Professor Richard Thompson OBE FRS
Director of the Marine Institute
School of Biological and Marine Sciences (Faculty of Science and Engineering)
- Marine pollution
- Plastic pollution
- Marine debris
- Marine biology
- Government policy
- Marine litter
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to enquire.
Richard is a world-leading marine scientist and is at the forefront of pioneering research into the causes and effects of marine litter. He founded and heads the University’s International Marine Litter Research Unit, which has charted the global distribution of microplastics from Arctic sea ice to the deep seas.
In 2019, the University was awarded the Queen's Anniversary Prize for the pioneering research of Richard and his colleagues on marine microplastics pollution and its impact on the environment and changing behaviour.
In 2017, Richard was awarded with an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) for his services to marine science.
He was awarded the Marsh Award for Marine and Freshwater Conservation for his pioneering research into microplastics.
Director of the Marine Institute, University of Plymouth, 2018–present
Associate Dean, Research, University of Plymouth, 2016–2018
Professor of Marine Biology, University of Plymouth, 2010–present
Reader in Marine Ecology, University of Plymouth, 2004–2010
Senior Lecturer, University of Plymouth, 2001–2004
Research Fellow (Leverhulme funded), University of Southampton, 1997–2000
Teaching Assistant, Newcastle University, 1996–1997
- Accredited Science and Engineering Ambassador, University of Plymouth, 2003
- Certificate of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Newcastle University, 1997
- PhD: The Ecology of Epilithic Microalgae, Liverpool, 1996
- BSc (1st Class Hons) Marine Biology, Newcastle University, 1991
Roles on external bodies
Invited roles on external bodies
- Science Advice for Policy by European Academics (SAPEA) 2018–2019
- National Centre for Ecological Synthesis and Analysis, California, USA, working group 2012–2015
- GESAMP (United Nations advisory body), Working Group 40 microplastics 2012–2015
- Marine Strategy Framework Directive, Expert Group on Marine Debris 2010–present
- Marine Strategy Framework Directive, Task Group 10: Marine Debris 2007–2009
- GESAMP (United Nations advisory body), Working Group on Marine Debris, 2009–2011
- International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) working group on environmental aspects of marine renewable energy, 2008–2010
Panel Member for research grant reviews
- Grant review panel, Research Frontiers Programme, Science Foundation, Eire
- Swedish Research Council for Environment
Reviewer of research grants
- Natural Environment Research Council, UK
- Science Foundation, Ireland
- Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada
- National Science Foundation, USA
- Australian Research Council
Reviewer of research publications for
- Aquatic Conservation
- Coral Reefs
- Estuarine and Coastal Shelf Science
- Global Change Biology
- Journal of Animal Ecology
- Journal of Experimental Marine Biology & Ecology
- Journal of Marine Biological Association
- Journal of Microscopy
- Journal of Molluscan Studies
- Marine Biology
- Marine Ecology and Water Research
- Marine Ecology Progress Series
- Marine Ecology PSZN
- Netherlands Journal of Sea Research
The Plymouth Pioneers answers 7 questions
“Working in scientific environment, it is about challenging each other to uncover the truth.”
The Queen's Anniversary Prize 2019
Our ground-breaking research into microplastics pollution has received the highest honour that can be bestowed upon a higher education institution
International Marine Litter Research
Furthering our understanding of litter on the environment and defining solutions
Programme Leader BSc (Hons) Marine Biology 2009–2013
Ecology of Shallow Water Marine Habitats
Experimental Marine Ecology
My research focuses on three main topics
1. The effects of plastic debris in the marine environment
2. The modification of coastal engineering structures such as coastal defences and off-shore renewable energy devices, to enhance biodiversity
3. The ecology and conservation of shallow water habitats
1. Effects of plastic debris in the marine environment
I have been working on the effects of plastic in the marine environment for more than twenty years. This is a major area of research for my group with papers in Science, Nature, Biology Letters and numerous other leading journals, together with reports for international organizations such as the United Nations. This research is of considerable relevance to policymakers and I presented to the UK House of Commons Select Committee session on water quality in 2013 and gave evidence on plastic bags to the Environmental Audit Select Committee in 2014. Recently I was invited to give a keynote presentation on marine debris to US Secretary of State, John Kerry, in Washington.
