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Brexit, Westminster and science: What’s happening and what questions are being asked for science?

The Houses of Parliament

December marked the BSI’s Annual Congress, this year hosted in collaboration with the Dutch Society of Immunology (NVVI) in Liverpool. This joint conference was further evidence that immunology is a truly collaborative science with internationalism at its heart. Unsurprisingly, one topic at the forefront of everyone’s mind was Brexit. At a lunchtime session titled “Brexit – what are the implications for immunology?”, we looked to explore what was happening behind the closed doors of Westminster, hear the concerns of our scientific community and think what the Society and our members can do to ensure that immunology continues to flourish in the post-Brexit landscape. Our expert panel consisted of Professor Peter Openshaw (BSI President), Professor René van Lier (European Federation of Immunological Societies (EFIS) President), and Oliver Ilott, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Government.


Behind the scenes

Beginning the discussion, Oliver gave us a concise layperson’s guide to how the process of Brexit is likely to work.


The operating model – who is doing what?

There are three main departments that will be involved with Brexit. These are the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Department for International Trade (DIT), and the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU). Of interest to us at this time is DExEU. Why? DExEU has two main roles – coordinating Whitehall departments and leading the negotiations following the trigger of Article 50. What’s interesting about DExEU is that it pools its expertise from existing Whitehall departments. That is, the existing departments (e.g. Department of Health, Department for Education etc) will discuss what they want from Brexit and feed this to DExEU, which will then work these into the Brexit negotiations.


Resourcing – who does the heavy lifting?

In government terms, DExEU is a relatively small department and therefore is reliant on input and analysis from other departments. However, with an 18% reduction in the overall size of the civil service since 2010, these departments are already operating at strain. With pressure already on the system, and no indication of this easing off in the future, Whitehall has a difficult job ahead to juggle all its normal responsibilities with the very big task of Brexit.


Decision making – who has the final say?

Once Whitehall departments have put their negotiating asks to DExEU, DExEU then works to identify difficult trade-offs and how these might be resolved. The traditional centre of decision making in government is the Cabinet. However, over recent years the Cabinet has become large and unwieldy (there are 22 cabinet ministers and an additional five ministers who attend cabinet meetings), and therefore decision making is often delegated to small sub-committees, in the case of Brexit to the Exiting the EU Cabinet Committee. This committee, chaired by the Prime Minister, is made up of an equal number of ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’ and will deliberate on complex issues which have been passed up the chain from DExEU.


Questions and discussions

While the mechanistic workings of Brexit may have become more clear for those of us who sat in the audience, key questions around the uncertainties from immunologists were at the crux of this lunchtime session. An open-floor discussion with our panel revealed concerns including guaranteed rights to remain for EU citizens currently working and living in the UK and vice versa, promoting the UK as a positive place to study and/or work, how to implement change from a citizen level and, of course, a few questioning the chances that Brexit may not happen.

Throughout discussions the panel were clear on their own opinions of collaboration and keeping the UK as a positive place for immunology. Professor van Lier, Dutch and President of EFIS European Federation of Immunological Societies, reassured that the UK’s scientific partnership with Europe is one which is long-valued and is not inhibited by borders. He said that EFIS will work alongside the BSI to minimise any negative effects of Brexit to immunology. Further, Ilott encouraged communication with local MPs, saying that “MPs are on a journey of understanding” and that “whatever the political environment is now, will not be what it is in a year’s time,” explaining that MPs’ constituents can have real-world influence on upcoming negotiations. Professor van Lier echoed this by saying that “politicians sometimes can have a difficult time understanding what science needs in order to flourish – it is our responsibility to inform them.” Professor Openshaw encouraged writing to university vice-chancellors whom he said can have great influence on these issues.  It was clear that all panellists and the audience agreed that communication is going to be key to ensure immunology gets what it needs out of Brexit and that the “many messengers, same message” approach is going to be our most effective method.     

Coming out of the session, it seemed that immunologists are thinking hard about how we can react as a community to the difficult process ahead of us. It will be important to use Brexit as an opportunity to build on our enormously valuable international collaborations to continue to make UK research in immunology and infection the best in the world.

Shannon Lacombe, Policy & Communications Assistant, BSI


You can find further information on the BSI’s response to various Brexit consultations and announcements in our Brexit briefcase.