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An interview with ... Peter Openshaw

Peter Openshaw Professor Peter Openshaw is stepping down as President of the British Society for Immunology in December after five successful years at the helm, during which time he has overseen a series of major transformations of the Society. Amongst other things, it has grown both in membership and in scope, worked to an ambitious strategic plan, and engaged more actively with policymakers. Here, Professor Openshaw reflects on the changing face of the BSI, its crucial role in supporting immunologists at all stages of their careers, and on the challenges and opportunities facing both his successor and those in the field more widely going forward.

What do you see as the role of the BSI?

The UK has always excelled in immunological research, with UK-based immunologists amongst the global leaders. The BSI is therefore a crucial organisation for encouraging and supporting research in the field, not only here in the UK, but also worldwide. The BSI is also increasingly involved in efforts to apply immunological knowledge to develop new treatments and prevention techniques to benefit human and animal health. I am the first clinician to lead the BSI, which was perhaps symptomatic of the membership being keen to extend our focus beyond the pursuit of immunology as a purely academic discipline. Another shift during my time as President has been that we’ve moved from being a purely membership-focused organisation to extending our horizons to also lobby policymakers and funders. It’s hard to over-state the importance and potential of immunology to transform health and wellbeing.

Could you give an example of that recent policy work?

The main area we have campaigned on so far has been vaccination. In the past, designing a new vaccine has generally been a practical process needing little theoretical input. However, in today’s climate, vaccines are best developed by international, multi-skilled teams using the latest technology.  In terms of policy work, we wanted to focus on an area clearly within our immunological remit; vaccination is something everyone is aware of. Additionally, from a public health standpoint, encouraging uptake of vaccines is crucial for preventing the spread of disease and is an area where, as a charity, the BSI can really make an impact.

We’ve therefore focused on trying to get policymakers from Cabinet down to local government to engage in appreciating the importance of vaccination, the way vaccines work and the way there is so much more that can be done by getting not only existing vaccines rolled out more effectively but by creating new vaccines. It’s an area in which the BSI has made great strides, not least because Jo Revill, our former CEO, really understood how government works. Knowing things like the right time to land a letter on George Osborne’s desk was crucial. Working at the very top level of UK politics to promote vaccination as one of the most cost-effective measures we have for improving health has been tremendously exciting. It’s hard to prove, but I believe our campaign resulted in an extra £150 million being put into strengthening vaccination infrastructure in the UK and to the MRC and BBSRC setting up new vaccine networks. These will have a huge effect over time.

Peter Openshaw with Jo Revill and BSI staff

How else has the Society changed during your time as President?

We’ve certainly grown. We decided to review our membership database and website, both key tools to allow us to interact and engage with our membership and the wider world.  As a result, we have developed a new website and database, which are both more efficient and user-friendly to operate. We can now communicate with our members in a more targeted manner and know that we have a little over 3,800 members. Last year membership grew by 11%, and slightly over half of our new members were female. Some have told me they had decided to join because of our commitment to improving equality and diversity. 

As well as the increased focus on engaging with policymakers, funders and the public, and the greater emphasis on the health benefits of immunology, the BSI has also built our internal capacity. We’ve made changes to our governance structures so that we can co-opt non-immunologists onto the Board of Trustees to contribute expertise in areas such as finance, governance, law, probity and education. We have also brought early-career immunologists onto the Board to ensure their voices are heard at the highest levels of our organisation, an initiative I’m very proud of. We have increased the number of people working in the office, with a greater focus on bringing in expertise in particular areas including journals, policy and careers work. We adhere to the highest standards of charity law and governance. The Board is proud to represent our immunological community and strives to make a real difference for our members.

Which aspect of your time as BSI president are you most proud of?

Our wonderful Trustees have worked very productively with the executive and the senior management team. The atmosphere of openness, determination and shared commitment has been exciting. It’s been a very happy and synergistic relationship. There are occasionally tensions, but those are productive and have led to good debates from which we have all emerged feeling pleased with the solutions reached. It’s also been gratifying to see the BSI act as a springboard to allow committee members to develop their careers and take on other leading roles.  I’ll be sorry to say goodbye to the conviviality and dynamism that has had such a transformative effect on the Society.

Peter Openshaw with the Board of Trustees

Why should researchers get involved in learned societies like the BSI?

There is a lot of altruism in being heavily involved in a learned society, but it’s not a wholly altruist game. If you are contacted by the media, for example, we have some wonderful members of staff in the office who can rapidly provide you with the facts and figures you need to speak authoritatively. If you’re looking for funding sources for travel, or for support to set up a little conference, the BSI can help. Getting involved in the Society can be hugely helpful to the careers of immunologists at all levels.

Over the 30 years I’ve had the opportunity to act as a mentor to some great young scientists who have started out with me as technicians, research assistants and PhD students. Quite a few are now group leaders, professors or heads of institutes. It’s been wonderful to see their careers grow. I think one of our most important responsibilities is to pass on the support we had when we were young to the next generation. The BSI offers wonderful ways of doing that through things like our mentorship scheme, travel grants and the many meetings we’re able to support. The whole field, not only in the UK but worldwide, would be a much more insular and lonely place without the BSI.

