Last week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that denies Syrian refugees entry to the US, suspends all refugee admissions for 120 days, and blocks citizens of seven countries from entering the US for at least 90 days. Those affected by the travel ban include scientists, some of whom are speaking out about how the order will affect their work and the broader scientific community.
“While one can understand security imperatives, a broad ban that restricts movement of widely defined groups can hold back important scientific progress; progress that can solve some of our most urgent problems,” says one professor at a leading US university. A dual citizen of one of the countries on the list, he says he will probably have to cancel academic and research trips scheduled for the next few months, as well as a planned visit to see his mother.
The countries targeted by the ban are Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, all of which have majority Muslim populations.
A professor at a university in the New York area says his department includes some Iranian PhD students. “Luckily, they were in the US when the executive order hit, so they’re ok for now,” he says. “They’re worried, though, that they can’t leave the country to visit family, friends, loved ones, partners, etc. As I understand it, they would not be able to get back in to the US since they are visa holders, and not permanent residents.”
Freedom of communication
Scientists outside of the US, meanwhile, are cancelling plans to attend conferences in the country. “I am a Muslim, a Syrian, and a Scientist who wants to present his work in the top conference in Artificial Intelligence (AAAI). Thanks to the #TrumpBan, I just cancelled my trip,” wrote Talal Rahwan at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi in a Facebook post.
The effects of the ban on the scientific community may be more far reaching than disrupting travel plans for individuals. “You’ve got people who’ve been working for years on topics or collaborations, or exciting new ones getting off the ground and there’s suddenly this inappropriate interruption in their work,” says Andrew Rosenberg, the director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “That does enormous damage to what is a collaborative process.”
“Freedom of communication is absolutely essential for science to function,” says Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). “It’s not just nice for people to attend conferences and communicate in person, it’s part of the practice of science. And being able to have scientists from diverse backgrounds and viewpoints, that’s essential to the practice of good science.”
An open letter from academics opposing the executive order has received more than 12,000 signatures so far, including those of 44 Nobel Laureates. Scientists are also planning a protest march in Washington DC.
Ultimately, the US may lose its scientific standing in the world if it closes its borders to scientists from certain countries, says Marga Soler, project director for the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy.
“In terms of scientific diplomacy, this is obviously a big hit on US soft power – the capacity to attract the best and the brightest,” she says. “Brain drain is a real possibility because other countries, like Canada, are offering to take in the people affected by this policy. It’s a loss for the US.”