Kew wins funding reprieve on the eve of select committee grilling

The Government has given £2.3m to Kew Gardens one day ahead of a science and technology select committee hearing into cuts at the botanical attraction.

A further £2.3m to support research at Kew Gardens is being announced by the deputy prime minster Nick Clegg.

Clegg pledged £1.5m extra cash to Kew in September to help plug a £5m budget hole that was costing 125 posts, mostly in science.

The additional funds mean Kew is supported by the Government until April 2016 and will be able to apply for other government loans to maximise income.

Clegg said: "Kew is so much more than a garden and green space, its reputation as a botanical research base and centre for science is world-renowned.

"Balancing the books in this country has meant budgets are tight, but I’m delighted to be able to commit continued funding for Kew as both a leading research hub and beautiful tourist attraction.

"Supporting scientific excellence in the UK is a key part of strengthening Britain’s economy, and this government is focused on enabling research and development work to prosper across the country.

"This funding will support scientists to continue their world-class work at Kew safe in the knowledge that this government supports their vital work and is committing funds to support it."

Kew director Richard Deverell said: "We welcome this Government recognition of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew as the global resource for plant knowledge and the world's leading botanic garden. This money will go some way towards managing our journey to a sustainable financial future.

"However, Kew is seeking greater stability in our Government funding. An assured long term funding settlement would be invaluable for effective planning, reduce volatility and would allow us to come out of this transition phase on a firmer footing, with a clear strategic vision for our organisation."

The announcement comes on the day MP Zac Goldsmith secured a parliamentary debate at Westminster Hall on the planned cuts to Kew, and the day ahead of the select committee hearing.

He said: "This is obviously good news for Kew, but it cannot stop here. Kew needs long term certainty so it can restructure itself for a sustainable future.

"Kew is one of the most amazing things we have in the country. It’s a national treasure - it has seven million plant specimens, two million visitors a year and it’s impossible to exaggerate its importance to the world’s scientific community.

"It is at the very cutting edge of research into food security and climate change, and it is hard to square that work with the steepness and depth of the proposed cuts."

On 17 December, the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee will be going to Cambridge Cottage at Kew for the evidence-based session to discuss funding the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Those to be heard are:
  • Professor Mary Gibby, UK Plant Sciences Federation
  • Professor Georgina Mace, Fellow, The Royal Society
  • Sir Neil Chalmers, Chair of a 2010 independent review of Kew Gardens, commissioned by Defra
  • Richard Deverell, Director, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
  • Professor Kathy Willis, Director of Science, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
  • Julie Flanagan, Full time officer, Prospect
  • Ken Bailey, Trade union side lead for PCS, Prospect and GMB.
  • Lord de Mauley, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for natural environment and science, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Former Kew director Professor Sir Ghillean Prance, Kew science research head Professor Simon Owens, and former Millennium Seed Bank head Dr Paul Smith have all written to the committee protest about the cuts.

Smith said: "I am the most senior Kew scientist to leave the institution during the current upheavals. Until September 30th, I was Head of the Seed Conservation Department & Millennium Seed Bank – the largest of Kew’s three science departments by budget and second largest by staff count. I took voluntary exit, and was the first scientist to leave. I left because my post disappeared in the new structure and because I wasn’t persuaded that the new structure would be an improvement.

"I was also concerned about the apparent acceptance by the (almost entirely new) senior team at Kew that deep funding cuts were inevitable and therefore not worth fighting against.

"Now, having left Kew, I am increasingly concerned by what I see unfolding. As often happens with restructuring where a new senior team is brought in as the ‘new broom’, lack of knowledge of the institution’s strengths and weaknesses leads to poor decision-making.

"In Kew’s case, this will be far more damaging to Kew’s science and reputation than the Defra cuts themselves. I fear that, by December 17th much of the damage will already have been done due to a fundamental shift in science policy that is only partially related to the Government funding cuts and has not been acknowledged or debated.

"My specific concerns are:

• A ‘vision’ that takes Kew back to ‘documenting and understanding plant diversity’ at the expense of conserving and managing plant diversity – the applied scientific niche that botanic gardens are uniquely placed to occupy.

