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Brexit and immunology - where are we now?

The British Society for Immunology Congress – where immunologists from the UK and abroad come together to share, learn and reflect on great scientific research. Complementing the scientific programme were several additional sessions on relevant topics of interest and importance.  One such session on the Thursday lunchtime was on a topic high on the current national agenda – Brexit.


‘Brexit and immunology – where are we now?’ perhaps could not have been more timely, given the present state of negotiations and the publication of the life sciences sector deal earlier in the week. On the panel was local Hove MP and ardent remain campaigner, Peter Kyle MP, and Deputy Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), Naomi Weir. After brief introductions from Peter and Naomi, we spent the majority of time on questions from the audience on topics ranging from citizen rights to funding to science’s place in the current negotiations. 


Past discussions

Last year at BSI Congress 2016, six months after the June referendum, we held a similar Brexit session to discuss the mechanics of Brexit and to highlight key asks for British science going towards Article 50 and into the negotiations. Unsurprising at that time, the room was filed with uncertainty and concern over what impact leaving the EU would have on British science, specifically funding, collaboration and regulation. Three hundred and sixty-five days felt far off and we had hoped (and optimistically presumed) that by the next Congress (this year) some of the expressed concerns would have been settled. Though I don’t think we can say that the overall picture is that much clearer, energy and morale is high and immunologists are clearly motivated to keep UK immunology at the forefront of global science.


Constructive debate

This year, with over 500 attendees packed into the auditorium on a wet and windy Brighton day, the atmosphere was positively electric. From their opening statements, the panellists had the audience engaged. It was clear everyone was on the side of science. Applause from the crowded room when Peter Kyle acknowledged the audience’s concerns with genuine empathetic responses. Not to mention a crowd favourite moment when Mr Kyle said he was careful to use the word ‘if’ we leave the EU when discussing Brexit, over ‘when’. He discussed openly how he is campaigning for all options to be kept on the table, so that there is a meaningful decision made by the public before the end of the two-year negotiating period as to whether the preference is for whatever deal is proposed or halting Brexit all together.

Additionally, we discussed the key contributions that immunology makes to the UK economy and how immunology research benefits the UK. We discussed what CaSE and other organisations, including the BSI, have done to engage with the ongoing discussions in Whitehall, examining how this has become an era for cross-party collaboration in order to push through some of the most important societal agenda points. Out of all our discussions, one of the most important questions was around what immunologists can do to ensure their voice is heard? To this, our panellists were able to provide some practical suggestions with Peter giving insight to engaging with constituency MPs individually and/or as an organisation. He encouraged everyone to introduce themselves to their MP, introduce their work and their asks in a constructive manner – every interaction counts!


Work with our community

We encourage all our members to get in touch with their local MPs and we will be producing a ‘Get involved with Brexit’ toolkit for members in the New Year. In the meantime, please do get in touch with us at the BSI office, if you have any questions on how best to get involved in the discussions or have had any engagements we'd like to know about!


As to the afternoon’s title, ‘Brexit and immunology – where are we now?’, I think it is fair to say that no one seems to have the answer. The panellists made it clear that they could not provide us with any certainty or assurances, but that they were on the side of science and that the scientific community can be one of the loudest voices echoing from London to Brussels over the next 18 months.

Though not providing many clear answers, I think the lunchtime session was just what our immunology community needed. It seemed a perfect metaphor for how the scientific community functions most effectively – talented people coming together from all over the EU to consider how best to solve a problem and make a difference. In such a setting, no other atmosphere is more motivating and ironically uplifting … and its worth fighting for!


Shannon Lacombe

Policy & Public Affairs Manager, BSI


For more resources from the British Society for Immunology on what Brexit will mean for immunology and how you can work with us to ensure the voice of immunology is heard, please visit our Brexit Briefcase