Science to suffer under Trump's travel ban

The order could prevent many researchers from making short-term trips to attend conferences and other scientific meetings overseas for fear of not bei

Science to suffer under Trump's travel ban

Researchers, academic officials and science policymakers are expressing alarm at President Donald Trump’s order barring entry to the US to people from certain predominantly Muslim countries, saying it could hinder research, affect recruitment of top scientists and dampen the free exchange of scientific ideas.

The executive order, issued last Friday and clarified somewhat over the weekend by administration officials, potentially affects thousands of students and researchers from Iran, Iraq and five other countries. Foreigners fill the undergraduate and especially graduate ranks at many US universities, and newly minted PhDs from overseas flock to the United States for research and teaching positions in academic laboratories.

Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, said that by one estimate, there were about 17,000 students from the seven countries at US universities.
“I’m concerned about it hampering our ability to recruit outstanding graduate students,” said Samuel L Stanley Jr, president of Stony Brook University on Long Island. Stanley spent the weekend monitoring the work of immigration lawyers in a successful effort to release a Stony Brook graduate student from Iran, Vahideh Rasekhi, who was en route to Kennedy Airport when the order was issued and was detained after she landed.

“Immigration into the US is tremendously important to science,” said Soumya Raychaudhuri, a Harvard Medical School professor whose Iranian postdoctoral researcher, Samira Asgari, was barred on Saturday from boarding a flight to begin her job in his laboratory at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “There are other countries competing for this talent pool, and walking away from that jeopardizes our standing.”

Some universities, while condemning the ban, also pointed out that they still welcomed students and researchers from anywhere. The University of British Columbia announced the establishment of a task force, with an initial budget of 2,50,000 Canadian dollars (about $1,90,000), “to determine what assistance the university can offer those affected.”

Since the restrictions, some institutions, including the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California system, have advised students or faculty members from Iran, Iraq and the other affected countries not to travel overseas until further notice.

The order could prevent many researchers from making short-term trips to attend conferences and other scientific meetings overseas for fear of not being able to return to the US. The restrictions could also affect meetings in the US, as some scientists would not be allowed to travel to the country.

The country’s largest general scientific organisation, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said it was worried that the restrictions might reduce attendance at its annual meeting in two weeks in Boston. Hundreds of foreigners normally attend the conference.

“We are of course concerned that this issue may affect scientists and students traveling to Boston,” said Tiffany Lohwater, an official with the association. She said the organisation was considering alternative measures, including free live-streaming of sessions, for those who could not attend.

Jennifer Golbeck, a professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, said her department had several Iranian students and researchers. Using social media, Golbeck in recent days has organised a database of people willing to shelter scientists and others who were in transit to the US and were halted by the order.

“There’s a lot of people from these seven countries,” Golbeck said. “And suddenly there’s this possibility that faculty members, students, postdocs and others who are outside the country for one reason or another suddenly can’t come back.”

Solmaz Shariat Torbaghan, an Iranian neuroscience researcher at New York University who was awaiting a green card, said the order would force her to soon make a decision: stay and take her chances, or move to Canada.

“My partner and I just moved into a new place here, we are waiting for our furniture, and were hoping to have our parents visit us in a couple of months, which is not a possibility anymore,” she said. “Now, I don’t know what’s coming next.”

The uncertainty, she added, is not good for her research colleagues, either. “People in my lab are very supportive, but in an experimental lab, people need to know they can count on you, that you’re not going to be suddenly gone and leave the project.”

Vague prospects

The order may also affect work at some of the country’s most prestigious medical institutions. Eleven patients from the seven affected countries, which include Syria, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen, were planning to travel to Johns Hopkins University for medical treatment within the next 90 days, said Pamela Paulk, president of Johns Hopkins Medicine International. All have visas, she said, but it is not clear whether or when they may come.

“We are taking steps to see what the ban means for them,” she said. “Right now the ban is vague, and we don’t know if there will be health exceptions.”

She said patients who travel from the Middle East to the US for treatment, generally have severe illnesses that cannot be treated in their home countries, and need complex treatments like neurosurgery, heart operations or bone marrow transplants for cancer or blood diseases. Some cannot afford, medically, to wait.

Johns Hopkins may also lose at least one graduate student. Omid Zobeiri, 28, is an Iranian citizen who began working on his doctorate in biomedical engineering in September 2015 at McGill University in Montreal. His mentor and supervisor at McGill moved to Johns Hopkins last summer and hoped to take Zobeiri with her so he could continue the research he had begun in her laboratory.

Zobeiri applied for a visa during the summer, but had not received one when the ban was announced on Friday. “After this ban, I basically give up right now, or wait some months,” Zobeiri said. “I don’t know my future.”

Kathleen Cullen, Zobeiri’s supervisor and a professor of biomedical engineering, described him as “phenomenally talented and a wonderful scientist,” and said he had been selected from among many applicants.

She said his being kept out of the US was “a major impediment and is slowing the pace of research in my group.”

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