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What the Travel Ban Could Mean for Scientific Meetings

Scientific innovation requires global collaboration, say the co-signers of a letter opposing President Trump's travel ban. 'You shut the door to any particular group of people, and the world may look very different 40 years later.'

Illustration by Mike Reddy
Illustration by Mike Reddy

As of today, the status of President Trump’s controversial travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries is up in the air. A federal judge had suspended implementation of Trump’s executive order, which would temporarily bar refugees and immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen from entering the United States; and the U.S. Department of Justice was appealing that ruling.

Meetings industry organizations have responded across numerous fronts, as well as nonprofit groups in a variety of sectors concerned about how the ban would affect their members and attendees. That includes 171 scientific, medical, and educational organizations that co-signed a Jan. 31 letter to Trump asking him to rescind the executive order. “We are deeply concerned that this Executive Order will have a negative impact on the ability of scientists and engineers in industry and academia to enter, or leave from and return to the United States,” the letter said. “This will reduce U.S. science and engineering output to the detriment of America and Americans.”

Among the co-signers was The Optical Society (OSA), whose president, Harvard University physics professor Eric Mazur, Ph.D., was in Washington, D.C., at the beginning of February for leadership meetings at OSA headquarters. He visited the office a day early in order to huddle with OSA staff about the travel ban. Convene sat down with Mazur — who came to the United States from the Netherlands in 1981 —to talk about how the ban would affect scientific conferences, including OSA’s.

Why did OSA want to co-sign this letter?

Because as a society we are concerned about a potential ban. Science is global, knows no borders, and requires collaboration across borders and the free exchange of information. The society has [members] from 100 different countries, and at OFC [OSA’s Optical Networking and Communication Conference & Exhibition] we have people coming in from 65 different countries, including from the countries that would be affected by this travel ban. So it has a direct impact. It’s impacting the [leadership] meeting we are having this week. There is one board member who might not be able to make it because she is a dual citizen of Canada and Iran.

Why was it important for you to come in early? What are you accomplishing with your time here?

Well, one is of course to prepare myself for the meeting that’s coming up tomorrow morning. The other one is to really think about the potential impact and contingencies of a travel ban. As I’ve said, it’s hitting close to home and it’s affecting the meeting that’s coming up. It has a potential impact on our meetings. We got a note from a professor in the Netherlands who said under the current circumstances he can’t see sending his students over to a meeting in the U.S. anymore. This is not a country that’s directly affected by the ban, so it’s out of protest.

We were on the phone just a minute ago with the person who won the Queen Elizabeth [Prize for Engineering] a week ago — a professor from Dartmouth. One of his graduate students is Iranian and was supposed to go travel — he has a green card from Iran — and he’s worried about traveling to another country to present the results of his research. I have a postdoctoral [fellow] from Iran who is not on a green card, he’s here on a visa for three years, so it’s creating a lot of potential uncertainty about carrying out science, doing research, going to conferences, talking about science.

What’s the importance of having free and open travel when it comes to an organization like OSA hosting international conferences?

Science is global, knows no borders, but at the same time science requires collaboration. If you look at the papers published, there are of course papers that come from one institution only, but most of them include people from many different institutions and from many different countries. This is from the AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science]: 20 percent of all science papers include authors from more than one country, so clearly international collaboration is important in science.

How would you like things to proceed with regard to the travel ban?

Well, I’d rather not see any travel restriction, because I think it would hamper the practice of science. They should look at historic precedents. When people from Europe were persecuted — I’m from Europe, I’m an immigrant in a sense — the scientists from Europe came here, giving rise to tremendous innovation. And the reason that I came here 35 years ago was because it was a country that was welcoming talent from other countries. I’d be concerned if that changed.

Did you come here for school?

No, I finished school. I came here for post-doc, originally with the intent of staying here for one year and then going back to Europe. But I found it such a welcoming country and I found that there were so many opportunities here for people who were willing to contribute to society, that I decided to stay. And here I am 35 years later.

A travel ban like this is, I think, going to change the atmosphere. I see it with my own post-doc who came here. And as a society we’re concerned about excluding part of our membership, because the society is an international society; more than 50 percent of its members are non-U.S. citizens and a number of them from countries that are directly impacted by this ban.

What are OSA’s next steps?

In the next few days, there will be quite a bit of discussion about this. We have invited some people to come and speak to us. We have [CEO] Rush Holt coming from the AAAS. He’s actually a scientist by training and was a [U.S.] representative for many, many years — one of the few scientists in politics. We have [author and Aspen Institute President and CEO] Walter Isaacson coming. We have France Córdova, the director of the NSF [National Science Foundation]. But also, just before Rush, [Republican lobbyist] Matt Johnson — so we just have views from different sides of the aisle. We made sure we had a balanced view.

Do you see OSA continuing its advocacy in this area?

The OSA has always been very much of an advocate for science, so anything that will affect science we’ll continue to speak up for. One of the goals of the next few days is to decide how to act next, in addition to co-signing the letter.

There’s one additional component to science, which is that a small perturbation now can have a huge impact 40 years from now that we don’t feel right away. We’re missing out on talent that could contribute, that has contributed. In optics, one example would be [that] one of the co-inventors of the laser in the ’60s — he was Iranian. He came here after starting his education in Tehran and then contributed to the invention of the laser. We know what that did, right? Telecommunications, the internet, everything. You shut the door to any particular group of people, and the world may look very different 40 years later.

Read the full text of the letter here

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso is executive editor of Convene.