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How Trump’s travel ban could hurt science

Protesters demonstrate against the new travel ban at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Jan. 28. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

This post has been updated. 

Ubadah Sabbagh felt goose bumps rise on his skin Saturday morning as he scrolled through the reports that immigrants from the Middle East — people just like him — were no longer being allowed into the United States.

Sabbagh, 23, is a student at Virginia Tech, working on his PhD in neuroscience. He's also a green-card holder, and a citizen of Syria — one of the seven countries named in President Trump's executive order banning travelers from certain nations.

What would this mean for him? What would it mean for his labmate, a “fantastic scientist” studying at VT on a student visa from Iran, one of the other affected countries? What would it mean for the American scientific community, which is composed of nearly 20 percent immigrants, and which depends on collaboration with researchers from all over the world?

The effects of this ban “are going to reach to around the world,” he said. “And we’ll all suffer because of it.”

The executive order, which was issued Friday night, bars entry to the United States from refugees, migrants and foreign nationals from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. Scores of travelers from those nations were detained at airports over the weekend, and some were made to leave the country before a federal judge in Brooklyn issued a seven-day stay on the order.

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The ban was quickly condemned across the science community. In an interview with Nature, former White House science adviser John Holdren called it "perverse," an "abomination," and "a terrible, terrible idea."

“If the ban is maintained, it will damage a wide array of collaborations in science and technology around the world,” said Holdren, who led the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under former President Barack Obama. “A more prosperous world is a more stable world, and it’s clear that innovations in science and technology drive economic growth.”

He added that the executive order would not improve security, and could damage the United States' reputation among Muslims and in the global community. By undermining international collaboration with scientists who study disease, natural disasters, and other global issues, the ban actually makes Americans less safe, Holdren said.

Many critics noted that American science has always relied heavily on the work of researchers from around the globe. According to a 2013 report by the National Science Foundation, more than 5 million of the United States' 29 million scientists and engineers were not born in the United States. All six of the Americans who won Nobel Prizes last year were immigrants. And nearly a fifth of all papers published in scientific journals these days have authors from at least two countries.

“Our borders are a creation of human beings, but dust, pollution, wind, heat, ocean energies and flows — they don’t pay any attention to international boundaries. These things have an enormous impact on us and we have to study these things with a global perspective,” said Matthew Scott, president of the Carnegie Institution. “Any infringement, especially an entirely unnecessary one, on the free flow of brilliant people ... is shooting ourselves in the foot.”

More than 12,000 academics, including more than 40 Nobel Laureates, have signed a petition calling the ban discriminatory, “fatally disruptive” to the lives of immigrants, and detrimental to the national interest of the United States.

A statement from the Union of Concerned Scientists noted the role of refugees in creating the organization; co-founder Kurt Gottfriend, a particle physicist, fled to Canada from Vienna after his family's home was raided on Kristallnacht.

“America's economy and particularly our scientific enterprise has always benefited from the contributions of immigrants and refugees,” UCS president Ken Kimmell said. “Turning our back on those in need doesn't just violate our values as Americans. It leaves our country worse off.”

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The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world's largest general science society, also issued a statement warning that the ban would prevent the international collaboration that characterizes most science today, and would hurt the United States' ability to attract talented researchers from around the world.

Several researchers who had left the United States for work or visits home were prevented from returning. Erfan Mohammadi said that his fiancee, Farnaz Kabiri, is stuck in Iran, where they are both citizens. Mohammadi is a PhD student studying chemical engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Kabiri is working on her master's in physics there. The couple had traveled home together this winter to visit their families, and Mohammadi had proposed.

Mohammadi, who is a permanent legal resident of the United States, returned to Illinois several weeks ago. Now he worries about when he'll see his new fiancee again. If she is not allowed to return to the United States, she won't be able to fulfill the final two courses of her master's degree. The university will have to find someone else to take her teaching assistant position, and she'll lose her tuition waiver.

“I cannot visit my family anymore with this condition,” Mohammadi wrote in an email. “I will be here at least for 2 more years and no one can visit me as well. With this situation I don't want to stay here to do research!”

He sent a photo he took with Kabiri when she first arrived in Chicago last year, noting, “We were more hopeful and positive about the country we chose to continue our education and contribute as young researchers.”

Even for those scientists still in the United States, the ban's effects could be far reaching. Sabbagh noted that he won't be able to travel abroad for conferences or research. “And that’s how a scientist builds a career, going to conferences, presenting research,” he said.

Schools across the country scrambled on Sunday to account for their international students, especially those from the seven countries named in the ban. Many universities issued warnings urging those students to avoid traveling outside the country, lest they be barred from coming back in.