One of our key findings came in 2004 when my group showed that waters around the north-east Atlantic had become contaminated by microscopic fragments of plastic or ‘microplastic’ and that the abundance of this material had increased significantly over time (Science, vol 304,P. 838). These microplastic fragments some of which were smaller than the diameter of a human hair appear to have formed by the environmental breakdown of everyday items such as plastic bags, bottles, rope and materials used in packaging; together with the direct release of small particles used in cosmetics (also known as microbeads) and industrial spillage of plastic pellets and powders. My group are at the forefront of research to establish the potential for microplastics to cause harm in the marine environment. This could occur if chemicals that are incorporated as additives during the manufacture of plastics are released to organisms upon ingestion. In addition, plastics have been shown to concentrate hydrophobic contaminants, such as PCBs and DDT, from seawater and hence there is potential that plastics could act as a vector in the transport of these chemicals to wildlife debris (e.g. Environmental Science andTechnology , 41: 7759-7764). It is also important to assess whether the physical presence of microplastics could result in harmful effects on the organisms ingesting microplastics (e.g. Current Biology, 23, 2388-2392 and 23, R1031-R1033). Ten years after our first publication on microplastics I was invited to co-author a review of current knowledge on the topic (Science, vol 345, P. 144-145).
In 2009 I was invited to be lead editor of a 200 page Theme Issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B – Plastics the environment and Human Health. This volume brings together the work of over 60 leading experts and balances the societal benefits of plastics alongside environmental concerns and impacts. The concluding Paper (Thompson et al. 2009) focus on knowledge gaps and solutions to some of the issues posed in the volume. I am currently acting as an advisor on marine debris for the European Commission Marine Strategy Framework Directive and working with the United Nations Environment Programme to identify solutions to prevent the accumulation of marine debris (STAP2011).
2. Modification of coastal engineering to enhance biodiversity
Over the last decade I have become increasingly interested in the interaction between marine engineering, such as coastal defences and off-shore renewable energy developments (OREDs) and the ecology of shallow water habitats (e.g. Diversity and Distributions 19,1275-1283, Coastal Engineering 52, 1053 –1071; 52: 1027– 1051; 52:1073-1087). Coastal defense structures occupy a substantial portion of some coastlines and the number of OREDs (wind, wave, tidal) is set to increase dramatically over the next decade.Such developments present both threats and opportunities for marine life.Coastal engineering structures typically have very low heterogeneity and offer little in terms of refuge or habitat for marine life. Our research here examines ways to make space for nature by incorporating habitat modifications within marine engineering structures. This research has shown that the biodiversity of structures can be enhanced and work in the Azores has shown the potential to enhance stock of commercially exploited shellfish (e.g. Biological Conservation143, 203-211). Much of this work has been funded by European Union collaborative projects DELOS and THESEUS within the THESEUS project Iled ecological research across eleven partner institutions in Europe and Asia.
3. Ecology and conservation of shallow water habitats
An overarching research interest is the ecology and conservation of shallow water habitats. I have numerous peer-reviewed publications on this theme ranging from the effects of commercial collection of ornamental sea shells for the marine curio trade (Biological Conservation,63: 241-245) to predictions for the future of rocky intertidal habitats over the next 25 years (Environmental Conservation, 29: 168 -191). I have worked extensively on marine biofilms and on the grazers that feed up on them (e.g. Ecology 85: 1372-1382; Ecology,87: 1169 – 1178; Marine Ecology Progress Series 296: 53-63). More recently I have been working on the effects of sweater flooding on coastal habitats together with the potential for some of these habitats such as dunes and marshes to offer coastal protection.
Research degrees awarded to supervised students
Current PhD students
James Delaney, Funding Argans Limited Remote sensing sensitivity of marine and terrestrial plastic litter, 2019 – present
Chris Walkinshaw Funding NERC Env East DTP Does microplastic pollution pose a risk to marine life and food security? 2018 –present
Madeleine Steer, Funding NERC Industrial CASE (UKWIR).Quantifying the influence of waste water treatment on the release of microplastics to the environment, 2018- present.
