Pruning at Kew gardens spurs ‘reinvigorated’ science strategy

Royal Botanic Gardens’ initiatives include online access to all botanical information at Kew
Seed strategy: collecting for Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, which represents 17% of known species worldwide, is one area of focus following the restructuring

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Kew is launching a pruned down but “reinvigorated” science strategy in the wake of a financial crisis that has led to the loss of 100 jobs at the world-famous Royal Botanic Gardens, including 47 scientific posts — about a quarter of the scientific workforce.

The strategy includes several initiatives for the next five years including an annual “state of the world’s plants” report; online access to all botanical information held at Kew; a focus on tropical plant diversity; postgraduate training of scarce taxonomists; and new activities to bring plant science to the general public.

Savings would come from being “much more focused with less duplication. There are very few things we are not doing now that we were doing before,” said Kathy Willis, science director.

But she said “restoration ecology” — repairing damaged wild vegetation — was one area that had been cut back. “We will no longer put people out in the field with spades,” she said. “Other people, NGOs, will be delivering the work.”

The “restructuring” followed last year’s emergence of what Kew director Richard Deverell called “a £5m hole in our accounts”, a deficit equivalent to about 10 per cent of turnover. This was the result of a cut in core government funding combined with an unexpected fall in contributions by the charitable Kew Foundation.

“For many years Kew had managed to wriggle out of financial challenges by raising the gate price but we decided we could not raise it any further,” said Mr Deverell, who became director in 2012. The basic adult entrance fee has risen during the past 40 years from 1p to £15.


The number of specimens in Kew’s Herbarium

The scientific job losses have been achieved largely through voluntary redundancy, said Professor Willis, although six scientists face compulsory redundancy. At the same time researchers are being recruited in priority areas such as mycology, the study of fungi, where Kew is a world leader, and seven new jobs have been created.

“The restructuring has not just been about cutting costs,” Mr Deverell said. “It is about making sure we have the right skills and structures in place for our mission to document and understand global plant and fungal diversity and its uses for humanity.”

The new strategy outlines nine goals. One of the most important for policy makers will be to carry out annual detailed assessments of plant life worldwide; the first will be published in December.

Another is to push on with collecting seeds from wild plants for Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, which now represents 17 per cent of known species worldwide and aims for 25 per cent (75,000 species) by 2020.

Meanwhile, all Kew’s data about the world’s plants and everything in its own collections, including 7m specimens in the Herbarium, will be digitised and made available online.

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