Professor Arne Akbar is stepping down from the post of President of the British Society for Immunology. His Presidency has spanned a tumultuous four-year period that has seen huge societal changes including the COVID-19 pandemic, establishment of the Black Lives Matter movement, the cost-of-living crisis and Brexit. During this time, the Society has published an ambitious new strategy, influenced Government policy during the pandemic, published a new Diversity and Inclusion Framework and expanded its journal portfolio. As Professor Akbar leaves this role, he reflects on his time as President, the unique role the Society plays and the challenges immunology as a profession still faces.
What were your hopes for this role when you first started as BSI President?
I took the role of President because I wanted to give back to the Society, after benefiting so greatly from being a member of the BSI for the last 44 years. When I started as President, I was most concerned with keeping the BSI stable and for nothing to go wrong on my watch. I also hoped my Presidency would see the Society grow greater international links, bring the BSI Board of Trustees and staff team closer, and find new ways of harnessing the expertise of immunologists from the beginning to the end of their careers.
Did things go as you expected?
Little did I know that the COVID-19 pandemic would come along during my Presidency and present unprecedented challenges to the BSI and the field of immunology. As a Society we needed to support our members during this challenging time, keep the BSI going, while making sure the public and policymakers heard the views of immunologists and had access to knowledge from the latest research findings.
What do you see as the most important role of the BSI?
Everything the BSI does is for its members and our membership is growing every year. We constantly ask what we can do to make things better for immunologists at every stage of their careers. Our five-year strategy lays out our big ambitions for the future. We want to build a more interconnected immunology ecosystem to support collaboration between sectors and disciplines. We will provide sector-leading careers support to attract and retain talent in immunology. We are also making sure our immunology knowledge improves health and influences policy, and that immunology research has the right conditions to thrive. These are bold ambitions given our lean size and resources. The BSI staff team is small – just 20 people – but they are highly qualified and all work together for the members. They achieve so much and punch way above their weight; we use our limited resources to make the biggest difference.
How has the role of the Society evolved during your time as President?
The Society has become even more outward-facing – both in terms of our public engagement and influencing policymakers during the pandemic. We have always cared about public engagement, but COVID-19 made this work even more important. Along with our work to engage with different communities about COVID vaccines, the BSI has also worked with members of the public to provide patient and public involvement (PPI) input into some of the most high-profile COVID-19 immunology studies. We work very closely with patients and members of the public in many areas – as scientists we must listen to the views of the public to better our research, and they can help us make our work more accessible. Everyone is expected to write public summaries of their work now, but many of them are not written in a way that is truly accessible. We do a lot to make sure our members can produce accessible information, striving to connect them both to the public and patients.
We work very closely with patients and members of the public in many areas – as scientists we must listen to the views of the public to better our research, and they can help us make our work more accessible.
Over your time as President, what are you most proud of?
I feel so strongly about the important role of the BSI; I really wanted to protect the Society and make sure nothing went wrong while I was President. Far from it, through the incredible uncertainty and challenge of the last few years, the BSI has tackled everything that has been thrown at it effectively. I am pleased at the progress we have made in bringing early career researchers closer to heart of the Society and they now have a role on our Board. They have helped us develop our innovative new BSI Career Enhancing Grants. Researchers come to us with a variety of suggestions about how they would spend the money to aid their career development – it is a very flexible scheme. It means early career researchers can do something different, that would be hard to fund from other sources. We are also looking to make sure we don’t lose the knowledge and expertise of Society members as they move towards and beyond retirement. Recently we held a dinner with very senior immunologists to ask how they can continue to share their valuable knowledge and experience from a lifetime of hard work with the Society. I am also proud of the work we have done to develop and expand our journal portfolio. We launched Immunotherapy Advances in 2021, the BSI’s first journal launch in over 60 years, and Discovery Immunology in 2022. These journals provide important new places to publish immunology research for the immunology community and provide a valuable source of income for BSI activities that aim to support our membership, such as grant schemes and BSI Congress.
Can you tell us more about the important role the Society played during the pandemic?
The BSI played many different and essential roles during the pandemic. Perhaps most importantly we brought researchers together to give collective opinions to share with the public and policymakers – this was very important as the situation was evolving so quickly. Very early on we sent an influential letter to Government, the Chief Scientific Advisor and Chief Medical Officer. We stressed that herd immunity would not provide a short-term solution to the pandemic. Moving from herd immunity to isolation was a radical step early in the pandemic, but an important one. We also rapidly assembled a BSI COVID-19 Taskforce of researchers with diverse backgrounds and worked with the Academy of Medical Sciences to produce a report on COVID and immunology. The conclusions of this work influenced SAGE, Government, and were shared widely within the scientific community and beyond. At that point we didn’t know why certain sectors of the public were particularly affected by COVID-19, beyond knowing that age, ethnic background and co-morbidities were important factors. We broke down the questions that most urgently needed answering and were clear about what actions needed to happen in the short and longer term. The BSI office did an incredible job of bringing key opinions and documents together at speed for review by the group.