• A restructure that has taken place without first developing a strategy that describes objectives, outcomes, impacts, human resources, financial resources and timeline to achieve those objectives. None of this appears to have been done or, if it has, it hasn’t been shared with staff or anyone else.

• Lack of consultation. Kew staff have not been consulted on science strategy and restructure other than some workshops on key research questions. In addition, Kew is an acknowledged leader at the centre of a worldwide network of botanic gardens and plant science institutes. None of these partner institutes have been consulted either.

• A fundamental shift in job descriptions and performance indicators that will take Kew science into mainstream academia where Kew will be unable to compete and which values formal qualifications and publishing track record in mainstream literature, above knowledge and experience. While this looks good from the outside – and indeed there is room for improvement in publications output – it should not be at the expense of practical, applied conservation science.

• The loss of Kew’s international training courses aimed at conservation practitioners. Kew’s training programmes are key components of its partnerships, and the glue that keeps Kew’s international network alive. Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank has trained thousands of people in seed conservation techniques over the past 10 years and, often, this capacity building is a pre-requisite for access to seed material and collaborative agreements.

"I am most concerned about the structural changes to the Millennium Seed Bank which is aglobally unique facility, and I would recommend that independent expert group (preferably including seed bank expertise) is convened to look at the potential impact of these changes.

"To answer the questions the Committee is seeking evidence on:

WHAT MAKES KEW A PIONEERING INSTITUTION IN ITS FIELD?

"During my 18 years at Kew I worked in both the Herbarium and the Seed Conservation Department. I am best qualified to talk about their focus:

"1) Plant systematics and taxonomy. Kew has world class and unique expertise in plant taxonomy, and is widely recognised as the leader in this field. Until now, Kew has been the world authority on Fabaceae (legumes), Poaceae (grasses), Rubiaceae (coffee family), Lamiaceae (mint family), Asteraceae (dandelion family), Orchidaceae, Palmae and several other of the largest (and most economically important) plant families. Kew led the molecular revolution in plant taxonomy and has been the lead institution in developing the latest Angiosperm Phylogeny (APG III). Plant taxonomy remains a critical science, practised by fewer and fewer institutions, and possible at Kew due to its phenomenal collections. If we don’t know what a plant is called, how can we amass the knowledge we need to use it? Kew’s systematic groups have been disbanded under the new structure.

"2) Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank (MSB). The largest and most diverse seed bank in the world, the MSB holds two billion seeds in its vaults from 35,000 plant species from more than100 countries across all continents. The MSB is also the UK’s national seed repository and, thanks to the work of Kew, the UK remains the only country in the world to have banked its native flora. The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership comprises some 170 partner institutions in 80 countries. In 2010 the MSB celebrated its first milestone – the conservation of seeds from 10 per cent of the world’s plant species. By 2020, the aim is to conserve seeds from 25 per cent of the world’s flora in the MSB and Partnership seed banks. Under seed bank conditions, seeds can be kept alive for hundreds of years as an insurance policy against their extinction in the wild. It is hard to imagine any other country or institution that could engender the level of trust that is required for foreign governments to allow their plant genetic resources to be exported for safe-keeping. Furthermore, like all seed banks, the MSB is the source of seeds for use. Major (externally funded) projects that the MSB currently leads include:

• The Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change Project (US$50 million over 10 years from the Norwegian Government). The aim of this project is to collect, conserve and make available to crop breeders crop wild relatives (CWRs) of 29 of the world’s major crops, including rice, wheat and potatoes. Kew, which receives a proportion of the $50 million, is responsible for leading the seed collecting and processing effort. These progenitors of our domesticated crops exhibit useful traits (disease resistance, drought tolerance etc.) that can be bred back in to domesticated varieties. PwC estimate that the current value of CWRs for breeding new varieties of these 29 crops is US$42 billion.

• The Global Tree Seed Project (£5 million over four years: Garfield Weston Foundation). Unlike in agriculture (Svalbard Global Seed Vault), there is no global seed bank for the world’s 80,000 tree species – many highly threatened in the wild. The MSB already has the most diverse tree seed collections in the world and, under a formal agreement signed with FAO in Rome last year, the MSB will fulfil this role. The Weston Foundation grant will cover seed collecting, conservation and use in more than a dozen countries, doubling the MSB’s tree seed collections.

