Mon. Sep 26th, 2022
A poster turned gray in protest at the recent Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego.
enlarge / A poster turned gray in protest at the recent Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego.

Twitter user: @Doctor_PMS

At an academic conference, the question “where are you from?” can have many meanings. “For anyone in science, that’s a complicated question,” says paleontologist P. David Polly. “Where are we now, where did we get our degree, where did we grow up, where did we get the other degree?” For many people in science, the list of answers will span multiple countries.

This international culture makes science feel the effects of increasing restrictions on international travel. At the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) meeting last week in San Diego, a research poster drew a lot of attention: most of the poster was gray and covered with a message from the author explaining that as a citizen of Iran, she had not been able to enter the US to participate in the conference. “Science should be about breaking down barriers,” she wrote, “not creating new ones.”

Tightening barriers

Leili Mortazavi, a student at the University of British Columbia, ran into the same barrier. When her work was accepted for presentation at SfN, she began the visa application process, but when she arrived at her appointment, she was told she was “not eligible to apply” due to her Iranian citizenship. “I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a visa application or background check,” she told Ars. But the current situation is one of “excluding everyone based on their place of birth and not caring whether the reason for their travels is legit or not.”

The “travel ban” banning nationals of seven countries from entering the US has gone through several versions, the most recent of which was upheld by the Supreme Court in June this year. But the restrictions have been tougher for some time now, with the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of December 2015 making entry to the US more difficult for citizens of seven “countries of concern,” including those with dual citizenship. The problem extends beyond those seven countries, Polly says; the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) has “more problems with visa permissions, regardless of whether you are from the countries with a travel ban or not.”

Mortazavi’s advisor, Catharine Winstanley, considered withdrawing the entire lab from the conference in protest. But Mortazavi was concerned that this would have contributed much more to “disrupting science communication,” Winstanley said. The lab eventually decided to have a video of Mortazavi presenting her work on an iPad alongside the poster.

No trip to the mind of Disneyland

On an individual level, the consequences of not attending a large international gathering like this are significant. The SfN meeting is “brain Disneyland,” says neuroscientist Matthew Leavitt. “You can marvel at all kinds of fascinating things forever and still not have seen most of it.” For Leavitt, a researcher early in his career, the annual attendance at the SfN meeting has played a vital role in forming relationships with other scientists, including a person who served on his thesis committee.

“It would have been a great opportunity for me,” says Mortazavi. She plans to apply to grad school and planned to use the conference to help her decide which direction she would like to take in her own research. The opportunity to network with potential advisors and employers is an important part of the benefit of attending a meeting, Winstanley says. But interactions with colleagues are just as vital as the ideas and collaborations that emerge from conference conversations.

Winstanley also points to the losses to science itself: “Science requires really innovative thinking; we need a diverse group of people to solve a problem together.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Polly, who was recently faced with the dilemma of how to deal with members of his organizations who were unable to attend last month’s meeting in Albuquerque. “Paleontology knows no national boundaries,” he says. “Most of what we’re working on extends across continental and international borders.”

Paleontology is also a discipline that relies on much data from North Africa and the Middle East. Researchers from those regions are essential collaborators for scientists from other parts of the world, he says, and meetings are paramount to building those connections.

There are ways in which the current travel ban is “conceptually similar” to traveling between the Soviet Union and North America from the early 1950s, he adds. “You can see in comments made in news posts [at the time] what a blow this was to science. For years it was difficult for scientists to cross that line, and science lost as a result.”

The scope of the problem

It is not clear how conference organizers can best tackle the problem. There are calls for gatherings outside the US to allow researchers affected by the travel ban to attend. But there are also scientists in the US with a single entry visa at the moment who would struggle to re-enter once they leave, so organizing conferences elsewhere also excludes people. Despite this situation, Canada has become a major hotspot for scientific conferences; the SVP was considering Toronto for its 2020 meeting, Polly says, but “we were already too late to book one of the locations.”

Deciding which option is more exclusive really takes data, and there isn’t much of that. However, since this is science, people are already starting to look for solutions. Leavitt saw the gray poster and began to wonder how many people had been refused entry to the conference. Then realizing that the question didn’t have to be rhetorical, he says, “It would be nice to see some data.” So he set up a survey to collect information about people’s experiences.

There isn’t enough data yet to draw any conclusions, but he plans to keep the research open “as long as there are individuals who are denied access to science internationally,” he says. He hopes it will serve as “evidence of the harm to science and scientists this policy can cause”.

Mortazavi, who is in the process of applying for Canadian citizenship, is now hesitant about the prospect of a grad school in the US. “I would only consider it if it’s a very important opportunity,” she says. “I would like to stay in Canada. And even if I go to the US, based on my recent experiences, it wouldn’t be a place I would choose to stay.”

List image by Flickr user MPD01605

By akfire1

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