Beautiful space view of the Earth with cloud formation. planet earth shutterstock

Written by Mike Pattenden and featured in The Times on 4 November 2021 during the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26)

Professor Richard Thompson OBE FRS, Director of the Marine Institute and Professor Will Blake, Director of the Sustainable Earth Institute.


Leonardo da Vinci believed that everything is connected. The idea is often repeated throughout history but is rarely applied in any depth at our teaching institutions or in the business world. A group of leading academics at the University of Plymouth are using their knowledge and experience to change that – and help save the planet in the process.

Plymouth is widely referred to as 'Britain’s Ocean City'. It is home to Marine Research Plymouth – a partnership of its three major science institutions: the Marine Biological Association; Plymouth Marine Laboratory; and the University of Plymouth Marine Institute, one of the foremost centres of learning in the world for marine research and related environmental issues.

“Plymouth has been a focus for marine science for over 100 years,” says Richard Thompson, Professor of Marine Biology. “We have in the southwest of England a confluence of species from southern waters and northern waters that provides immense biodiversity. Our environmental research here has led us to the realisation that events on land are inextricably linked with those in the sea.”

Professor Thompson is also Director of the Marine Institute and with Professor Will Blake, Director of the Sustainable Earth Institute, he is using Systems Thinking to shape an approach to environmental research. This takes interconnectedness to another level. It’s a school of critical thought that sees a problem as part of a much larger tapestry in which multiple elements are shaping and reshaping outcomes. For that reason, problems should be treated holistically rather than in isolation.

Systems Thinking is particularly useful for applying to environmental issues because it recognises the dynamic relationship between interacting factors and the value of transdisciplinary collaboration.

“We’ve become Systems Thinkers here,” explains Blake, “because we’re trying to solve complex problems, we have learnt through experience to practise it in order to find real solutions. These sorts of problems can’t be solved in a linear way or by one discipline or from a single perspective.”

Thompson’s research has made him the world’s leading expert on microplastics; he coined the term in a ground-breaking paper, Lost at Sea, in 2004. Since then he has broadened understanding of the impacts of plastics and put forward potential solutions to the problem.

“I spotted a proliferation of these tiny, granular pieces of plastic on beaches that had broken down from much bigger items 20 years ago, but it has taken this long to reach a consensus on the issue,” he says. “Now, policymakers and industry leaders are jumping at solutions. But we have to understand the wider circularity of the story. If people act independently without appreciating the complexity of the problem, there will be unintended consequences. I had one supermarket approach me with the idea of using bio-sourced plastics – until I pointed out that this alone wouldn’t stop the vast wastage.”

Microplastics on the beach
Richard Thompson
Soil erosion. Will Blake. 
Geography 50 Will Blake

For Blake, the realisation that a Systems Thinking approach was fundamental came through his work on soil erosion in East Africa. There, soil is washed off the land into rivers, resulting in sedimentation and pollution. Erosion affects not just food production (millions of hectares of arable land and grazing areas are lost) but also water quality and even energy because of disruption to hydropower plants.

“We came up with all the evidence but when people asked ‘How are we going to change this?’ I realised I’d been looking at it through a single lens,” he says. “Only when I began working with social scientists did I appreciate the true complexity of the problem. For example, ‘overgrazing’ was not a cause but a symptom of wider socioeconomic and cultural pressures.

“Using a process of co-design brought us tangible solutions and Systems Thinking became a very intuitive process.”

Systems Thinking is also influencing policy in Britain at governmental level, and we are now seeing positions such as the Head of Systems in Defra – incidentally taken by a former student of Thompson’s. Blake and Thompson are keen to encourage collaboration and instil in students an appreciation that will inform their field work.

“It’s about changing the way students approach complex problems,” says Blake. “A key aspect for me is the interdisciplinarity,” adds Thompson. “It’s not dumbing down specialisms, it’s about connecting them. Our faculties have areas of disciplinary excellence and the institutes are a melting pot for those ideas and knowledge.”

Building on substantial funding success in environmental research, several more applications that are out for projects will bring together academics from across the University, including medicine and the arts, to tackle a range of challenges.

The Song of the Sea project, launching during COP26, attempts to explain the complexity of cause and effect on the ocean through a piece of data-inspired music created by experts at the University. It takes the notes of the old sea shanty Drunken Sailor and distorts them using digital signals from the February 2014 storm that battered the South West.

“We are illustrating climate change as a large storm event. Choosing Drunken Sailor is a way of suggesting humanity’s overindulgence,” says Thompson. “I see the arts as absolutely fundamental to how we visualise and explain problems to an audience who wouldn’t engage with a scientific paper. It’s another example of the way that Systems Thinking is needed. For me, it is a key direction of travel, not just for the University but for the planet.”

Richard Thompson OBE FRS, Professor of Marine Biology and Director of the University’s Marine Institute, continues to set the international agenda on research into the causes and effects of marine litter. A decade-and-a-half on from his seminal paper, which for the first time described the accumulation of ‘microplastics’ in the oceans, he has mapped out much of the territory upon which our understanding of both the impacts of plastics and the potential solutions are based. Will Blake, Professor of Catchment Science, is an eminent global researcher applying forensic approaches to solve complex issues of soil erosion, its downstream impacts and the associated land management challenges it presents. He is Director of the University's Sustainable Earth Institute.

Supporting COP26 – United Nations Climate Change Conference 2021

The COP26 summit, held in Glasgow, Scotland from 31 October to 12 November 2021, brought parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on climate change.

The University of Plymouth is proud to be a part of the COP26 Universities Network whose mission it is to ensure that the UK academic sector plays its role in delivering a successful COP26, in order to deliver a zero-carbon, resilient world.

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