It's not clear how the travel ban will affect green-card holders such as Sabbagh and Mohammadi. On Sunday, Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, told NBC News’s “Meet the Press” that these residents would not be included in the ban, contradicting what government officials had said only a day earlier.

Sabbagh said that, for him, returning to Syria is not an option. He has lived in the United States since he was 16, when he began attending college at the University of Missouri. When he turned 18 in August 2011, in the early days of Syria's bloody civil war, he ignored an order to register for conscription in the Syrian Armed Forces. If he returned to Syria now, he probably would be imprisoned.

Sabbagh said that Trump's actions since taking office — restricting federal science agencies' ability to communicate with the public and the news media, repeating falsehoods about illegal voters and inauguration crowd sizes, now barring visitors based on their nationality — look alarmingly like the actions of autocratic regimes he has seen in the Middle East.

“They’re doing away with any checks on ethics, they’re doing away with facts, they’re silencing scientists,” Sabbagh said.

“This week was horrible for science,” he continued. “And this weekend was just … horrible for humanity, I guess.”

AAAS chief executive Rush Holt noted that the ban is already affecting scientists' ability to share their work. Rania Abdelhameed, an electrical engineer from Sudan, was scheduled to fly to Boston next month to receive an award for early-career female scientists at the AAAS annual meeting. Now it seems unlikely that she will be able to go.

Holt said he's concerned that other international scientists who aren't from one of the seven countries included in the ban may pull out of the conference on principle.

Dana Rehm of the American Geophysical Union said that the travel ban means that the United States probably is out of compliance with the statutes of the International Council for Science, the global umbrella organization for scientific societies. All ICSU members organizing international meetings are required to guarantee that members are free from discrimination of any kind, Rehm said.

On social media, several scientists are already discussing whether future meetings should be moved out of the United States. Australian doctor Stu Marshall said on Twitter that he won't be attending any U.S. conferences this year. And he sent a letter to six academic journals that publish in the United States letting them know that he will no longer perform peer reviews for them because they pay taxes to the U.S. government.

Christine McEntee, the executive director of AGU, said that even before the travel ban she had heard from colleagues at other scientific societies that international registration for conferences is down.

“They’re afraid to come to the country,” she said. “We have a great fear and sense of anxiety that is going to put a damper on what increasingly is a globalized scientific research enterprise. That's certainly going to hurt progress.”

She worries that this move might make other countries less willing to collaborate on projects and share scientific data — something that could have ramifications far beyond the scientific community. For example, she said, American meteorologists rely on European satellites and weather models to track storms. Without that data, it could become more difficult to deal with natural disasters.

More than 150 scientists from the seven banned countries had research published in an AGU journal in 2015 or 2016 — a small but still meaningful fraction of the field's overall output.

McEntee could not say how many AGU members from the affected countries are working in the United States, because the society has no reason to track that data.

Scott, of the Carnegie Institution, said much the same thing.

“We don’t keep track of our people according to their culture or religion,” Scott said. “We keep track of their science.”

In a joint statement released Monday, the AGU and the Geological Society of America reiterated their opposition to the ban, and encouraged members to write letters to their members of Congress about it.

Marga Gual Soler, the project director of the Center for Science Diplomacy at AAAS, noted that the United States' scientific leadership relies in large part on the contributions of researchers who were not allowed to pursue science in their home countries.

“A lot of the German scientists that escaped from the Nazi regime came to the U.S. to start a new life and that benefited the country,” she said. “One of the influences to the U.S. becoming a science super power was by taking in scientists escaping from warring countries ... and helping them find a new life and support to develop their science.”

A 2014 study found that U.S. patents increased by more than 30 percent in response to the influx of Jewish researchers and inventors who sought refuge in the United States during the Holocaust. Several of the most important participants in the Manhattan Project were refugees from Europe.

But the travel ban won't just harm American research, Soler said. It imperils science as an collaborative endeavor — one that transcends borders and defies political difference.

Soler added that scientific research is often an important tool for diplomacy under circumstances when all other means of communication seem impossible. At the SESAME Particle Accelerator in Amman, Jordan, there are Iranian, Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian, Bahraini, Jordanian, Pakistani, Turkish and Cypriot scientists working together on the same experiments, even as their governments refuse to recognize one another. AAAS has helped lead collaborations between U.S. and Cuban scientists for more than two decades — long before then-President Barack Obama reestablished diplomatic relations in 2015.

“Science is students and researchers of every level working together in pursuit of a problem,” Soler said. “Science is a discipline that cannot be contained within borders.”