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Brooklyn Botanic Garden Cuts Science Staff Weeks After Native Garden Debut

By Sonja Sharp | August 23, 2013 10:15am
 A composting workshop at Brooklyn Botanical Garden.
A composting workshop at Brooklyn Botanical Garden.
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Brooklyn Botanical Garden

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — It's pruning season at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden — one of the borough's oldest cultural institutions has uprooted its founding department, DNAinfo New York has learned. 

In the midst of a years-long capital improvement project and just weeks after expanding its flagship Native Flora Garden, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden has cut its entire science department, as well as a liaison to community gardens, and will soon be suspending its field research and shuttering its science center, according to an email obtained by DNAinfo. 

"Despite the successes achieved in the Garden’s most recent fiscal year ending June 30th, BBG faced significant challenges in planning the FY14 budget because of increased insurance and employee-benefits expenses, among others," Garden President Scot Medbury told staff in an email obtained by DNAinfo.

"The Garden faced a shortfall that could not be fully addressed by increasing revenue targets or reducing non-personnel costs."

The publicly-funded Garden's mission statement highlights research among its top priorities, along with displaying plants for the enjoyment of the wider community and providing educational programs for children and adults.

On its 2012 tax return — the most recent one available — the garden lists scholarly research as a "significant use of its collection items," and goes on to detail the "1,280 rare books, ephemera and manuscripts" at the heart of that endeavor. 

"The collection furthers the organization's exempt purpose as it supports our mission to engage in research in plant sciences to expand human knowledge of plants, and disseminating the results to science professionals and the general public." 

Preserving New York's botanic treasures has long been the Garden's raison d'etre. But without the science department, whose staffers painstakingly collected, cataloged, and in some cases hand-raised the rare seeds of the new Native Flora expansion, ex-employees say the institution risks becoming just another walled garden for the area's expanding upper crust. 

"The beginning of the Botanic Garden was the science department — that’s the cornerstone of why it exists," said one outraged ex-staffer, who asked that her name be withheld. "It’s another step in it just becoming a pleasure garden for Park Slope."

In addition to cutting four longtime staff positions, the Garden has suspended field-based botanical research, and will have to find a new temporary home for its herbarium. 

"BBG announced today that its field-based botanical research projects will be suspended while the institution grapples with a subsiding building foundation in its off-site Science Center (109 Montgomery St.). The severity of the building issues coupled with increasing operating expenses led to the reduction in the force," said Garden spokeswoman Kathryn Glass.

"During the research hiatus, there will be very limited access to the Garden’s herbarium, as we develop a plan to move that collection into temporary quarters, and allow building repair (or replacement) to proceed." 

In his letter to staff, Medbury said the pruning was a necessary measure to protect the garden's future. 

"BBG, like all non-profit institutions, must make ongoing decisions about where it can have the greatest impact with limited resources," Medbury wrote. "I remain very appreciative of your continued service to the Garden and to our community, and ask for your patience while we restructure the Garden’s operations and plan for new opportunities so that BBG remains both strong and relevant, now and in the future."