Award-winning microplastics pioneer elected as Fellow of the Royal Society

Professor Richard Thompson OBE, one of the world’s foremost experts on plastic pollution, has been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Director of the University of Plymouth’s Marine Institute, and Head of its International Marine Litter Research Unit, Professor Thompson has been at the forefront of research in the field for more than two decades.

In being awarded a Fellowship, he joins an organisation whose past membership has included Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Dorothy Hodgkin and Stephen Hawking.

Professor Thompson published the first paper describing the decadal accumulation of microscopic fragments of plastic in the environment in 2004, naming these particles microplastics.

His team has since shown their global distribution, the potential for them to transfer from the gut to the circulatory system, and their ability to transport chemical contaminants.

This interdisciplinary work has been pivotal in the recognition of microplastics within policy documents such as the European Union’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive, while his research has also guided UK Government policy on the release of microplastics from cosmetic products and textiles.

Professor Thompson has previously earned numerous accolades for his research, including the Marsh Award for Marine and Freshwater Conservation in 2017 and an OBE for services to marine science in 2018.

His team also won the Natural Environment Research Council Impact Award in 2018 and, based on their work, the University of Plymouth received the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2020.

Professor Thompson said:

“It is an immense personal honour to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. This is an acknowledgment of my work on plastics in the environment over the last 20 years, but more widely it is recognition of the work of my team. This is a truly multifaceted problem requiring input across the academic disciplines and I am fortunate to have such fantastic collaborators at the University and internationally.

“It has been a privilege to contribute to the work of the Royal Society and its Journals in the past, including my role as Editor of a themed volume on Plastics the Environment and Human Health; I hope that in my capacity as a Fellow I can raise the wider profile of academic research on environmental protection and sustainability.”

Professor Richard Thompson receiving his OBE from the Prince of Wales

Professor Thompson is among 60 exceptional scientists from around the world to have been elected as Fellows and Foreign Members of the Royal Society this year.

They have been selected for their outstanding contributions to scientific understanding, and include representation from Sweden, Israel, Germany, Australia, Canada, UK-born scientists working in Europe and beyond, and researchers from around the world enriching Britain’s own research and innovation sector. Their ranks include six Nobel laureates, as well as internationally recognised leaders in industry and science policy.

Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, said:

“At this time of global crisis, the importance of scientific thinking, and the medicines, technologies and insights it delivers, has never been clearer. Our Fellows and Foreign Members are central to the mission of the Royal Society, to use science for the benefit of humanity.
“While election to the Fellowship is a recognition of exceptional individual contributions to the sciences, it is also a network of expertise that can be drawn on to address issues of societal, and global significance. This year’s Fellows and Foreign Members have helped shape the 21st century through their work at the cutting-edge of fields from human genomics, to climate science and machine learning. It gives me great pleasure to celebrate these achievements, and those yet to come, and welcome them into the ranks of the Royal Society.”

International Marine Litter Research Unit

Marine litter is a global environmental problem with items of debris now contaminating habitats from the poles to the equator, from the sea surface to the deep sea.

Furthering our understanding of litter on the environment and defining solutions

Find out more about the International Marine Litter Research Unit

Marine Institute

Representing 3000 staff, researchers and students, the University of Plymouth's Marine Institute is the first and largest such institute in the UK. 

We provide the external portal to our extensive pool of world-leading experts and state-of-the-art facilities, enabling us to understand the relationship between the way we live, the seas that surround us and the development of sustainable policy solutions.

Discover more about the Marine Institute