Founded in the 18th century, when Britain’s imperial ambitions were being realised, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (near London, UK) were envisioned as an exhibition of the British Empire’s botanical riches so that they could be studied, understood and exploited for the benefit of the mother country. But Kew is much more than the UK’s showcase greenhouse. For all its rich history, its present-day activities are very much about the future: our future as a species on this planet. Now, that is serious. So, what does Kew do? What is it for?
There are approximately 352 000 species of flowering plants in the world. We have little idea how ‘useful’ the great majority might be, and many of them are endangered in the wild. Appropriately, a major part of Kew’s activities is taxonomic recording of the diversity that exists. Not only cataloguing that diversity, but also trying to understand it as an invaluable natural resource from which we can all benefit, and helping to conserve it.
But why? Are plants really that important?
Yes! Simply put, plants provide us with essentials such as food (whether directly for vegetarians or indirectly via the plant-eating animals that we consume), fibres (e.g. cotton for clothing, etc.) and pharmaceuticals (to cure much of what ails us), and much more besides (as even the most cursory of visits to Kew’s Plants and People exhibit in Museum No. 1 will demonstrate). If that’s not enough, plants also provide that essential life-sustaining gas: oxygen! And, mindful of concerns over future climate changes and security of food supply, innovative solutions to those plentiful and particularly pressing problems are likely to be found amongst the planet’s botanical diversity.
So, plants (and fungi!) are Kew’s ‘business’. And like all businesses it needs income to allow it to operate, and a plan of what it’s going to do with that money.
Two important reports in 2015 deal with Kew’s future programme of work, and funding. On 23rd February, Kew launched its Science Strategy for 2015–2020. Its scope is beyond the remit of this particular item, but it’s reassuring that Kew clearly has vision and ambitious plans for the future! And on the 4th March, the UK’s House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee reported on its investigation into Kew’s funding*. This fact-finding exercise was occasioned by Kew’s announcement of a £5 m ‘hole’ in its 2014/15 budget (which was plugged to some extent by extra cash from the UK government in 2014).
Alongside its own income-generating activities (entrance fees, and sales of books, gifts, food, drink, and plants…), Kew receives public monies from UK taxpayers via DEFRA (Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs) amounting to about 45% of its total funding. However, those sums aren’t guaranteed, have to be negotiated each year, and large portions of the money are tied to particular expenditure. This situation compares poorly to another venerable and comparable UK institution, the Natural History Museum (NHM), 96% of whose government funding is unrestricted, i.e. the museum decides how best to deploy those sums.
The Committee didn’t pull any punches when it concluded that current government funding arrangements for Kew were a ‘recipe for failure’(!). In particular, they identified an urgent need for Kew to be given more freedom in how it manages its budget, and a better indication of funding in the longer term. But will anything now change about Kew’s funding?
After the recent General Election, there is no guarantee that the new government will implement the Committee’s findings, and we may be facing another series of crisis talks (not too strong a word for it) about Kew’s funding in the very near future. But let’s be optimistic and hope that the new government is at least sufficiently ‘green’ and far-sighted to put into effect that Committee’s conclusions and allow Kew to decide how best to spend its income – and to guarantee its future funding!
In a world where our future as a species is more than ever tied up with our relationship to, and exploitation of, the planet’s botanical bounty, shouldn’t Kew be given the security of funding to maintain its world-class status, and the ability to manage its own budget? After all, if you were invited to a party at a brewery, who would you want to have organised it, government ministers, or the brewers?
* Slightly worryingly the Report summary ended with the recommendation that both the NHM and Kew should be looked at in future reviews ‘to ensure more consistency of treatment and funding from their respective Government sponsors’. What’s the likelihood that NHM’s funding ends up more like Kew’s, rather than the other way round?
[And, aside from its world-class, globally important research, there are plenty of other reasons to visit Kew – Ed.]