Zara Botterell, Funding NERC Env East DTP. Bioavailability of microplastics to zooplankton, 2017 – present
Sohvi Nuojua, Funding, UK Charity and University of Plymouth, Marine Litter: Can behavioural sciences help reduce land-based waste entering the oceans? 2017 - present.
Imogen Napper, Funding self, Plastics in the marine environment. 2014 – present
Completed PhD students
Imogen Napper, Funding self, Plastics in the marine environment. 2014 - 2018
La Daana Kanhai, Funding EU Mares, Microplastic distribution and ecological interactions across latitudinal gradients, 2015-2018
Stephanie Wright, Funding Defra, Physical effects of microplastics on marine life. 2011 - 2015
Daniel Metcalfe, Funding ESF. Environmentally & Ecologically durable surface design for the coastal built environment. 2011 -2015
Joao Frias, Funding FCT, Portugal. Microplastics in the environment.2011- 2015.
Nicolas Biber, Funding: Self. Distribution and effects on microplastics in the environment. 2009 – 2015 (part time).
Saeed Sadri, PhD 2015 Monitoring microplastics in the marine environment. 2009 – 2014. Funding Defra.
Juliette Jackson, PhD 2015 Recruitment and succession on coastaldefence structures. Funding: Self.
Kayleigh Wyles, PhD 2014 Rocky Shores: From habitat threat to marine awareness and restorative experiences. Funding NERC/ESRC.
Luke Holmes, PhD 2013, The role of plastic production pellets in the transport and availability of trace metals in the marine environment. Funding:University of Plymouth Studentship.
Martin Coombes, PhD 2011, Coastal defences and biodiversity: examining the interplay between engineering design and ecological response, Funding: GWR.
Gustavo Martins, PhD 2009, Community structure of the Azorean rocky intertidal: interactions between recruitment and exploitation,Funding: FCT(Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology).
John Griffin, PhD 2008, Biodiversity and ecosystem functioning: tests using rockpools as natural mesocosms, Funding: NERC.
Ana Silva, PhD 2008, Predator-prey interactions in rocky intertidal communities, Funding: FCT (Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology).
Mark Browne, PhD 2008, Environmental consequences of microscopic plastics in marine habitats, Funding: Leverhulme Trust.
Gerardo Gomes-Filho, PhD 2008, Physical and Biological Processes Influencing the Distribution of Barnacles in Estuaries, Funding:CAPES(Brazilian Ministry of Education).
Laure Noel, PhD 2007, Species interactions during succession in rockpools: role of herbivores and physical factors Funding: Self.
Emma Sheehan, PhD 2007, Ecological impact of the Carcinusmaenas (L.)fishery 'Crab-Tiling' on estuarine fauna, Funding: charitable sources.
Nova Mieszkowska, PhD 2005, Population structures and reproductive cycles of British Trochid Gastropods in relation to climate change, Funding: MARCLIM and Self.
Pippa Moore, PhD 2005, The Role of biological interactions in modyfying the effects of climate change on intertidal assemblages, Funding: PERC,University of Plymouth and Marine Biological Association.
Paula Moschella, PhD 2003, Influence of rock type on microbial fouling communities, Funding: EU.
Robert Alcock, PhD 2003, The effects of climate change on rocky shore communities in the Bay of Biscay. 1895 - 2050, Funding: Self.
Malcolm Roberts, PhD 2002, Population dynamics of Patella vulgata and P.depressa in S.W. England, Funding: Self.
Grants & contracts
£357,578, Charitable funder (2019 –2022), global plastics sampling Thompson,R.C. (PI)
£149,425, Charitable funder (2019 – 2020), Plastics sampling in rivers, Thompson, R.C. (PI)
£338,970, NERC (2019-2022), Current and future effects of microplastics on marine shelf ecosystems, Thompson, R.C. (PI) and Rowland S.J.
£89,114, XL Catlin (PhD studentship, 2019 – 2023), Assessing the ecological vulnerability of natural defences and risks to agricultural land following seawater flooding. Thompson R.C. (PI) and Hanley M.J.
