Israel’s botanical gardens face funding crisis

A tropical plant greenhouse at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens.

Avital Pinnick/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Israel’s botanical gardens face funding crisis

Israel’s 11 botanical gardens are scrambling to cope with deep cuts in funding from the government’s agricultural ministry. Government spending on the gardens, which host research and education programs and are often associated with universities, is down by more than 50% this year. That’s a reprieve from a 98% cut that the ministry announced last year, but still a major blow for the gardens, which rely heavily on government funds to pay for basic operations.

“There were times this year when we couldn't afford potting soil, or even printer paper,” says Tal Levanony, curator of Tel Aviv University' in Israel's botanical garden. “I'm not sure how the researchers will cope without support.”

The agriculture ministry started funding the gardens in 2008, and since then has provided annual payments of 2 million to 6 million shekels ($521,000 to $1.56 million), helping boost plant conservation, research, and public education programs across the nation. Late last year, however, curators like Levanony got a nasty surprise. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development informed them that it would spend just 100,000 shekels ($26,000) on the gardens in 2015, down from 4.5 million shekels ($1.1 million) in 2014.

“It was ridiculous,” Levanony recalls. “I thought I read it wrong.”

The cuts, which were announced unusually late in the budget process, posed an immediate fiscal crisis for the gardens. Garden officials had assumed that past levels of government support would materialize and had spent accordingly, in many cases borrowing from their affiliated universities to maintain cash flow. But the cut meant they didn’t have money to repay the loans. And because the ministry’s budget also covered 2016, it meant the lean times would continue this year.

After Israel's academic community strongly protested the cut, the government relented, retroactively boosting garden spending to 2 million shekels annually in both 2015 and 2016.

The uncertainty and reduced funding has made planning extremely difficult, Levanony tells ScienceInsider. Her relatively large garden gets about one-fifth of the ministry funding, and the money accounts for more than half the garden’s operating budget. “Botanical gardens work on long timescales; I plan 5 years ahead when ordering seeds or planting trees,” she says. “Not knowing how much money we will have is driving us crazy.”

The cut has not directly affected all of the garden's research projects—on topics such as climate change, conservation genetics, and wheat agriculture—because many are funded by individual grants. But it is severely hampering the facility's ability to cover overhead costs and other expenses, including some salaries, maintenance, and garden-wide supplies.

The university is continuing to support the garden, but it is feeling the squeeze. The garden has started charging for previously free education programs, and the cuts have jeopardized plans to expand the garden, in order to prepare for an expected doubling of visitors when the adjacent Israeli Museum of Natural History opens next year. “The budget cut has choked us at the worst possible time,” Levanony says. “We're not sure if we will be able to open the gates.”

The agriculture ministry did not respond to a request for comment, but press outlets in Israel have reported that the ministry is facing an overall 40% budget cut, and has put a higher priority on funding programs that support settlements along the Gaza Strip and ailing farms in the Arava region in southern Israel. The ministry is led by Uri Ariel, a member of the right-wing religious party The Jewish Home, which strongly supports Jewish settlements in contested territories along Israel’s borders.