By Alice Bell
This article is reposted from theguardian.com, Friday 11th April 2014
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which has sites at Kew Gardens, London and Wakehurst Place, Sussex, has been struggling with cuts for years, but it has recently reached crisis point.
At the end of the last month, Kew issued a statement that they faced a shortfall of around £5 million. In his first interview since joining the Royal Botanic Gardens 18 months ago, Kew’s Director Richard Deverell told the Times that this was an “extremely challenging situation” which could result in the loss of 125 jobs, a sixth of the institution’s workforce. The Prospect union believe the majority of posts that will be lost will be in science and public engagement.
The campaign moved up a step this week, as MPs issued an Early Day Motion, calling for a full public debate on the implications of such cuts. Prospect have also launched a petition calling on Environment Secretary Owen Patterson to urgently reverse cuts to Kew’s operating grant in aid.
As Sir David Attenborough told local Richmond press: “The important thing to remember is that it is the premiere botanical gardens in the world scientifically. People who think it is just a place to go to look at pretty flowers and flower beds are mistaking the importance of Kew Gardens”
Praising Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, he added: “The seed bank is of world importance and it should be supported by the Government like a proper institution or university and the continuing idea that Kew Gardens is merely a playground and that you just put up the prices to look after it is a misguided assessment of the value of Kew.”
A similar point was made by PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka, who told the BBC: “This is not only a world-famous visitor attraction, it is a centre of scientific excellence and conservation, and it is a scandal that it is being cut to the bone because of a political obsession with austerity.”
Underlining environmental concern on this issue, Beatrix Richards, Head of Natural Commodities at WWF-UK, said: “Kew plays a critically important role in championing the importance of plants and trees in the natural world, so the significant cuts proposed to its operational budget are of major concern to WWF. Kew’s scientists help conserve the vast diversity of plants and fungi on which the future health of the planet depends. Kew has a global reach, is a recognised global centre of excellence in botanical research, species identification and in its aims to save more than 75,000 wild plants through its seedbank. It would be unforgivable if cuts to budget meant that the great work and reputation the centre has built over so many years was put in jeopardy.
Ginny Page, Director of Science and Plants for Schools and a member of the UK Plant Sciences Federation executive committee stressed the educational context: “Kew has inspired countless teachers and students over the years. It’s mission to engage young people with plants and their conservation has never been more crucial.”
Sarah Main from the Campaign for Science and Engineering also agrees cuts at Kew are a concern for the scientific community, similarly noting the importance of the seed bank and describing Kew as a key player in Britain’s world-leading scientific research. Moreover, Main highlights a key science policy side to the story: “The government is looking to reduce the number of its non-departmental public bodies, which includes public sector research establishments, like Kew. It is vital that government takes into account not just the economic case but the value of the science performed at these research facilities. As the Science and Technology Select Committee and BIS have both highlighted, this was a lesson the government have learnt – sadly retrospectively – in the case of the Forensic Science Service and a mistake we should be careful not to repeat.”
Colin Osborne, Reader in Plant Biology at the University of Sheffield also underlined that from a scientific point of view, Kew’s plant collections are a national treasure, scientifically and environmentally: “The are utterly invaluable as a resource for research work on biodiversity, climate change, conservation and crop improvement – but you can only maintain such collections in good health, with wide access to external scientists, if long-term funding is secure.”
Osborne also notes how these cuts sat in a larger picture of science funding, suggesting polices from BIS and the Research Councils – not just Defra or the Treasury – underpin why this is latest news from Kew feels like such a crisis. He argues: “Kew is one of the last bastions of taxonomy, a branch of biology that has been driven to ground in universities because it doesn’t yield immediate impact. It’s a slow-burning science that underpins what everyone else does. We still don’t know the names of vast numbers of species on Earth, and we never will if taxonomy dies. In the current climate, core funding for Kew and Natural History Museums is one of the few ways that will happen.”
Mark Downs, chief executive of the Society of Biology was amongst the many voices concerned about this threat to Kew’s world-class contributions to conservation, heritage and education: “Seed collections are valuable for conservation of biodiversity and are a potential source of plants with medicinal properties. The collection also includes wild relatives of crop plants. Many have favourable characteristics, such as drought tolerance, which can be introduced into commercial crops” Citing research conducted by PwC on behalf of Kew last summer, Downs also helps make the economic case here. “The economic value of crop varieties benefiting from wild relative genes is estimated to be at least $68bn, and this could increase to $196bn in the future. We can’t afford to lose any of what Kew has to offer.”