Historically, botanic garden science has been dominated by the disciplines of economic
botany and taxonomy. Today, with around 20% of plant species threatened with extinction,
the author argues that unless botanic gardens shift their efforts toward the conservation,
management and use of plants, the loss of plant diversity will stifle human
innovation, adaptation, and resilience. The enormous body of taxonomic knowledge,
skills, data, and collections built up over the past two centuries is fundamental to managing
plant diversity. These resources need to be used to address challenges such as
food insecurity, water scarcity, renewable energy, human health, biodiversity conservation,
and climate change. At a time when botanic gardens are increasingly seen as visitor
attractions, rather than scientific institutions, refocusing their efforts is in the best interests
of botanic gardens as well as those of broader society. The author gives examples
of how botanic gardens are already supplying crop wild relatives to plant breeders;
using their living collections to assess resilience to climate change and vulnerability to
pests and diseases; and conserving rare and threatened plant species for future use.
However, in spite of these efforts, only a small fraction of the estimated 60,000 plant
scientists and specialist horticulturists in the world’s botanic gardens are engaged in
scientific research that has demonstrable impact on how we conserve or manage plant
diversity. The author argues that it is time for botanic gardens to develop a new contract
with society—a contract that delivers outcomes for society that only botanic gardens,
as custodians of the world’s plant diversity, can deliver.