UK’s Kew Gardens steps up global science efforts

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is planning to work harder on disseminating its research to international scientists to fulfil its goal of targeting global challenges such as climate change

According to the UK botanical centre’s five-year science strategy launched in February, improved research distribution could boost the institution’s role in global plant conservation efforts. The strategy includes projects to gather plant information from developing countries and publish research online (see list below).

“Our core purpose at Kew stems from a simple but often overlooked truth: that all our lives depend on plants and fungi,” said Kathy Willis, Kew’s director of science.

At the launch event, she pointed out that global climate change, population increases, rising living standards and growing biofuel use will hugely alter the variety and quantity of plant life, and the world’s ability to feed itself. Given the scale of these challenges, she said, Kew has a responsibility to make its work available to the public and decision-makers.

Willis admitted that Kew had previously been weak at disseminating the work of the gardens, so this would be a vital strand of the strategy to make Kew a true global knowledge resource.

The strategy sets out three priorities. As well as disseminating knowledge, Kew also wants to document and conduct research into global plant and fungal diversity and its uses, and to curate and provide evidence from its collections as a global asset for research. This work is meant to support food security and environment protection efforts around the world.

As part of the strategy, Kew will continue to collect seeds, with the hope of having stored a quarter of the world’s known and bankable seeds in its Millennium Seed Bank by 2020. The garden will also continue to digitise its collection, eventually allowing free online access to its records of all seven million specimens held in its collection.

But the strategy was published following a financial crisis at the institution.

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A combination of a fall in UK government funding and contributions from independent charity the Kew Foundation meant Kew faced a budget hole of £5 million (around US$7.7 million) — roughly a tenth of its budget — in 2014/15. This led to the loss of more than 100 jobs, around half of them in the garden’s science department.

A 2010 report written by consultants on behalf of the UK’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs said the department’s planned funding cuts would end Kew’s reputation as a world-class scientific institution.

Kew’s director Richard Deverell says the restructuring was not just down to this funding cut, but also to put in place the “structure, skills and resources to deliver the science strategy”. Kew is seeking other funding sources, and will launch a consultancy arm later this year to help fund its scientific vision, he says.

Kew’s new science initiatives

– Tropical Important Plant Areas: a project to name and identify plants in environmentally threatened tropical regions. The work will focus on seven locations: Bolivia, Cameroon, Guinea, Mozambique and Uganda as well as the island of New Guinea and the British overseas territories in the Caribbean

– The Plant and Fungal Trees of Life: Kew will use its collections to complete an evolutionary tree of life based on DNA analysis

– Plants of the World Online Portal: Kew aims to put all the information it has about the world’s known plant species online by 2020

– State of the World’s Plants: This annual ‘horizon scan’ on issues such as endangered and invasive species is due to be launched in December as a tool for governments, policymakers and conservationists

– A new master’s course in plant and fungal taxonomy, diversity and conservation will be offered in partnership with Queen Mary, University of London, from September. Funding for some students from the developing world will be underwritten by the Kew Foundation

First published by SciDev

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Kew’s science strategy