Top genetics scientist back for the future
A push to put the power of discovery science back into livestock breeding has brought home a genetics world achiever, writes Andrea Fox.
Returned world-leading Kiwi scientist Dorian Garrick likes to say his research at a US university was funded by the Islamic jihad.
The leader of the newly-launched Massey University Al Rae Centre for Genetics and Breeding has been able to utter this little showstopper quite a bit lately in response to predictable inquiries about how he will cope with New Zealand's much-lamented science funding squeeze after America's comparative largesse.
It's not a word of a lie, says the professor, lured home from a stellar international career to lend gravitas to a venture which aims to build enviable expertise in quantitative breeding, genetics and genomics to benefit agriculture and create the next generation of scientists with these skills for the plant and animal breeding industries.
For the past 10 years, Garrick has held the Jay Lush endowed professorship chair in animal breeding and genetics at Iowa State University. The genesis of that chair was a $1 million donation from alumnus and Hizbollah kidnap victim Tom Sutherland. Sutherland hoped others who had benefited from the university's pre-eminent animal science programme would follow his lead to build the endowed professorship honouring Lush, considered the father of modern animal breeding and Sutherland's major professor.
Sutherland gave away many millions of dollars to charity after receiving $23 million compensation awarded by an American court in 2001 from Iranian assets frozen over Iran's role in financing Hizbollah militants. Sutherland, who died last year at 85, was abducted in Beirut in 1985 while dean of agriculture at the American University of Beirut. He was held for six years, often chained to a wall in darkness, one of dozens of westerners taken hostage in Beirut at the height of Lebanon's civil war.
At his office in AgResearch's Ruakura campus Homestead, Garrick says while it was a boon to be able to tap the fruit of the Iran funds for his research and teaching at Iowa State, there's plenty to be positive about in his new job downunder.
His salary has dipped a bit but his motivation in coming home was never money, he says. He always intended to return and has kept up his links with Massey, from where he graduated with first class honours in 1981 and which was his first employer. The new job isn't fulltime – he's retaining an interest in a genomics software company he co-founded in the US.
But there's no getting away from the fact that the future of new AL Rae Centre, named in memory of another founder of modern animal breeding, Garrick's Massey professor Alexander Lindsay Rae, will depend on cold hard cash as much as the prestige of the Garrick name.
A cornerstone of the new discovery science centre was a $250,000 gift from the Norman FB Barry Foundation which enabled the funding of four PhD scholarships, one postdoctoral fellow, two eminent visiting scientists and funds for workshops.
"It's a small amount in the whole perspective of things but the advantage is it's not dedicated to a particular project. With most of our research grants, by the time you get it, you know where all the money is going to go," says Garrick, who gained his PhD at Cornell in the US.
"That means you don't have the money that if a student walks through the door showing a lot of interest, you can't say sit down, enrol, you're starting tomorrow. Or if we come up with some serendipitous discovery and we want to do a new trial next week, we don't have the funds to do that with research grants.
"Funding an additional student or an experiment can be done with unencumbered funds and that's where donations like the Barry Foundation's are tremendously valuable."
The new centre's co-director and key driver, Massey professor Hugh Blair makes no bones about how important unencumbered cash gifts are to science.
"The country's top students have been enticed away from discovery science in genetics because of greater salaries in banking and other agribusiness areas.
"Low salaries for PhD students in New Zealand have resulted in more attractive opportunities for talented people elsewhere…..this has led to under-achievement in discovery science for a number of years, with similar science centres around New Zealand suffering from a lack of resources and a short-term focus driven by an industry keen on solving the issues at hand."
For years, Blair says, there has been a lack of research in quantitative genetics in favour of molecular genetics. "We want to marry these two areas to get a picture of the overall merit of the animal."
Garrick's wasted no time applying to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment for "substantial" funds and says some funding is also promised from Beef + Lamb Genetics and DairyNZ. Funding and support conversations are also under way with sector participants such as LIC, CRV Ambreed and the wood industry Crown Research Institute Scion.
Wellington-born Garrick - hardwired for a career in science, his father had a doctorate in shark science - says some things in the New Zealand research science world are looking up since he left the country in 2002 to join Colorado State University, where he stayed for five years before going to Iowa State.
While he supports scientists getting overseas experience and seeking fresh mentors, his exit to Colorado was spurred by a cocktail of negative developments during his time in the AL Rae chair at Massey University, a post he took up in 1994.
"(Initially) I had seven PhD graduates and worked in a range of different industries including forestry. Some students came through our undergraduate ag-science programmes and others from offshore and we did a lot of direct research with industry.
"About that time New Zealand was swinging towards user-pays and capturing intellectual property and keeping ideas secret so they might be patented. The media was portraying agriculture as a sunset industry and the government was funding three year degree programmes rather than four year programmes.
"As each one of my PhD students finished I wasn't able to find a replacement to keep the programme going. I went from seven to zero PhD students. I designed a large experiment for the Dairy Board that would have involved genomics and was hopeful it would allow us to involve a number of graduate students, but Fonterra which inherited the project and created the subsidiary ViaLactica to manage it, wanted it to be kept fairly secret and run on their own properties, not involving graduate students."
The matings for this project had been completed but it would be several years before useful data would be generated for discovery, so it was time to leave, Garrick recalls.
He intended to stay at Colorado university three years but when the time was up New Zealand didn't have the jobs he wanted, which would have involved solving industry problems, publishing the results and bringing in graduate students. He stayed on in America.
"While I've been away the government changed its policy involving graduate students and we've had an increase in the number wanting to do post-grad study. There's been a bit of relaxation over intellectual property and patenting and a recognition that a lot of research is better when it's published or shared than when it's secret."
Garrick says he was approached to return home by parties in the dairy and sheep and beef industries. There was an indication funds might be available for discovery science.
Meantime Massey had met industry stakeholders around the country for feedback on what was required to do a better job on genetic improvement.
"They identified the need for graduate training and for people to work across species and disciplines. All that converged to create the AL Rea Centre."
The Waikato and Ruakura were chosen to host the centre because Massey did not have a direct presence there, it was "neutral" territory, and major industry organisations were headquartered nearby.
Garrick says the first bid for government funding has been made in collaboration with a number of those parties and researchers.
While his statistics mining and computer modelling work on theoretical problems to do with genetic prediction is a foreign language to most of us, his message to NZ Inc and farmers is simple.
"There are fantastic business value propositions for genetic improvement. Many organisations know this already. If they invest in genetic improvement the country will benefit to a much greater extent than the investment (involved).
"But most of them recognise there is market failure in these activities so they need to be partially supported by funding somewhere else. I would like people to recognise that we are here to help. We are here to help train students or perhaps staff already working in those organisations."
Farmers, he says, could encourage their levy funding organisations to invest in genetic improvement activities and to take more of a long-term view.
"I'm always interested in working with ram and bull breeders and have a history of working with them. If they have ideas about doing things differently, we can work with them to help them implement it on their own farms.
"If they see something unusual with a genetic basis, let us know. We have discovered quite a number of genes responsible for diseases in particular because some commercial farmer has contacted us about lambs or calves on their farm with an unusual attribute and we've been able to trace it back and show it comes from a particular sire.
"In many cases we are able to use genomics to find the actual cause or mutation responsible for that effect. Then that allows them to select against that if the attribute is unfavourable. Sometimes if you discover something unfavourable it improves your knowledge about favourable attributes at the same time."