A Passion for Poisons


The Environment Agency is a public body which focuses on the protection and enhancement of the natural world. It is required by Government to achieve sustainable development in the UK, and the Agency's remit encompasses pollution prevention and control, flood defence, waste management, fisheries, navigation, water quality, water resources, and conservation. It employs about 10,000 people and looks to recruit individuals with a passion for environmental protection. It has to be up to date with advances in technology, techniques, and current thinking, and to this end offers widely varied careers for scientists in numerous disciplines. Claire Wilkins spoke to Environmental Toxicology Manager Geoff Brighty about his scientific career within the Environment Agency.

Geoff Brighty works at the National Centre for Ecotoxicology and Hazardous Substances, one of a number of national centres created by the Environment Agency to apply specialist knowledge at both policy and operational level. It is based at Wallingford in Oxfordshire, with an ecotoxicology laboratory at Waterlooville near Portsmouth. The Centre plays an active role in the assessment and control of chemicals, concentrating on their manufacture, use, disposal, and environmental impact.

Geoff?s team works on reducing the risks of chemical impacts to the environment. This involves researching into effects of chemicals, assessing how hazardous they are to develop environmental standards and providing guidance to operational staff dealing with pollution ?on the ground?. Some chemical issues that Geoff?s team deals with have a high-profile, like endocrine-disrupting substances; many chemicals, both natural and man-made, are known to adversely effect the hormone systems of humans and animals, and there is growing concern about the link between the presence of these substances in their environment and their harm to wildlife. Geoff has worked on a number of ground-breaking research projects to identify adverse health effects in wildlife and the molecules responsible. All the rivers observed by his team have been found to contain feminised male fish, caused mainly by estrogens in sewage effluents. This research helps the Agency develop its strategy on endocrine-disrupting substances, a mixture of cost-effective action to reduce the risks of harm to the environment, targeted environmental monitoring, further research to address areas of uncertainty, and work to raise the public's awareness of these issues.

However, at any time the team may have to respond to an urgent crisis as was the case earlier this year when foot-and-mouth disease broke out. During this period all the team's attention had to focus on assessing the risk posed by the disinfectants used in combating the epidemic.

Geoff Brighty: Career History in Brief

  • 1984 B.Sc. in Marine Biology and Zoology, University College of North Wales, Bangor

  • 1987 Ph.D. in reproductive physiology of fish, Trent Polytechnic

  • 1988 Research Associate, Anglian Water--studied reproduction of coarse fish; established fish farm and fish production for restocking programmes

  • 1990 R&D project management, National Rivers Authority. General scientific post, managing a broad portfolio of projects, from flood defence to water resources, and specific to his background, developed research programmes in to endocrine-disrupting substances

  • 1994 A range of water quality and research secondments at regional and national level within the National Rivers Authority and Environment Agency (post April 1996)

  • 1997 Environmental Toxicology Manager at the Agency's National Centre for Ecotoxicology and Hazardous Substances in Wallingford

Career Route

Since childhood, Geoff has taken a keen interest in the environment and wildlife, deciding in his early teens that he wanted to study marine science at degree level. His first job was with Anglian Water Authority?s fisheries division. He was recruited into a relatively specialist role, developing fish culture techniques at the Authority?s fish farms - a direct application of his PhD research.

He believes that there are many opportunities within the Agency to use one's scientific expertise. "The Agency funds a substantial amount of research, and MPhil/PhD?level researchers who have worked on our projects at universities have subsequently been taken on as permanent staff within the Agency. National Centres, such as the ecotoxicology department where I work, underpin our main business areas with scientific and technical expertise," he explains. "These Centres provide some of the strongest opportunities within the Agency for those who want to work exclusively as scientists."

In general the Centres are looking for people with a broad background (for example in chemistry) and specialist expertise in fields such as chemical biodegradation or very specific areas--for example, flame retardants. National Centres have a broad base in terms of experience, but want to bring in new recruits with detailed knowledge in emerging scientific fields to develop their 'intelligence gathering' strategic role. Entry levels to the Centres can vary depending on the job, business location within the Agency, and level of seniority. Usually a minimum of a first degree is specified for scientific posts, rising to an M.Sc. and Ph.D. and/or relevant experience for senior scientist posts. But one of the main advantages of working for such a large organisation is the availability and sheer diversity of roles that scientists can move into following their initial entry.

Exploring Options

National Centres do not provide the only entry route for scientists: You could alternatively apply for a policy or operational role. For example, as a field-based Environmental Protection Officer you might draw on one of a number of scientific backgrounds: chemistry (assessing chemistry data for environmental discharges), biology (assessing the impact of pollution), or geology (assessing the risk to ground water from a surface-level spillage). These types of post give a real practical application for one's scientific training. Another option is to enter a policy-related team, where you might assess, monitor or model data on environmental impacts, or evaluate the performance of those whom the Agency regulates.

Geoff believes that taking on work in such areas has enabled him to develop his career within the Agency. In the past he has worked as a Pollution Control Officer which was, he says, an extremely beneficial change from being a largely office based research manager. Today he manages a team that monitors a variety of chemicals, assessing their impact on the environment. "As with any organisation, the more senior you become, the greater the shift from being a 'scientist' to becoming a 'manager'," he explains. "In my current role, I have roughly a 50/50 split between technical and managerial functions. I now have responsibility for the delivery of research reports, chemical standards, and technical advice to our field staff--that involves people management, planning, and budgetary skills. Invariably, scientists can become managers--but the reverse isn't always true!"

Getting Into the Environment Agency

  • Join a core business area--such as Environmental Protection or Water Management--at a policy (Head Office) or operational (field-based) level

  • Apply to a scientific National Centre which manages research and provides scientific and strategic support to the Agency

  • Apply to a National Service which provides analytical or technical operational support services

  • Enter into a nonscientific support area (administrative, finance, information technology) where a graduate-level education is required, but where science skills are not necessarily required

How to Apply

Anyone interested in working for the Agency should write or phone in to the relevant Regional Personnel Department to receive information about current vacancies, or call the National Recruitment Team on 0113 231 2198. The Agency's head office is in Bristol and the organisation has eight regional offices across England and Wales. Contact details for each office are listed on the Agency Web site.

Staff are employed on a permanent, temporary, or contract basis. The Agency normally runs one advert per month in New Scientist listing a range of vacancies across the country. Adverts also run occasionally in The Guardian and some local papers. In the near future, all positions will be advertised on the Agency's Web site.

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