Kiwi agricultural research in genetics and breeding will be boosted by a new Massey University-led centre launched today.

The AL Rae Centre - named in memorial for the late Massey emeritus professor who was one of the founders of modern animal breeding - will headed by world-leading Kiwi scientist Professor Dorian Garrick, who has returned to New Zealand for the top role of chief scientist.

It aims to advance quantitative breeding, genetics and genomics to benefit the agricultural sector, along with a new wave of scientists through postgraduate courses.

Positions for four PhD scholarships, one postdoctoral fellow and two eminent visiting scientists have been created with a $250,000 gift from The Norman FB Barry Foundation.

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"We cannot stress the importance of those funds to what we seek to do," co-director Professor Hugh Blair said.

"The country's top students were enticed away from discovery science in genetics because of the greater salaries in banking and other agribusinesses areas."

Low salaries for PhD students in New Zealand had resulted in more attractive opportunities for these talented people elsewhere - either completing their PhD studies overseas or going directly into employment here, Blair said.

"This had led to underachievement in discovery science for a number of years, with similar science centres around New Zealand suffering from lack of resources and a short-term focus driven by an industry keen on solving the issues at hand.

"For a number of years 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."

The centre will be based in AgResearch's Ruakura Research Centre, away from the university's three campuses, but closer to industries it will work with.

Blair said its big drawcard would be Garrick, who has been involved in animal evaluation programmes, performance recording databases and breeding schemes around the world.

"He is one of the world's top animal breeders and he has worked on a variety of genetic improvement programs around the world, including beef cattle, dairy cattle, dual-purpose sheep, fine-woolled sheep, pigs, elk, chickens, salmon and tree breeding."

Garrick said New Zealand had many opportunities to boost returns from its primary industries, through selection based on accurate predictions of performance using genomic data.

The work led by the centre would apply to a wide range of traits and species, and could comprise large pedigrees of millions of animals.