UK government slammed for Kew Gardens budget crunch : Nature News & Comment

Lee Poulsen
Tue, 03 Mar 2015 16:34:28 PST
Just saw this news item. In addition to the severe cuts to Kew's budget, one sentence in the article is troubling to me: Botanists around the world warned "that cuts could damage ... [Kew's] policy work to help prevent the trading of endangered species." Does that include the kind of trading we all like to do? I grow a few endangered species that I really like a lot. And yet I am totally against decimating wild populations of such species. Am I at odds with Kew over wanting to try growing such species?

--Lee Poulsen
Pasadena, California, USA - USDA Zone 10a
Latitude 34°N, Altitude 1150 ft/350 m…

UK government slammed for Kew Gardens budget crunch

Oli Scarff/Getty

A 2014 budget shortfall forced the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew to lay off roughly one-fifth of its staff.

Richard Van Noorden
04 March 2015

A British parliamentary committee has castigated the UK government for failing to securely fund a world-leading plant science centre in London, leading to a budget crisis and job losses that are undermining its scientific work.

“We consider the current financial arrangements for funding to be a recipe for failure,” concludes the report, published on 4 March. It lays much of the blame for the trouble at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew on the UK's Department for Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Last year, the centre laid off 47 full-time scientists — around a fifth of its research staff — after suffering a £5 million budget shortfall. Botanists around the world raised alarm at an inquiry held in December by the UK House of Commons science and technology committee, warning that the cuts could damage the centre’s work in plant and fungal taxonomy, its ability to maintain a seed bank to protect against biodiversity loss, and its policy work to help prevent the trading of endangered species.

“The government must work out a stable way of funding the Gardens that provides greater long-term certainty for Kew’s important work,” says Andrew Miller, the chair of the committee. The centre should also be given more freedom over its budget, the report recommends; Kew currently must receive approval from Defra each year for many of its purchases. Defra could not be immediately reached for comment.

"Kew needs long-term investment backed by Government. This will ensure that we are able to adequately care for our collections, which are not only a priceless national asset but also an extraordinary global resource," a spokeperson for the centre said in response to the report.

A team brought in to restructure science at the centre declares that its research remains strong. In February, Kew announced a new science strategy, including launching an annual ‘State of the World’s Plants’ report and digitizing many of the centre’s 7 million plant specimens. Director of science Kathy Willis says that despite the job losses, she finds it hard to name things that Kew has actually had to cut back on — beyond being more selective in specimen collection, and cutting conservation biology programmes, such as planting trees to restore ecosystems.

But the physical state of the Royal Botanic Gardens — which includes buildings that form part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site — is deteriorating. The gardens grow over 19,000 species, including giant water lilies, towering pine trees, and rare orchids, many in huge iron-framed greenhouses that need metalwork restoration and thousands of panes of glass replaced. “I don’t yet have a plan to ensure how these buildings can be maintained for future generations,” says Richard Deverell, the director of the gardens.
The centre, with an income of around £60 million per year, is trying to wean itself off government cash. Defra funding for Kew has declined from £28.6 million in 2009-2010 to a projected £20.4 million in 2015-2016 (even including an emergency boost of £2.3 million announced in December, just before the committee inquiry). Meanwhile, income generated from charging visitors, charitable donations, outside consultancy work and project grants is growing. “We have to focus on alternative fund-raising,” says Willis, noting that scientists at the centre secured five new research grants in the last month alone.

Morale among staff is recovering, says Deverell — even though many of the centre’s workforce had to reapply for jobs in the restructure. Critical feedback from a staff survey last November marked the nadir, but wasn’t as bad as he feared, he says: “You can’t take out 47 full-time scientists without leaving some bruises.”  

Nature doi:///10.1038/nature.2015.17045

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