How have the career prospects of early career immunologists in the UK changed since you were in their shoes?

My heart goes out to people starting out in science today because it’s so difficult to develop a career and to commit in the way you have to in order to be internationally competitive. Many people become disillusioned because it’s difficult to get those early project grants they need to generate the data to, in turn, get the programme grants needed to develop their field and group, and progress academically. Universities are strapped for cash, and appointing people to lecturer positions without giving them any research budget is becoming an all too common occurrence.

Immunology is an exciting, dynamic area of science, but it’s also crowded and competitive with few unoccupied research niches. Everyone who does a PhD in immunology has already succeeded in overcoming many hurdles. It’s always been tough, but I think that maybe things are worse today because of all the other things pressing in on the current generation, like being able to find somewhere to live and afford the rent. We were able to focus more on our science back in the days when I was starting out and I think it’s crucial that the BSI is able to support early- to mid-career investigators through the tough times. This was underlined by our 2018 membership survey and our ‘Careers in Immunology’ report, published last year.

What stood out for you in particular from the Society’s careers survey and report?

Peter speaking at our 60th anniversary lecture

Up to PhD level and a little beyond, it’s pretty balanced in terms of gender, but there is a great drop-off among female immunologists in the mid-career stage. This means we’re losing some of our greatest talent. It’s not only an issue for women as there’s a new generation of dads who quite rightly want to spend more time with their kids. We have to make science more family-friendly, and think about how we do that without losing this intense Darwinian competitive element from which is forged the greatest science. In some countries scientists are expected to work day and night. I don’t have the answer, but maybe we have to sacrifice some of the rate of scientific progress to allow researchers to have lives outside of science, which might be helpful in maintaining their work–life balance. The BSI’s careers report highlighted resilience as a skill that many felt was important to allow them to succeed in their career, and as a community, I think we need to examine what we can do to alleviate the intense pressure that many in our discipline feel. It’s important to remember that there will still be questions waiting to be answered even if you take time out. Science has no end in sight. 

How does the BSI reach out to immunologists beyond the UK?

As with all top-level science, immunology is very international. An idea that someone puts forward at a meeting in Tokyo gets sent back to London, Boston, to Toronto, within minutes. The rate of transfer of information is extraordinary. We all pick up each other’s ideas and run with them. There are problems with that, but actually freedom of information exchange is good for science. The BSI is absolutely on board with that international agenda. We scour the literature and the discipline to find the very best speakers from around the world to speak at our Congress and spend considerable amounts of money flying them in so that our members can benefit from the best science, from whichever quarter it comes. We’ve also had a number of really good partnerships with other national immunology organisations with whom we’ve organised some wonderful joint meetings.

How has the field of immunology changed since you did your PhD?

When I started out in immunology research back in the mid-1980s, you had more scope to be driven by curiosity. The potential for medical intervention was limited not only because the range of immunological therapies on the market was limited, but also because we didn’t yet understand the importance of the immune system to so many diseases. Since then the scope of immunology has extended into every organ and into every type of disease, with a much greater focus on translational studies. Today over 40% of the pipeline of new drugs is immunologically-based. That’s quite remarkable.

A big debate in the field back in the mid-80s was about whether we should use rats, hamsters or mice as the best animal model in which to study disease. We had 15–20 years of amazing revelations based on studying mice and technologies such as flow cytometry, which was an early obsession of mine. However, the limitations of animal models are increasingly evident I and a number of other opinion leaders and I became convinced we had to find ways of doing human studies, either in patients or healthy volunteers. 

We found the regulatory environment in the UK was very supportive as were both patients and the public. This fed into the agenda of trying to introduce the principles of the 3Rs (replacement, reduction and refinement) in animal experimentation, which I totally approve of. Coming originally from medicine, going into very academic lab-based immunology and then returning to applying knowledge to improving human health has been a wonderfully rewarding experience.

What are the main challenges currently facing the BSI?

We are exceptional among immunology societies in having a very healthy funding stream from our journals, Immunology and Clinical & Experimental Immunology. We’re grateful to our forebears who had the foresight to found and set up those journals in such a way as to provide us with that financial strength. One of the main things we need to make sure of is that this happy position continues into the future. We need to diversify our sources of income and look for opportunities to build on our present success. The problems that will result from Brexit are very hard to predict. Changes in university funding could have big implications. We need to try and anticipate and preempt any potentially adverse effects.

What advice would you give Professor Arne Akbar, of University College London, as he takes over from you as the Society’s president?

I feel so pleased to be able to hand over the reins to Arne. He’s spent a lot of time getting up to speed with how we are organised. He has to run it as he wishes to run it. I don’t want to give him any specific advice, other than to listen widely, think deeply, and then act decisively. In a university setting that’s not so easy because there can be so many impediments to change. But you can achieve a lot at an organisation like the BSI by deciding what you want to do and making it happen.

Interview by Nic Fleming