• Other major projects include the African Great Green Wall Project, a pilot for greening the Sahel (£1 million); the UK Native Seed Hub, which sells high quality seeds and protocols to the UK native seed industry for meadow restoration (started with £750,000 from Esmee Fairbairn Foundation but now self-sustaining); and the UK National Tree Seed Project that aims to build the UK’s first genetically comprehensive tree seed collection for use in research, including disease resistance (ash) and abiotic resilience (£100,000 per annum from People’s Postcode Lottery). Under the new structure, the Seed Conservation Department (which manages the MSB) ceases to be an entity. It has been split into six parts, all of which are separately managed from the Kew site. There is no longer a Head of the Millennium Seed Bank. The new structure even separates the seed processing team from the seed collecting team. There is no seed bank in the world that operates this system. No consultation was carried out with the MSB’s partner institutions and the new structure was overwhelmingly rejected by MSB staff.

IS THE GOVERNMENT FAILING IN ITS DUTY TO ADEQUATELY RESOURCE A NATIONAL HERITAGE

SITE?

"Yes. Kew’s heritage buildings, in particular, are a massive drain on Kew’s financial resources. £36 million and counting for the restoration of the Temperate House.

WHAT IS KEW GARDENS DOING TO INCREASE ITS COMMERCIAL SUCCESS AND KEEP OPERATIONAL COSTS LOW?

"Kew’s science has rapidly been moving closer towards societal relevance and commercial markets. The establishment of the Kew Innovation Unit, selling skills and knowledge to industry, and the securing of larger and larger grants indicate this. With the exception of the £32 million over 10 years secured from the National Lottery for building the MSB’s collections, the £5.2 million secured by the MSB from the Garfield Weston Foundation earlier this year was the biggest science grant in Kew’s history. The largest grant ever secured by the NHM in 150 years is £5 million. Clearly, Kew science is competitive and (was) able to secure substantial funding.

WAS THE REDUCTION IN FUNDING FROM DEFRA, EVIDENCE BASED AND FOCUSSED ON KEW’SWORLD CLASS RESEARCH STATUS?

"No. For example, in relation to the MSB, the last external Science Review (2011) said: Para 67. The Panel were very impressed by the facility, its strong leadership and the quality of the science produced by the research team, as evidenced by their publications.

"The business plan, while ambitious, has clear milestones and seems to be well integrated with other areas of Kew’s work and Breathing Planet Programme themes. Para 68. Kew is undoubtedly a world leader in the field of seed science….However, while the seed biology work is world class, especially where relevant to seed storage and germination, the extent to which a seed bank is needed to underpin a world-class programme in seed biology was not clear to us. If, as seems likely, future seed biology scientific work will focus more on intra-specific diversity, then it will be necessary to implement the ambitious MSB strategy to sample a range of populations of each species.

"This is, in fact, exactly what has happened with the larger projects described above. They focus on intra-specific diversity for the purpose of using seeds rather than just conserving them for hundreds of years.

"Senior Defra personnel remain largely ignorant of the significance of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank. Almost exactly one year ago, I appeared before the Defra Finance Committee to defend a business case that we had submitted to Defra (at their invitation) for continued support for the MSB. We were asking for a flat £3 million per annum to cover our UK costs, a sum that we were more than matching from external sources and against which we could show an increasing trajectory of non-government funding. It was clear to me after five minutes that nobody on the panel had read the business case. Worse still, one of the department heads interrupted me to ask whether this seed bank was the one up in the Arctic Circle?! I don’t blame Defra personnel for this. They had been cut themselves by 40 per cent resulting in the same game of musical chairs we are now seeing at Kew, with new people in post, ignorant of detail, and under impossible pressure to make cuts."

"In written evidence to the committee Professor Hugh Dickinson said: "From 1995 to 2003 I served as a Trustee of The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, and from 1997 to 2003 as Chair of the Scientific Trustees. In 2004 I chaired a review of the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh on behalf of SEERAD, and in 2010, was the science and education representative on a DEFRA sponsored independent review of Kew chaired by Sir Neil Chalmers.

