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New ecosystem-based approaches to understand the risks to aquatic biodiversity from human activities

Project Description

Global consumption of pharmaceuticals and personal care products is rising, reflecting increasing social and economic development in many countries. In the light of continuing declines in biodiversity and the degradation of key ecosystem functions and services, the potential environmental impact of the production and disposal of these products is of increasing concern. Goal 3 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals emphasises the need for improved management of chemicals throughout their whole life cycle and for the minimisation of possible adverse effects on human health and the environment. Improved science-based risk assessment procedures are urgently needed to underpin work towards this goal.

Ecological risk assessment is used to determine the likelihood of adverse ecological effects resulting from human impacts on the environment. Traditionally, in this process, a few selected individual species are used as proxies for the response of the ecosystem as a whole. However, this approach is somewhat limited because single indicators may not necessarily be good indicators of overall ecosystem functioning. Moreover, different species may respond to environmental stress in different ways, and so the effects caused by loss of biodiversity on ecosystem function can be difficult to predict. More inclusive approaches, which account for what is happening throughout the ecosystem, could be more informative, and play a key role in providing ‘early warnings’ of sudden ecosystem changes due to environmental and anthropogenic pressures.

This PhD project will build a better understanding of the relationships between biodiversity and ecosystem functions in aquatic ecosystems. This evidence will be used to inform the development of the next generation of ecological risk assessments that incorporate more robust indicators of ecosystem health. Findings from the project could therefore make an important contribution to improve sustainable development and biodiversity conservation globally.

The project will have three main aims:

• To examine the relationships between indicators of biodiversity and ecosystem functions in freshwater systems within the same eco-regions, and how the choice of indicator can affect measures of changes in overall freshwater ecosystem health.
• To evaluate the impact of chemical and other stressors on ecosystem functions, including any evidence for threshold effects, whether specific traits of species make them particularly vulnerable to loss and the potential impacts on ecosystem function.
• To determine the robustness of different indicators of ecosystem function in ecological risk assessments, and hence which indicators would be reliable measures of the response of the ecosystem as a whole, providing ‘early warnings’ of ecosystem damage in different eco-regions.

The student will be trained in a multi-sectoral, international, and interdisciplinary environment, and have the opportunity to learn from leading scientists working on ecology, ecosystem functioning and risk assessment. The student will be encouraged to contribute to international workshops and conferences which will enhance their knowledge, as well as being given a wide range of networking opportunities and international exposure. The student will see their results being applied directly to facilitate decision-making and will gain industrial knowledge and business acumen, enabling job opportunities in industry.

The student will be a member of the NERC Doctoral Training Partnership in “Adapting to the Challenges of a Changing Environment” (ACCE), which is a partnership between the Universities of Sheffield, Liverpool and York, the NERC’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) and the Natural History Museum (NHM).

The student will follow the requirements of the NERC ACCE PhD programme, and benefit from training activities provided at ACCE programme level by the Universities of York, Sheffield and Liverpool. The student will be registered in the Department of Environment and Geography at the University of York and follow the Department of Environment and Geography’s progression requirements. These are consistent with the requirements of the University of York, as set out by the York Graduate Research School.

The University of York will be the lead institution and will serve as the primary base for the PhD student. The University of Sheffield will act as the second institution for the PhD student. The student will have desk space available in Professor Maltby’s group at the University of Sheffield, and will be encouraged to visit Sheffield and make use of the opportunities provided by co-supervision across two academic institutions. The student will also have the opportunity of spending at least 3 months with experts covering broad aspects of ecological risk assessment at the Safety and Environmental Assurance Centre (SEAC) of Unilever, the CASE partner organisation.

Funding Notes

This is a 4-year fully-funded studentship, which is part of the NERC Doctoral Training Partnership in Adapting to the Challenges of a Changing Environment (ACCE). The studentship covers: (i) a tax-free stipend at the standard Research Council rate (£15,009 for 2019/20), (ii) tuition fees at UK/EU rate, and (iii) research consumables and training necessary for the project.


Entry requirements: At least an upper second class honours degree, or equivalent in any relevant subject that provides the necessary skills, knowledge and experience for the DTP, including environmental, biological, chemical, mathematical and physical sciences.

Eligibility: The studentships are available to UK and EU students who meet the UK Research and Innovation residency requirements (to be residing in the UK for at least three years continuously prior to the beginning of the programme).

Shortlisting: Applicants will be notified if they have been selected for interview during the week commencing 23 March 2020.

Interviews: Shortlisted applicants will be invited for an interview to take place in the Department of Environment and Geography at the University of York in late March/early April. As part of the selection process, candidates invited to interview will be asked to give a 5-minute presentation on a research project they have carried out.

Start date: This studentship is available to start immediately.

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