Professor Richard Thompson

The academic who first coined use of the term microplastics to describe the microscopic plastic fragments found in our oceans has received a prestigious national award.

Professor Richard Thompson, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth, used the phrase in a prominent piece of research in 2004 and it has since become commonly used in both scientific and policy circles.

Since that initial paper, he has been involved in key discoveries including the demonstration of the potential for microplastics to transport persistent organic chemicals to marine life, the global distribution of microplastic on shorelines and that microplastics move pollutants and additives to species thus reducing functions linked to health and biodiversity.

He has now been presented with the 2017 Marsh Award for Marine and Freshwater Conservation by the Zoological Society of London, recognises those who have made contributions through fundamental science to greater understanding of marine and/or freshwater ecosystems.

Professor Thompson said:

“It was both a pleasure and surprise to find out I was to receive the award in recognition for my research. We have been at the forefront of microplastics research for many years, and during that time scientific and public understanding of the issue has increased substantially. There is still a great deal of work needed to understand the full scale of the problem, however, while identifying potential solutions that take both economic and environmental factors into account.”

Before his seminal paper, Professor Thompson had already spent around a decade researching the impact of microplastics, and working to raise awareness of potential solutions.

He has contributed to government legislation on single use carrier bags and the use of microbeads in cosmetics, giving evidence to parliamentary inquiries in which one politician referred to him as the “Godfather of microplastic research”.

His award nomination, which was endorsed by academics from Cambridge, Oxford, Royal Holloway and Southampton, read:

“Since his 2004 landmark paper the ‘microplastics’ field has grown exponentially and he is undoubtedly the world leading marine scientist in this field. Throughout his decade of activity in the policy area he has demonstrated the highest scientific integrity by providing clear, unbiased evidence and advice that has made him so well respected and much in demand by expert groups and select committees. Never a ‘campaigner’, he is someone respected by industry, government and environmental NGOs alike.”

Professor Thompson is the second Plymouth academic to receive the award, as it was presented in 2013 to Professor David Bilton for significant research on the ecology and conservation biology of aquatic invertebrates.

Dr Heather Koldewey, ZSL’s Head of Marine & Freshwater Conservation, said:

“It is fitting that Professor Richard Thompson’s pioneering work on the impact of plastic in the marine environment has been recognised with this prestigious honour. Not only did Professor Thompson produce some of the most important scientific evidence on the ubiquitous and negative impacts of plastic pollution on the ocean, he has also communicated this issue widely to policy makers and the public. In response to these efforts, we now see ocean plastic pollution increasingly in the spotlight, mobilising action across sectors from individuals to industry.”