The BSI also worked to increase confidence in vaccines during the pandemic?
It was fantastic that vaccines for COVID-19 were developed so quickly, with British immunologists at the forefront of their development. However, the speed of development also brought challenges. When the vaccines were first introduced there was a great deal of worry about which vaccine people received, whether it was Pfizer or AstraZeneca. There was a lot of space for the spread of misinformation. Our BSI COVID-19 Taskforce, working with other members of the Society, did a great job during this time. They brought together the very latest research and distilled it into clear and accessible information for the public. This allowed us to be a sensible and trustworthy voice on COVID vaccination. We never told anyone what to do – that was really important. Instead, we made sure people had the best information to make their own decisions. We also did a great deal of work to support our members to have their own discussions with the public, media and their family and friends.
What do you think science has learnt from the pandemic?
Scientists have learnt that they can put competition aside and come together to rapidly solve problems. I didn’t expect the scientific community to come together quite as well as it did. In normal times scientists need to compete with each other to be successful. Yet, during the pandemic, data and samples were shared widely and we excelled at collaboration. It was particularly pleasing to see significant papers being published with 50 or more authors, with the research itself carried out unbelievably quickly.
What are the biggest challenges that the field of immunology still needs to overcome?
We need to persuade more younger people there is a career in immunology. Academia is an uncertain path with job insecurity, though it is a rewarding and fascinating career for those who pursue it. An immunology degree can also lead to many other careers; there is interesting work in healthcare, industry, grant giving bodies, policy work and in the media. We need to do more to communicate this to people at an early age so they can find immunology as a career. Another major challenge is to encourage different ethnic groups to study immunology. Despite seeing ethnic diversity in those studying science degrees, there still are very few people from minority groups in senior positions in immunology – or indeed – wider science. The BSI is working hard to change this, and this is one of the aims of our recently published Diversity and Inclusion framework – which will help us strive to foster a culture within immunology that ensures that fair treatment and opportunity for all no matter their gender, ethnicity, other factors or background. I haven’t talked a lot about my own ethnicity, but I do hope that by being President of the BSI, I have inadvertently opened the door to others. I hope other people from minority ethnic groups will be encouraged to apply for senior positions in science.
Why should researchers from all sectors and backgrounds engage with the BSI?
Immunology will make the greatest advances if people from many different disciplines and backgrounds work together. We need academia, industry and clinicians to come together, but that won’t happen without encouragement. The BSI has an essential role here as the glue to bring all the strands of immunology together as a whole. Bringing clinicians and industry, in particular, into our activities and our membership is very important for immunology as a sector to thrive.
Immunology will make the greatest advances if people from many different disciplines and backgrounds work together. We need academia, industry and clinicians to come together, but that won’t happen without encouragement. The BSI has an essential role here as the glue to bring all the strands of immunology together as a whole.
How important is international work to the BSI?
It was a priority for my time as President to make sure that BSI had a greater international reach. For a small country, our immunology research packs a big punch and the calibre of UK immunology is world renowned. I wanted to integrate our immune experience in the UK with that of the rest of the world and I think we are achieving this. Our work is supporting the British immunology community to build collaborative links around the world, and in fact I have just returned from trips to Singapore and the US. We chair the European Federation of Immunological Societies’ Vaccine Task Force, bringing together stakeholders from around Europe to share best practice in improving vaccine uptake.
You joined the BSI in 1978, can you tell us how being a member has supported your career?
Attending the BSI Congress has always been incredibly important to me. These get-togethers include junior and senior researchers and see people from all areas of immunology coming together to share ideas. I always felt included, felt welcomed – and they were the best meetings I went to every year. It is these events that really made me feel part of the BSI throughout my career and made me want to give back to the Society.
What advice would you give to someone embarking on an immunology career today?
You have to be driven by curiosity; everything else is secondary. Find something you are interested in and give it a go, have the courage to take it forwards. Embrace the excitement – if you are not excited by it, don’t do it. It is also important to know that you don’t need to be conventionally disciplined and serious to have a career in immunology. I wasn’t a stellar academic all the way through my education. I could have been described as bad boy at school, but I was curious and fascinated by science. I can see now that having a slightly undisciplined mind is an advantage that helps me go in a different direction and see things differently from my peers.
Any advice to the next BSI President?
I am delighted that Tracy Hussell will be taking over as President; I have known her for a long time and know how able she is. She will bring her own style to the role and I really look forward to seeing what she delivers. I wish her all the best and have total confidence that the BSI will go from strength to strength under her leadership.
Interview by Claire Bithel