliations already in place with Lincoln and Massey. “We are accessing a largely different skill set through Auckland.”

LIC CEO Mark Dewdney said his organisation would welcome the resource of bright young minds who may often not have considered venturing south of the Bombays to find out what dairying could bring to their careers.

“More of our business if focussed on software and electronics, areas where Auckland offers some good opportunities to source graduates.”

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