Staff are said to be devastated after it was revealed that the head of Ardingly’s world-renowned Millennium Seed Bank is to quit his job after 18 years.
Dr Paul Smith is the most senior scientist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew’s internationally leading scientific establishment next to Wakehurst Place, its country estate and garden.
He led the seed bank’s inauguration 14 years ago and was pivotal in its aim for its first decade of collecting seeds from all the UK’s native species as well as from 10 per cent of the world’s flora.
News of his departure is another blow for staff at the site, coming soon after Wakehurst Place, which is leased by Kew from the National Trust, began charging for visitors to park. Parking is free for Friends of Wakehurst but no longer for the more than 80 per cent of its 450,000 annual visitors who are National Trust members. Charging has now halved visitor numbers.
One insider who contacted the Middy said: “Everybody is devastated about Paul leaving. You could hear a pin drop in the room after we were told.
“We’re all wondering what is going to happen to the seed bank; for Paul to go must mean they are going to split it up or something similar.”
Meanwhile, a petition on the Change.org website, which is supported by veteran TV naturalist Sir David Attenborough has now attracted over 100,380 signatories.
The groundswell of support is calling for a House of Commons Early Day Motion, which has been signed by 21 MPs, and the announcement by organisers on Sunday that they are now planning a rally outside the House of Commons on July 8.
Recently, Sir David said: “The Seed Bank is of world importance and it should be supported by the Government like a proper institution or university and the continuing idea that Kew Gardens is merely a playground and that you just put up the prices to look after it is a misguided assessment of the value of Kew.
“The Government and the scientific departments should recognise that and support it properly.”
Dr Smith’s decision to accept voluntary redundancy and leave next month follows Kew’s announcement that it needs to make 125 out of 750 staff redundant in London and Sussex following government cuts.
It reinforces the concerns of campaigners, including Change.org petition organiser Julie Flanagan, who warns the government: “In specialist careers measured in decades of experience, Kew will lose dedicated, expert staff, and whole areas of work are likely to be halted.”
The petition to Secretary of State Owen Paterson urges him to urgently reverse existing, proposed, and further cuts to RBG Kew’s annual operating grant in aid, warning that the globally important conservation and science that Kew is responsible for is under threat due to the government’s four years of cuts while the current £5m deficit will lead to loss of over 120 posts, with whole areas of expert work likely to be halted.
The Early Day Motion goes further saying that it believes Kew’s UNESCO World Heritage Site status is at risk while a number of Kew staff are paid less than the living wage.
Following news of Dr Smith imminent departure, Kew tried to calm fears saying the Millennium Seed Bank was “one of the most ambitious and important plant conservation projects in the world and “a jewel” in its science and conservation programme which, under Dr Smith’s leadership, is now on target to bank 25 per cent of the world’s seeds by 2020.
RBG Kew’s director Richard Deverell said it would continue to be one of its most important endeavours.
He said: “Our commitment to seed banking 25 per cent of the world’s flowering plants and fulfilling the existing portfolio of science and conservation projects is undiminished.”
Kew’s director of science, Professor Kathy Willis said: “The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership is a shining example of how RBG Kew is the global resource for plant knowledge.
“Paul’s leadership of the Partnership has built a lasting legacy that means it will be an exemplar initiative that I will ensure the whole of RBG Kew’s science lives up to.”
Dr Smith said he believed the time was right to move on. He said: “I have enjoyed my time at RBG Kew tremendously, and it has been an honour and a privilege to work with so many talented and committed people.
“I leave with the knowledge that the work we are doing increases in relevance year by year. With every avoided extinction, we create options for the future and with every seed we sow, we create opportunities today.”
Kew said it would be considering how best to replace Dr Smith, whose expertise was “unparalleled”, as part of its restructuring.
A spokesperson said: “The Millennium Seed Bank will absolutely continue to be one of Kew’s success stories in the new organisational structure.”