"Kew remains uniquely capable of playing a central role in addressing future challenges in food and environmental security at both national and international levels. To let such a vital asset ‘wither on the vine’ as a result of more general government funding reductions is both short-sighted and potentially very dangerous."

Professor Sir Ghillean Prance wrote:

"I write to you as a former Director of Kew, the greatest botanical garden in the world. I am obviously biased, but as a botanist who has spent his whole career working for botanic gardens in different countries. I know the value and the prestige with which Kew is regarded by other botanists and horticulturalists around the world and it was a great privilege to be at the helm of Kew for eleven years.

"The Gardens at Kew have gained classification as a World Heritage Site on account of their beauty and importance as a facility for the numerous visitors from home and abroad, and especially because of the amazing collection of plants from around the world that they contain.

"The living collection is also a wonderful resource for scientific research, plant conservation and for education and enjoyment by the public because of its acknowledged diversity. As I travel around the world I have found that many of the staff at all levels in both public and private gardens have been trained at Kew in one of the many courses offered there.

"The worldwide reputation of Kew is largely based on its long-term excellence in basic and applied botanical research and the care and curation of the affiliated collections in the library, the herbarium, the seed bank and the gardens. Throughout its history science at Kew has been progressive, incorporating new techniques as they become available. For example, the molecular research section that was set up while I was the director has now become one of the leading centres of molecular taxonomy and plant conservation genetics in the world. It takes many years to gather the scientific expertise that exists in the staff at Kew and to reduce it may reduce Kew's value as a renowned centre of excellence for plant and fungal based research.

"Many users of botany need identification and naming of plant species. Kew is probably the only institution anywhere that can name all the plant and fungus species from anywhere in the world.

"Many users of plants in such diverse fields as forestry, agriculture, conservation, new plant products, chemistry, forensics and even the UK border Customs depend upon Kew to provide this naming service.

Professor Simon Owens (KEW029) head of science policy wrote:

"Kew Gardens will certainly compromise its statutory obligations under the National Heritage Act if it undertakes the current planned reductions in science. The Kew Board of Trustees will have failed in its obligations towards Kew, Defra will be complicit in this action and the Act will be made to look meaningless. For example, Kew’s world-renowned, fully accessible collections will become less useful under the plan being implemented. A comparison could be made with the herbarium of the University of Cambridge which was rescued by a large grant from the Gatsby Foundation but still has too few staff or students researching it to make it world-leading.

"Science at Kew Gardens provided significant input into the successful application for World Heritage status and is integral to the World Heritage Site but, once again, that status will become progressively more tenuous in the future as science output declines.

"Kew Gardens is one of few institutions in the UK now which focus on plant systematics and the use of those data in conservation and plant and fungal use worldwide. Kew has a prominent role in this area because of the experienced staff it currently has and these staff can and do provide worldwide training (e.g plant identification and herbarium techniques courses) and numerous plant-related services (e.g. to WHO and mining companies). The Millennium Seed Bank project, one of the most successful Millennium projects, would not have been conceived, constructed and implemented without the support of the scientific staff."

A Kew representative said: "The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew has undertaken a rigorous and comprehensive approach to restructuring, in line with statutory obligations and civil service protocols.

"A completely new science structure was being proposed and the current science structure was deleted. As such, everybody in Kew science had to go through the process of applying for new jobs.

"We are confident that the restructure will not put Kew’s vital research and curation of collections at risk. However, further reductions in funding for Kew Science would have a significant impact and could put this type of activity at risk.

"From 1 December RBG Kew’s Science is focusing on where it can make a unique impact.

"RBG Kew’s science will have three priorities:

·         To document and understand global plan and fungal diversity and its uses for the benefit of humanity;

·         To provide data-rich evidence from RBG Kew’s unrivalled collections to address the critical challenges facing humanity today;

·         To disseminate our scientific knowledge of plants and fungi, maximising the impact of RBG Kew’s scientific research in education, science, policy and management.

"Post the restructure we still have a significant Science workforce at Kew - and one of the largest bodies of plant scientists in a botanical garden in the world. However, further enforced cuts to our Science Directorate would threaten the skills and expertise where Kew’s activities are unique." 


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