£89,114, NERC (CASE Studentship, 2018-2022), Quantifying the influence of wastewater treatment on the release of microplastics to the environment. Thompson, R.C. (PI) and Warburton, P.
£199,065, Defra (2018-2019), Investigation of sources and pathways of microplastic into the marine environment. Thompson R.C. (PI)
£35,000, CRH (contribution to PhD studentship, 2017-2020) Marine Litter: Can behavioural sciences help reduce land-based waste entering the oceans? Thompson R.C. (PI) and Pahl. S.
£443,613, NERC (2016-2019) Distinguishing realistic environmental risks of nanoplastics Thompson, R.C. (PI) and Rowland S.J.
£60,000, Mares Doctoral Scheme, (PhD studentship, 2015 – 2018), Microplastics distribution across latitudinal gradients.
£300,000, to UoP as part of a £4M EU FP-7 (2012-2015) Marine Litter in European Seas: Social Awareness and Co-responsibility (MARLISCO) Thompson, R.C. and Pahl, S.
£440,000, Defra, (2011- 2014) Investigating whether microplastics cause harm in the marine environment. Thompson, R.C., Rowland, S.J. and Galloway, T.G.
£248,000, Esmee Fairburn, Naylor, L. Viles, H. and Thompson, R.C. (2011-1014) Bioprotection: an overlooked aspect of biodiversity/ecosystem service on coastal rocks.
€8,529,439, EU FP-7 (2009-2014) Innovative technologies for safer European coasts in a changing climate (THESEUS). Management Board: Zanuttigh, B., Nicholls, R.J., Burcharth, H.F., Thompson, R.C., Vanderlinden, J.P., Losada, I.J. and Claus, S. (€505,608 to UoP, PI’s Reeve, D. and Thompson, R.C.)
£254,000, Esmee Fairburn, (2009 -2012) Coastal Urban Ecology - Enhancing Biodiversity by Intelligent Design of Artificial Habitats (URBANE). Hawkins, S.J. (PI), Thompson, R.C., Frid C.L.J. and Burrows, M.T.
£5,000, International Union for the Conservation of Nature (2009), preparation of co-authored reviews on the environmental impacts of offshore renewable – Making Blue Energy Green. Thompson RC
£432,350, SWRDA (2007-2010) Assessing the biodiversity impact of the Wave Hub renewable energy development. Attrill, M.J. (PI), Thompson, R.C., Votier S.C., Hall-Spencer, J. and Howell K.L.
£22,000, PRIMaRE (2007-2008) Incorporating fisheries enhancement into coastal engineering as part of Wave Hub. Thompson, R.C. (PI), Moore, P.J. and Chadwick A.J.
£216,000, NERC (2005-2009) Consumer responses to habitat depletion: food-refuge interactions in periwinkles. Doncaster, C.P. (PI), Thompson, R.C., and Hawkins, S.J.
£31,869, NERC (2005-2007) Microscopic plastic, the extent of the problem: a new method for separating plastic fragments from natural sediments. Gaunt, L.F. (PI), Thompson, R.C. and Hearn, G.L.
£196,000, NERC (2004-2008) Biodiversity and ecosystem functioning: tests using rockpools as natural mesocosms. Jenkins, S.R. (PI), Thompson, R.C. and Hawkins, S.J.
£181,608, Leverhulme Trust (2003-2007) Lost at sea – where does all the plastic go II? Thompson, R.C. (PI), Rowland, S.J., Galloway, T.S. and Russell, A.E.
£ 14,945, Leverhulme Trust (2001-2002) Lost at sea – where does all the plastic go? Thompson, R.C. (PI) and Russell, A.E.
£500,000, (2000-2003) Assessing and predicting the influence of climatic change on the marine flora and fauna of Britain and Ireland using intertidal indicators. A consortium Project funded by English Nature, Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food, Department of the Environment and Transport and the Regions, Hawkins, S.J. (PI), Thompson, R.C., Southward, A.J., Kendall, M., Burrows M. and O’Riordan, R.
£88,543, NERC Joint Research Equipment Initiative (1999-2001) Data loggers for recording activity of homing limpets Hawkins, S.J. (PI), Thompson, R.C. and Hartnoll, R.G.
