Kew launches science strategy

Kew's new science strategy includes a children's science festival and a masters course on taxonomy.

An annual ‘health check’ of the world’s plants, an online portal that is a one stop shop for all plant and fungal information held at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, a new focus on Tropical Important Plant Areas, a Masters course aimed at tackling the skills crisis in taxonomy and a children’s plant science festival are some of the exciting initiatives revealed in RBG Kew’s new science strategy.

The new strategy follows the loss of around 47 science jobs as part of cuts to Kew's staffing after a budget shortfall put the future of the garden at risk.

  • To support the delivery of the science strategy changes have been made to the structure of the science directorate. Six new teams are focused in the following areas: Collections, Identification and Naming, Comparative Plant and Fungal Biology, Conservation Science using RBG Kew’s research and collections to provide practical solutions to conservation practitioners in the UK and overseas, Natural Capital and Plant Health researching and championing the role and value of plants and fungi to human well-being, and Biodiversity Informatics and Spatial Analysis using technology to unlock and make accessible the masses of data held at RBG Kew to inform the global community about the impact of human activities on biodiversity.

A new mission statement is: To document and understand global plant and fungal diversity and its uses, bringing authoritative expertise to bear on the critical challenges facing humanity today

The strategy, to be implemented over the next five years, aims to place RBG Kew’s vast collections  at the heart of its science and to articulate the role that its collections-based research must play in addressing the questions and challenges facing humanity: habitat destruction, climate change, food and fuel security, disease, poverty and ecological scarcity.

Kew hopes to increase the use of its collections in a predictive capacity – for example, an annual State of the World’s Plants report, to be launched in December 2015, will track issues such as invasive species, species loss, plant disease hotspots and land use change. This project is one of nine accessible strategic outputs that aim to show how Kew science has been disseminated widely to conservation NGOs, researchers outside the world of plant science, governments, policy makers and business.

Kew science director Professor Kathy Willis said: "With this strategy we are focusing Kew’s science in those areas where we can truly make a unique impact on people’s lives, thanks to our unrivalled collection of specimens and the world-leading expertise of our evolutionary botanists, mycologists, taxonomists and systematists.

"Our core purpose at Kew stems from a simple but often overlooked truth: that all of our lives depend on plants and fungi. Given the scale of the challenges we face, Kew absolutely has a responsibility to take a leading role in building momentum around the importance and relevance of botany and taxonomy in the minds of the public and decision makers. This strategy will ensure that we are able to do just this: our science will be accessible, inspirational and will clearly demonstrate the value of plant and fungal science to all of our lives."

The nine strategic outputs summarised:

  • Plants of the World Online Portal: All of the information that RBG Kew holds about the world’s known plant species will be accessible online by 2020. A prototype is well underway. For each species this will include naming and taxonomic information, original literature, distribution maps, botanical images, cultivation advice, uses, social history and much more. Ultimately molecular phylogenies, also known as evolutionary trees, will be integrated into the portal. The Plants of the World Online Portal will be RBG Kew’s contribution towards the delivery of Target 1 of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation: "A widely accessible working list of known plant species as a step towards a complete world flora".
  • State of the World’s Plants: The first set of results from this annual horizon scan of the global status of the Plant Kingdom will launch in December 2015. It is RBG Kew’s ambition that this study will become essential reading for governments, policy makers and conservationists who will use the results to identify strategic research and policy priorities for plants, both in the UK and internationally. It will tackle a range of topics which go beyond the theme of threat levels to plants, for example: Which plant communities and species show resilience to environmental change? What is the status of plant genetic resources? Which crop wild relatives are most promising for use in breeding programmes?
  • Tropical Important Plant Areas (TIPAs): RBG Kew’s expertise in the naming and identification of plants is strong in the species-rich, highly threatened tropical regions of the world. In a project that represents a first for plants in the tropics, RBG Kew will focus its expertise on identifying these remaining pockets of highly threatened tropical plant diversity and designate them as TIPAs. The work will focus on seven areas of the globe: Bolivia, Guinea, Uganda, Cameroon, Mozambique, Tanah Papua and the Caribbean UK Overseas Territories. The project draws on the success that RBG Kew has already had in Cameroon: A series of expeditions beginning in the mid-90s amassed a huge amount of plant data for lesser known areas of Cameroon, leading to the publication of a number of plant conservation checklists.  As a result the Government of Cameroon created five new protected areas – the first ever in Cameroon for which plants were cited as the main reason .
  • The Plant and Fungal Trees of Life: In the late 1990s RBG Kew successfully pioneered and led the first attempt to classify flowering plants according to genetic (DNA) information. Whilst evolutionary relationships at the family level of flowering plants are now well understood, the next step is to flesh out this framework by producing DNA data for a representation of all genera of plants and fungi and, ultimately, all of RBG Kew’s collections and known species. The project will start with legumes in the plant world – the family of peas and beans – and with the mushroom and rust specimens (vital for understanding plant pathogens) in RBG Kew’s 1.25million strong fungarium collection. Evolutionary trees provide a powerful tool for prediction, for example, opening the way to identifying new plants for foods or medicines and enabling scientists to accurately determine which plants will be resilient to environmental change. 
  • Banking the World’s Seeds: In 2010 RBG Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank Partnership celebrated collecting, banking and conserving 10 per cent of the world’s wild plant species. A collection programme to conserve a further 15 per cent of the world’s plant species by 2020 is well underway. By 2020 some 75,000 species will be stored in the Millennium Seed Bank and in partner seed bank facilities, representing 25 per cent of known and bankable seed plant species. At this point in the push for the 2020 target, RBG Kew and its partners have approximately 17% of the world’s flora banked and conserved.
  • Useful Plants and Fungi Portal: RBG Kew has a long history of research into useful plants and fungi. Current projects include helping the Ethiopian Government to develop a climate resilient coffee industry , investigating the chemistry of plants to search for naturally occurring pesticides and using plants to benefit the lives and livelihoods of some of the world’s poorest communities . A newly created Natural Capital and Plant Health team consolidates this expertise and gives this important area of research a new impetus. One of the channels through which the team will communicate its work is the Useful Plants and Fungi Portal.
  • Digitising the Collections: RBG Kew recently reached a significant milestone in its ambition to throw open the doors of the Herbarium to the world and make its collection of over 7 million specimens available online: Over 300,000 type specimens – the important specimens that anchor names to specific plants – are now available in digital form.  Future digitisation projects include a pilot focusing on economically important potato and yam specimens. This will be done in partnership with London’s Natural History Museum and will lay the foundation for collaboration on a joint online Herbarium. 
  • Training the Next Generation of Scientists: In September 2015 RBG Kew will welcome the first students to its new Masters course . The number of trained taxonomists is in decline the world over. Given that most universities no longer teach or train taxonomists, organisations such as RBG Kew must do something about this, and urgently. Students will be based at RBG Kew and the organisation’s taxonomists will teach the course.
  • Science in the Gardens: After a visit to Kew Gardens or Wakehurst Place visitors will leave with an appreciation of why plants and fungi matter, and why we need to understand and conserve them. Humanity faces some very pressing issues which can be addressed by plant science and it is RBG Kew’s job to bring this alive in creative and inspiring ways. A plant science festival for children will be a new addition to the 2016 visitor programme and it is hoped that the festival will play a role in reinvigorating the way in which plants feature on the science education curriculum.

One new project with a UK focus is the ‘Lost & Found Fungi Project’ . RBG Kew’s mycologist will join forces with volunteers to search for the 100 fungi species believed to be the most threatened in the UK. The project will help RBG Kew’s mycologists establish whether these species are genuinely rare or simply poorly recorded.

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