In Conversation with Internationally Recognised Agricultural Scientist, Shaun Coffey

A change maker, organisation builder and an internationally recognised agricultural scientist, Shaun Coffey has long been working for development and research. He has been acknowledged for his constant involvement and contributions in industry development. Today, he shares his views on technology and education with Foradian.

About Shaun Coffey:

An internationally recognised agricultural scientist, Shaun Coffey has had a long involvement with complex management systems, and with research and development. His early career as Executive Director of a major cattle producer organisation provided direct involvement in public issues management. Shaun’s career progressed through a number of roles, including Director of Research and Extension for the Department of Primary Industries in the State of Queensland, a role where he had major responsibilities including animal health and welfare. He went on to be appointed the Foundation Chief of the CSIRO Division of Livestock Industries in 2000. From 2006 to 2013, Shaun was based in New Zealand where his influence extended beyond agriculture into the manufacturing and services sectors as Chief Executive of Industrial Research Ltd, a major Crown Research Institute. In this role he was a major driver and architect of reform and modernisation of the nation’s R&D policies and institutions. Shaun has recently returned to Australia and established his own business advisory firm specialising in strategy and innovation.

Shaun has been widely acknowledged as an outstanding leader and strategist, and for his many contributions to industry development. Among his honours and awards, Shaun is a recipient of the Silver Medal of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists (2001), a Centenary Medal of Agriculture from the University of Melbourne (2006), and the Royal Society of New Zealand’s prestigious Thomson Medal for his inspirational leadership in the management of science and his outstanding contribution to the development and application of science and technology to wealth generation in New Zealand and Australia (2010). He was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering in 2004 and a Companion of the Institute of Professional Engineers New Zealand in 2008. He is also a Fellow of both the Australian Institute of Company Directors and the Australian Institute of Management. In 2009, he was elected a Companion of the Royal Society of New Zealand. Shaun is on the editorial boards of the Open Proteomics Journal and of E: CO (Emergence: Complexity & Organization) He is an Adjunct Professor in Agricultural Science at the University of Queensland, an Honorary Research Fellow in Engineering and Technology in Massey University, and an Adjunct Professor in the Victoria Management School, Victoria University, Wellington. In 2012 he was named by Unlimited Magazine as one of the 25 most influential people in New Zealand and he is listed in the New Zealand Listener Power List as No. 2 in Science and Technology.

Q: What are the innovations in education technology and how innovations can be introduced in institutions at primary level?

Shaun: This is not an easy area to explore, and I tend to think in terms of soft and hard technologies. We have a vast range of digital tools available now to deliver content, and it is easy to think of these as innovative: in their own right they are. There is still much to be learnt about how to use and harness these digital tools and the huge amount of data and information they can deliver. This is where the “soft” becomes important. I still believe that the best way to introduce innovations into education is to focus on helping people to learn how to learn. It is how to turn to information now delivered in volume and at breakneck speed into knowledge that is still the key step. An understanding of personal learning styles, an appreciation of Kolb learning cycles, and master of action learning skills from Reg Revans (L = P + Q) are all useful tools. As it is development of reflective practice.

Q: What are the main drawbacks of research and development in technology? And what are the tactics to solve the problems?

Shaun: One could talk about this for hours. In the public organisations, we tend to over complicate R&D, and get tied down in meaningless debates over research classifications (blue sky vs near-to-market, pure vs applied, etc). And private companies often see it as an add-on but not core business. You can see my blogpost-

How would I characterize this in terms of drawbacks? Put simply the major problem I see is that we do not spend enough time on good problem definition/opportunity description. Investing more time into understanding the situation we are addressing, think through the research pathway and business model integration, through to utilization would contribute to better performance (and higher levels of understanding between private and public sector R&D efforts).

Q: What is the role of private public partnership (PPP) in research and development of technology?

Shaun: It can be anything we want it to be. The public choice to invest in R&D (and education) is inherent in many countries around the world, and there are many studies that link this investment to livelihoods and productivity. In many countries, the quantum of research by industry is perhaps low. Rather than thinking narrowly in terms of the role of PPP, it’s more important to think about purpose. I see the purpose of PPP is to share risk and rewards — so before you have any single PPP you must have a clear understanding of the reward you seek, then you can structure to PPP. There is no one-right-way.

Q: What made modern approach of research and developments different from traditional one?

Shaun: I am not sure if there is any distinction. I think the words of John Ziman written almost 30 years ago are still relevant:

“Many scientists and scholars look back regret-fully to a more relaxed and spacious environment for academic research. But nostalgia is a fruitless sentiment. What all scientists know is that science cannot thrive without social space for personal initiative and creativity, time for ideas to grow to maturity, open-ness to debate and criticism, hospitality towards innovation, and respect for specialized expertise. The real question is not whether the structural transition is desirable, or could have been avoided: it is how to reshape the research system to fit a new environment without losing the features that have made it so productive in the past.”

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Originally published at on August 29, 2013.