£140,000, EU (2000-2004) Environmental Design of Low-Crested Coastal Defences. Hawkins, S.J. (PI), Thompson, R.C. et al.
£25,469, NERC (1999-2000) The role of boring bivalves in generating spatial and erosional processes. Thompson, R.C. (PI) and Hawkins, S.J.
£30,000, EU (1999-2001) Interactions between substrate type and marine fouling. Moschella, P.S., Thompson R.C. and Hawkins S.J. (PI).
£ 22,665, NERC (1997-1999). Summertime: too much of a good thing for microalgae? Thompson, R.C. (PI), Thomason, J.C. and Hawkins, S.J.
£ 3,500, Manx Airlines. (1995) Survey of Manx sublittoral habitats Thompson, R.C. (PI), Bates M. and Veale, L.O.£ 2,500, Royal Geographical Society (and others) (1990) Marine curio trade in Tanzania Thompson, R.C. (PI), Newton, L.C. and Parkes, E.V.H.
Creative practice & artistic projects
Dominant Wave Theory, A. Hughes (2006) Booth-Clibborn Editions
This book, gives an extensive factual and thought provoking photographic record of debris in the marine environment. I contributed a scientific forward on the environmental consequences of this debris (P112-115).
Littoral Exhibition, University of Plymouth, UK, 31st October – 25th November, 2005
I was one of four scientific contributors to this exhibition which represents the first in what is hoped to be a series of collaborations between the School of media and Photography and the School of Biological Sciences.
Weird Worlds Exhibition, Plymouth City Museum, UK, 4 March – 26th April, 2003
I organised the ‘Marine Worlds’ section of this event which was run jointly by the University of Plymouth and City of Plymouth Museums and Art Galleries. I co-ordinated exhibits and seminars from more than 20 contributors throughout SW England. The exhibition catered for all ages and attracted over 6000 visitors.
Plymouth City Museum, Plymouth, UK
Contributor of underwater photographs
National Museum of Photography, Bradford, UK
Contributor of underwater photographs
Key publications are highlightedJournals
Reports & invited lectures
EU Group of Chief Scientific Advisors, Scientific Perspective on Microplastic Pollution, 2018
Plastics Europe, PolyTalk (160 delegates), Malta, 2018
Chartered Institute of Waste Managers, Resourcing the Future, London,2018
The Consumer Goods Forum, Sustainable Retail Summit, Porto, Portugal, 2018
British Retail Consortium, Microfibres and Sustainable fashion (20 companies),London, 2018
British Plastics Federation, Marine Litter Platform, London 2018
Sainsbury’s Bitesize, What is the real truth about impact of plastics (300 delegates), London, 2018
Mott MacDonald, Marine Plastics Conference, London, 2018
IGD -Technical leaders Forum (representing 30 major food and drink companies), Luton, 2018
Veolia Institute Workshop, Paris, 2017
International Solid Waste Association, World Congress, Antwerp, 2015
EFSA Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain, Microplastics and nanoplastics in food, 2016
Marine Pollution - Plastic pollution a keynote presentation on marine debris as part of the Our Ocean meeting organised by US Secretary of State, John Kerry, in Washington.
Plastic debris in the ocean - a global environmental problem. Thompson RC Royal Society of Chemistry Distinguished Guest Lecture, London March 2014
Healthy Oceans – Productive Ecosystems: A European conference for the marine environment (HOPE)European Parliament, Invited Keynote speaker Thompson RC, Brussels,March 2014
LET'S BAG IT - conference on plastic bags, European Parliament, Invited Keynote speaker Thompson RC, Brussels, February 2014
Invited as plenary speaker to open Marine Litter meeting for EU policy in Berlin, April 2012.
Plastics and oceans, a threat to the marine environment, Thompson RC. Invited plenary speaker, ALDE Seminar, European Parliament, Brussels, June 2010.
Accumulation and environmental consequences of plastic debris in marine habitats, Stralsund, Germany, May 2006. Marine Nature Conservation in Europe 2006 Invited Seminar funded by Bundesamt fur Naturschutz. Thompson RC,Rowland SJ, Galloway TS, Browne MA, Niven S and Teuten E.
