Richmond Society Meeting, 14 May 2015, Duke Street Church
The audience braved unfavourable weather to hear Professor Kathy Willis deliver a fascinating forecast on science strategy at Kew Gardens. She became Professor of Biodiversity at the University of Oxford in 2010 and is also an adjunct Professors in Biology at the University of Bergen. Kathy was appointed Director of Science at Kew Gardens in 2013 and has introduced a new science strategy.
The talk focused on past, present and future science at Kew. Kathy explained that while Kew began life in 1759 as a pleasure garden, by 1800 it was a repository for flora from across the world. Today Kew has 260 science staff and facilities including extensive collections laboratories. This side of Kew is less well known than the gardens.
Kew’s original scientific role was the identification and naming of species, which continues to the present day. Historically Kew also had a role identifying plants for medicinal use and, by the 1860s, plants to grow the Empire including rubber. By 1960, Kew was focused on the genetics of plants, the green revolution and feeding a growing population.
Despite this heritage Kew had never had a science strategy and little was understood about this role. Furthermore, its scientific staff had a very broad range of interests. The science strategy provides a greater focus to the science at Kew to help towards meeting the biggest challenges. These challenges include climate change, the growing population, biofuels and their competition with food crops and the lack of conserved land.
The Kew Science Strategy (2015-2020) has three strategic priorities:
1. To document and conduct research into global plant and fungal diversity and its uses for humanity.
2. To curate and provide data-rich evidence from Kew’s unrivalled collections as a global asset for scientific research.
3. To disseminate our scientific knowledge of plants and fungi, maximising its impact in science, education, conservation policy and management.
On the first priority, despite scientific advances there is much to discover in remote locations in, for example, Africa. Kathy explained that she is often challenged about why public funds should be used to research African plants and used the example of coffee to illustrate the relevance to a UK taxpayer.
Globally, coffee is the second most important commodity after oil. Worldwide there are 125 known coffee species but we drink only Arabica and Robusta beans. Kew research has analysed what will happen to those coffee resources as climate change advances. This research predicts that by 2050 the Arabica variety will lose up to 100% of its habitat. This leads to research to find climate-smart coffee that can sustain local populations like Ethiopia’s 18 million people who are dependent on the coffee trade.
On the second priority, Kew contributes diverse collections including 7 million dried specimens in the Herbarium and 1.25 million dried fungi in the fungarium. These resources are used to focus on research gaps. Kathy provided examples of the diverse questions being addressed including how floral chemistry alters bee behaviour and how genome size alters replication speeds.
The third priority is to improve the dissemination of research. This includes making more information digital and developing an online plants portal. There are plans to digitise the entire herbarium as part of the Reflora programme. This will entail sending industrial-scale volumes of samples to the Netherlands over nine months. The process will then utilise citizen transcription to record the information from the barcodes generated during the digitisation. Further dissemination and education activities include science festivals for children and a Masters programme to train the next generation of Taxonomists.
This refocusing of Kew’s scientific outputs has come in parallel with budget cuts and organisational restructuring. The remaining departments are each responsible for contributing to a renewed focus on outward-facing science. All this, Kathy explained, was to ensure that by 2020 Kew is recognised globally and is making a demonstrable contribution in the response to the world’s biggest challenges.
Kathy closed by taking questions from the floor, questions that she later observed were excellent and some of the best she had taken after a talk. In return the audience had been given privileged insight to the past, present and future importance of science at Kew.