Kew crippled by lack of funds

July 11, 2003

Peers have accused the government of crippling the science that helped Kew Gardens win World Heritage status last week, writes Caroline Davis.

The Royal Botanic Gardens were given the accolade by the United Nations Environmental, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. The award recognises Kew's work in the discovery, classification and protection of plant and fungus species, as well as the importance of the site.

Kew houses the world's richest collection of plant species, and its Edinburgh counterpart has the second most extensive range. Together with the Natural History Museum, they carry out the majority of UK research on systematic biology, which includes biodiversity and plant taxonomy.

Kew director Peter Crane said seven years without even funding increases to match inflation had left the gardens on the verge of collapse. Last year, Kew received a 20 per cent increase in its funding from the government.

But Professor Crane said: "It doesn't bring us back to where we were.

Various things have fallen by the wayside. We have a backlog of deferred maintenance and staff morale has been affected."

He said the UK's work was further complicated by three separate government departments funding the research. He called for a clear government policy on biodiversity.

In 2002, the Lords science and technology committee published a report, What on Earth? The Threat to the Science Underpinning Conservation. It called for funding to be restored to 1992 levels, with account to inflation, and for academic analogue status to be awarded to the botanic gardens in London and Edinburgh and the Natural History Museum, so they could apply for research council grants. It also expressed dismay that the research assessment exercise had all but eliminated such research from universities.

Now the committee has criticised the government's response to its report.

Baroness Walmsley, chair of the committee, said the government had not answered its calls for action. She said: "I will keep asking awkward questions until we get a response."

She said: "Institutions have had to make decisions to concentrate on certain families of plants and to put others aside. But they don't know which of these are the ones that could produce huge economic advantage or alternatively face extinction."

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