Los Martes de L’Oceanographic: The fate and impacts of plastic waste in the sea, Valencia, Spain, March 2006, Invited Lecture funded the British Council programme for Science and Society. Thompson RC, Rowland SJ,Galloway TS, Browne MA, Niven S and Teuten E.
Microscopic plastic particles in the marine environment. Kommunes Internatsjonale miloorganisasjon (Local Authorities International Organisation)15th International Conference, Lerwick, Shetland, UK, October 2005. Thompson RC, Rowland SJ, Galloway TS, Browne MA and Niven S.
The accumulation and environmental consequence of microscopic plastic debris. Plastic debris, rivers to sea conference. California, USA, September 2005. Thompson RC, Rowland SJ, Galloway TS, Browne MA and Niven S.
Lost at Sea: Studies on the Fate and Effects of Particles of Plastics.Royal Society of Chemistry International Symposium on Sustainable Plastics:Biodegradability versus Recycling. Manchester, March 2005. Thompson RC, Galloway T, Niven SJ, Browne M, & Rowland SJ.
Rocky intertidal communities: past environmental changes, present status and predictions (forecasts?) for the next 25 years. 5th International Conference on Environmental Futures, March 2003. Zurich, Switzerland. Thompson,RC, Crowe T.P. and Hawkins SJ.
9th International Temperate Reefs Symposium, Plymouth University, 26th July – 1st August 2011.
Climate Change and Aquatic Systems: Past, Present and Future, University of Plymouth, 21-23rd July, 2004.
Other academic activities
Reviews of my research and publications
CIMAR, Centre of Marine and Environmental Research, paper of the week, March 2010
Martins, G.M., Thompson, R.C., Neto, A.I., Hawkins, S.J. and Jenkins, S.R. (2010) Enhancing stocks of the exploited limpet Patella candei d’Orbigny via modifications in coastal engineering, Biological Conservation,143: 203-211
‘It is widely recognized that microhabitats are important for a variety of marine organisms, yet this knowledge has rarely been applied in the construction of engineered structures as a means of enhancing biodiversity or populations of species at risk....’
Betts, K. (2008) Why small plastic particles may pose a big problem in the oceans Environmental Science and Technology, 5th November, 2008. Reports on 2 papers from my group:
Browne, M.A., Dissanayake, A., Galloway, T.S., Lowe, D.M. and Thompson R.C. (2008). Ingested microscopic plastic translocates to the circulatory system of the mussel, Mytilus edulis (L.) Environmental Science and Technology, 42: 5026-5031.
Teuten, E.L., Rowland, S.J., Galloway, T.S. and Thompson R.C. (2007). Potential for Plastics to Transport Hydrophobic Contaminants. Environmental Science and Technology, 41: 7759-7764.
‘two of the most influential papers in the field’
Duffy, J.E. (2008) Faculty of 100 must read papers. Reports on:
Griffin, J., de la Haye, K., Hawkins, S.J., Thompson, R.C. and Jenkins S.R. (2008). Predator diversity and ecosystem functioning: density modifies the effect of resource partitioning. Ecology, 89: 298-305.
‘This paper presents some of the first and most convincing experimental evidence for the widely assumed importance of resource partitioning in mediating the enhancement of ecosystem processes by diversity’
Ellinoson K. (2007) The trouble with nurdles. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment: 5: 396-396.
Reports in general about my research on plastics
Weismann, A. (2007) Polymers are forever. In: The world without us, Virgin Books Ltd, London, Chapter 9, 112-128.
Reports extensively on research by my group
Hopkin, M. (2004) Plastic particles surf polluted waves, Nature news (7th May, 2004 doi:10.1038). Reports on:
Thompson, R.C. , Olsen. Y., Mitchell, R.P., Davis, A., Rowland, S.J., John, A.W.G., McGonigle, D. and Russell A.E. (2004). Lost at sea: Where does all the plastic go? Science, 304: 838.
BBC Radio 4 features
Plastic Fantastic - three-part BBC Radio 4 series about our love/hate relationship with plastic.
The Life Scientific - Plastic pollution with Richard Thompson