King Charles III and Queen Camilla presented the University with the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for microplastics and marine litter research in 2020

From a beach in the north of England to a Royal reception at Buckingham Palace: Plymouth’s pioneering research on microplastics pollution in the oceans and its impact on the environment and changing behaviour has been recognised with the most prestigious honour in higher education.

For more than 20 years, the University of Plymouth has been at the forefront of research into plastic marine litter. Arguably, Professor Richard Thompson OBE and his team have done more than most to define it. 

From the moment they published their seminal paper, Lost at Sea: Where is all the Plastic, in 2004, in which they characterised for the first time ‘microplastics’, they’ve been thought-leaders and standard-bearers, not just for the scientific research, but public and policy engagement as well. Members of the International Marine Litter Research Unit have been repeatedly called upon to provide evidence and expert testimony to governmental panels, to address international conferences, and to engage with industry groups to look at how we might move towards a more circular economy. It’s been a consistently collaborative approach that has generated genuine impact, from legislation prohibiting the use of microbeads in cosmetics, to inspiring school children around the world to write letters of support for their work. 

At Buckingham Palace in February, that legacy and influence was honoured with the coveted Queen’s Anniversary Prize (QAP) for Higher and Further Education. Eight years after the University was recognised for 150 years of marine research and education in its second QAP, HRH The Prince of Wales and HRH The Duchess of Cornwall presented the medal and certificate to Vice-Chancellor Professor Judith Petts CBE and Professor Richard Thompson. 

Professor Petts said:

“Challenges on this scale require a coordinated response at a societal level, and what really sets the institution apart is its willingness to engage with all parties in a bid to stimulate change. Richard Thompson and his team’s work in microplastics, indeed defining the very problem itself, is part of the University’s wider and globally renowned marine and maritime research, which, through a wide range of disciplines, addresses some of the world’s most pressing issues.”

Following the presentation, Professor Petts and Professor Thompson joined other members of the International Marine Litter Research Unit, student representatives, and the University’s Chancellor, The Lord Jonathan Kestenbaum, for a reception hosted by HRH The Prince of Wales. Lord Kestenbaum said:

“I am immensely proud of this University, and it was a great privilege to be there with Judith, Richard and some of the many staff and students who have made such an important contribution to our knowledge and understanding of this issue. Excellence in marine research and education is a defining characteristic of the University, and I hope that this award will serve to inspire future generations to join Plymouth and continue this pioneering approach."

As he recounted in issue 2’s Big Interview, Professor Richard Thompson first became aware of the issue of marine litter during his undergraduate days in Newcastle. And it was while undertaking his PhD in Liverpool that he further developed an appreciation not only of the scale of the issue, but also the absence from the data capture sheets of the most abundant types of plastic – the smaller fragments.

“In hindsight, the question was right under our noses – ’What was the smallest piece of plastic on the beach?’” Professor Thompson says. “Everything was geared towards recording big ticket items – tyres, fishing gear, crates – and we were overlooking the smaller pieces that were prevalent on all of our beaches.”

Microplastics on the beach
Plastic marine litter

That seminal 2004 paper in Science answered the important question as to why, despite exponential increases in plastic production, monitoring data from the environment did not show a clear increase in plastic debris. It revealed categorically that there had been rising levels of microscopic plastic debris evident in the plankton record since the 1960s. In the years since, Richard has led further fundamental research projects, showing: the global distribution of microplastics; their ingestion by fish and other commercially important marine life; the role that textiles and wastewater play in their source and transmission; and the presence of plastic microbeads in some cosmetic products.

“The work we have done at the University has had a really major role in raising awareness of the topic, acting as a tipping point for the academic community, as well as for industry, policy and the general public,” Richard said. “Many people, past and present at the University, nationally and internationally, have made an invaluable contribution to the work we have done over nearly 20 years, and the Queen’s Anniversary Prize is reward for our endeavours, achievements and commitment.”

If Richard has been the figurehead for microplastics research, the contribution from colleagues in both natural and social sciences has been truly profound. At the outset, the now retired Professor Steve Rowland and his team provided not only the geochemistry expertise that underpinned those foundational science papers, but also academic advice and mentorship in developing the International Marine Litter Research Unit.

It was Professor Sabine Pahl, from the School of Psychology, who helped take the University’s research on marine litter into more interdisciplinary waters, leading to the development of new lines of enquiry in the areas of human behaviour and risk perception of the plastic pollution. Sabine was one of the leads for the first-ever Europe-wide study of public and stakeholder attitudes towards marine litter, and working with Professor Thompson and others conducted a series of funded research projects including: how marine litter undermines the psychological benefits of exposure to the marine environment; how beach cleans can have benefits to a person’s wellbeing; and how children and adults respond to experiential hands-on activities about plastic pollution and microplastics. 

Such has been her influence that Professor Pahl became the first social scientist to be appointed as a vice-chair on one of SAPEA’s (Science Advice for Policy by European Academies) working groups – the one on microplastics, understandably. Based on the SAPEA work she was then invited to represent both the UK and the EU at a G7 workshop on microplastics in 2019 and is currently leading a global stocktake on plastic pollution interventions for UNEP. 

“I approached Richard about working together at a time when very few, if any, universities had linked natural and social sciences in this field,” Professor Pahl said. “The behavioural issue is so important because we as consumers and members of the public can help drive change through the choices we make and the influence we can wield with manufacturers and legislators.”

Imogen Napper

Much of the recent headline-making research, particularly around microbeads and washing machines, has been led by Dr Imogen Napper

The inspirational young scientist self-funded her PhD, and produced seven published papers that were all rated in the top 5% of publications according to their Altmetrics. Imogen has delivered a number of key presentations to meetings at both national and international level, and she has also found time to join the eXXpedition North Pacific project that conducted scientific experiments and outreach work in British Columbia, as well as become one of three scholars with Sky Ocean Rescue and National Geographic. 

“It’s been an incredible couple of years – both in the context of the work the University has done and also for me as an early career researcher,” said Imogen, who has recently completed important research into biodegradable plastic shopping bags. “The world has woken up to the issue of plastics in the marine environment, and the evidence is that our younger generations are so much more engaged. We need to keep this momentum going. Looking at the whole problem can be quite overwhelming, but if we work on our own little part of the jigsaw, I know that people around the world are doing the same. This is very encouraging.”

What is the Queen’s Anniversary Prize?

Awarded by HRH The Queen on a biennial basis, the QAP is the highest national honour that can be awarded to a further or higher education institution. They recognise outstanding work that combines quality and innovation with tangible benefit and impact on the wider world and public through education and training. 

Winners are chosen after an extended review process involving experts, specialists and organisations in the public and non-governmental sector, before a shortlist is drawn up for consideration by the Arts Council of the Royal Anniversary Trust. Finally, a list is presented to The Queen for approval on the Prime Minister’s advice. 

Winning institutions receive a Prize Medal in silver-gilt, designed by the late Gerald Benney, one of the leading British silversmiths of the 20th century, and a Prize Certificate signed by The Queen.

University awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for microplastics and marine litter research
University awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for microplastics and marine litter research