Protest at Kew Gardens' endangered jobs and funds reaches 50,000 – and growing

Sir David Attenborough joins campaigners tackling the Government over cuts at the research centre

Ministers were last night accused of breaking the law by cutting funding to Kew Gardens, a move that will axe 120 jobs at the world’s leading centre for conservation and plant science.

Nearly 50,000 people have signed an online petition calling on Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for the Environment, to reverse the cuts that have contributed to Kew’s £5m deficit. MPs have signed a Commons motion opposing the cuts, while local councillors in Richmond, Kew Gardens’ west London home, are being emailed this weekend by the GMB union, urging them to join the campaign.

The GMB, which represents Kew staff, said ministers were failing in their legal obligations under the 1983 National Heritage Act, which commits the Government to ensure that Kew is adequately resourced to carry out botanical research, education and preserve its world-leading scientific collections.

A spokesman for Kew admitted to The Independent on Sunday that the cuts will mean the “range of scientific activities will be reduced”. Many of those at risk are scientists and botanists.

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Research into orchids is under threat

Successive governments have cut funding to Kew over the past 30 years: in 1983, 90 per cent of the institution’s money came from Whitehall as grant in aid, but by this year it has fallen below 40 per cent, according to the GMB. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has told Kew to expect cuts of £1.5m by the end of 2016. The petition on change.org has been backed by Sir David Attenborough and by yesterday evening had been signed by more than 49,000 people.

Paul Grafton, regional officer for the GMB, said globally important science was under threat. He added: “Never before has Kew faced such a significant threat to its future. It now needs public support to ensure its collections can continue to be used to support plant and fungal science around the world.

“Under the 1983 National Heritage Act, the Government committed to ensure that Kew is adequately resourced to fulfil its statutory obligations, which include: research; providing advice and education; caring for scientific collections, as national reference collections available for study; and as a resource for the public to gain knowledge. The Government is no longer fulfilling its role to allow Kew to meet these obligations.

“The majority of posts to be cut are for people in specialist careers measured in decades of experience so Kew will lose dedicated, expert staff, and whole areas of work are likely to be halted.”

As Government funding has been withdrawn, Kew has been forced to increase income from its partner charity, the Kew Foundation, and through ticket sales to its gardens, which cost £16 per adult. It also gets money from research grants and consultancy work, yet cannot bridge the £5m shortfall.

Funds raised by the Kew Foundation from grants for specific projects cannot be diverted into meeting general operational costs.

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Research into seeds and rare plants is at risk after budget cuts

Government funding was reduced by £900,000 in 2009-10, £1m in 2010-11 and by £500,000 a year since then. Kew has been told to expect further cuts of at least £1.5m before the end of 2016. The Kew Foundation has cut its unrestricted funding to Kew by £1.3m in order to protect its own budget. These cuts have contributed to the £5m deficit.

A spokesman for Kew said: “Our aim is to address the financial challenges while having minimal impact on the quality of our science activities. We expect that the range of science activities will be reduced, focusing us on those areas in which Kew is truly a world leader.

“The appointment of a director of science demonstrates our commitment to maintaining Kew’s scientific excellence.” 

A Defra spokesman said: “Like all departments we are making savings and playing our part in reducing the deficit, but we are pleased we have been able to offer relative protection to our funding of Kew. We continue to work closely with Kew to help them explore other funding options.”

Plant science

Coffee Due to lack of genetic diversity in Ethiopia, Kew has monitored production to establish the optimum sites for coffee growing.

Food crops The Adapting Agriculture project involves breeding commercial crops better able to adapt to climate change.

Cocoa Kew is providing information to conservationists in the Brazilian Amazon to protect areas where wild cocoa trees grow. Kew is also improving the cocoa crop’s immunity against diseases by researching the genetics of its wild relatives.

Rubber Seeds of South American rubber trees were exported to and germinated at Kew in 1876. The seedlings were shipped to Sri Lanka and Singapore, ensuring a future for rubber.

Serina Sandhu

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