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Sowing the seeds of science for our future

14 Oct 2015

Richard Deverell, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, on retaining the UK’s international reputation for science

2015 feels like it may end up being a watershed year for the environment.

When science and politics come together in harmony, great things can be achieved. The Paris climate summit at the end of the year will coincide with the impact of the most significant El Nino event since 1950 starting to be felt. The UN released human population growth projections, estimating an additional billion people inhabiting our planet by 2030, and also agreed 17 new Sustainable Development Goals.

The UK plays an important role in helping deal with the critical challenges facing humanity in the 21st Century and our scientific institutions are vital in allowing our small island nation to make an impact on the global stage. This is partly because science in the UK is highly efficient, as the Minister of State for Universities and Science says, the UK turns relatively small public investments into hugely impactful outputs. It is possibly also because we have strong and recognised brands, from our major Universities to institutions such as the one I’m privileged to work for, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

We published our Science Strategy at the start of this year. In setting our scientific direction, our guiding thought was to ensure that we focused on science that would make a real and lasting impact on critical challenges and contribute to the UK’s position globally. Three projects illustrate this ambition:

    As part of our Millennium Seed Bank partnership, we are working with the Crop Trust to explore the genetic diversity and resilience of crop wild relatives in order enable the agricultural sector to respond to the global challenge for food security. One study identified that this project had the potential to underpin $120bn of value to the sector. A recent series of articles in the Economist highlights the global importance of these projects.

    Our scientists have provided botanical and ecosystem services advice to the Great Green Wall project. This project, initiated by the African Union, aims to literally grow a wall of vegetation across 11 countries on the southern boundary of the Sahara desert, ultimately building more resilient communities in some of the most marginal land that humans eke a subsistence from. It is early days, but already there is anecdotal evidence that this work will deliver long-term benefits.

    Our Ethiopian coffee economy project is advising the Ethiopian government on the long term climate resilience of current Arabica coffee growing regions, and how to adapt the industry. RBG Kew’s expertise is producing actionable evidence to support the livelihoods of the 18 million Ethiopian citizens who rely on the coffee industry.

These projects share two crucial characteristics: (1) the expertise we contribute is based on RBG Kew’s unique collections, which together make up a huge database of plant knowledge and (2) we form international partnerships, which are diverse and wide-ranging, in well over 100 countries around the world. The UK can rightly claim to have some of the best scientific collections in the world, some of the deepest expertise associated with them, which allows our nation to build scientific partnerships globally. As was pointed out in a recent article in Science in Parliament, this helps underpin the UK’s diplomatic strength and soft power.

I saw evidence of this soft power in action this summer in Milan. At the 2015 World Expo, the UK Pavilion was regularly used to showcase our national scientific prowess, receiving over 2.5 million visitors, keeping it near the top of the list of the most popular with the international public.

Our international reputation as a scientific nation is revered. I believe that creating a society where science, and scientific excellence is celebrated creates a society where innovation will be encouraged. Building the public’s understanding of science, and fascination with science, is something that we see as a central duty for Kew. Whether it is through engaging visitors at Kew Gardens and Wakehurst, or through scientific broadcast projects such as Plants: Roots to Riches or the BBC’s proposed Ideas Service initiative. Communicating and engaging the domestic public in the importance of science in modern society is the other side of the same coin when it comes to building the UK’s international scientific reputation.

So this brings us back to 2015 as a watershed year. Individual nations, such as the UK, will hopefully lead the way in setting their long term commitments to resolving the critical challenges facing humanity. As Lord Stern famously pointed out, and more recently Mark Carney, making investments now can help avoid far higher costs in the future. Likewise, if we want to retain our international reputation for excellent science in the UK, making investments today will pay dividends for decades into the future.

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