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Scientists respond to court ruling on travel ban with fear and frustration

The Washington Post's Supreme Court reporter Robert Barnes explains the justices' 5-4 decision June 26 to uphold President Trump's travel ban. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-to-4 decision last week that President Trump has the authority to ban travelers from countries with majority-Muslim populations. The ban, the latest version of which was issued in late 2017, includes Syria, Libya, Iran, Yemen and Somalia. Chad had been on the list but was removed, and travel restrictions involving North Korea and Venezuela were not challenged. 

Scientists and science organizations have been opposed to these travel restrictions since the Trump administration's first ban was issued in early 2017. The bans restrict visiting scholars as well as potential students, and researchers say the U.S. scientific community has already lost potential collaborators, trainees and recruits.

Iran, which has the largest population of the targeted countries, has been making significant strides in science, particularly in chemistry, engineering and life sciences, with the quality and number of scientific publications increasing in the past three decades. By the metric of articles published, it recently surpassed Israel as the scientific leader of the Middle East.

Iranian American scientists who spoke with The Washington Post responded to the court ruling with a mix of disappointment and defeat. “I don’t have any words for it other than 'discrimination,' ” said physiologist Kaveh Ashrafi, who was born in Iran and is a U.S. citizen. “It’s frustrating to see this as a scientist.”

There’s a cruel contradiction to the travel ban, Ashrafi said. The people most motivated to travel — the ambitious and talented who want not only to learn but to contribute to the United States — are the very people “who seem to be under attack by these sorts of rules.”

Iranian American molecular biologist Maryam Zaringhalam was in Iran when Trump announced the first iteration of the travel ban in January 2017. “I learned about the first travel ban on Iranian television, which is a strange experience,” she said. Images of Americans protesting at airports made their way even to Iran’s state-run news channel, which Zaringhalam found heartening.

“There's a huge intellectual cost to having a travel ban like this one,” she said. Women are underrepresented in science in the United States, but not so in Iran, where an estimated 70 percent of undergraduates who study science and engineering are female, according to a 2006 article in Nature.

“There are certain lessons that we could be learning” from the Iranian scientific community to “foster scientific talent in women,” said Zaringhalam, a member of the advocacy group 500 Women Scientists. A ban is one more hurdle.

Even before the ban, the 7,000-mile journey from Iran to the United States was fraught with complications. Extended security checks for travelers born in Iran, Syria or Libya, for instance, may delay visa applications by months, and requests for new visa stamps can be denied.

Ashrafi left Iran as a teenager in 1984, five years after the Islamic revolution toppled the Iranian monarchy. He won citizenship in a lawsuit, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, during the tumultuous months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Now he is a professor at the University of California at San Francisco, where he studies genetics and neuroscience. He has not returned to Iran, despite having family there.

Computational biologist Hani Goodarzi, also at UC-San Francisco, went to graduate school at Princeton University in 2006 after studying at Tehran University. He pointed out that most doctoral students cannot afford to miss months of labwork or experiments. During the five years of his PhD studies, Goodarzi said, he missed several friends' weddings in Iran because he could not risk delaying his return to Princeton.

When asked whether he would make the same choice today, Goodarzi said without hesitation: “Oh, definitely not.” Iranian students have recently reached out to him for advice, and he has directed them to graduate programs in Canada and Europe.

The travel ban, he said, harms graduate students in two ways. It scares away prospective scholars. And it makes life difficult for scientists in the United States, depriving them of the opportunity to see family or friends back home. “It's enforced isolation,” he said, during one of the most “grueling” periods of a scientist's life.

Even entertaining the option of visiting family seems to have vanished. “They cannot go back and visit home. Or their family cannot come visit,” said Iman Hajirasouliha, a cancer researcher at Weill Cornell Medicine. These students have to make a choice, he said, between their families or their studies.

Goodarzi, part of a UC-San Francisco admissions committee, said the numbers of applicants from countries such as Iran have already started to decline; though he does not have specific numbers, he said that on the order of thousands of graduate students could be affected across the country.

In March, Reuters reported that more than 8,400 people from the eight countries had applied for entry into the United States during the initial weeks of Trump's third attempt at a travel ban, which went into effect in December. Only about 100 waivers were granted, Reuters found.

Some universities and scientific and medical organizations have pushed back against the ban. “Northeastern University and its leaders remain opposed to the travel ban,” the school said Tuesday. In a statement after the ruling, the American College of Physicians pointed out that underserved communities in the United States disproportionately rely on international medical graduates. Medicaid patients are more likely to be served by doctors born outside the United States, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

“Scientific progress depends on openness, transparency and the free flow of ideas,” Rush Holt, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said in a statement. He added, “Overly restrictive visa policies threaten U.S. leadership in advancing scientific knowledge and innovation.”

Thirty-one thousand U.S. faculty members have signed a petition, which has been circulated online since the January 2017 executive order, against the ban. Signatories include 61 Nobel Prize winners and more than 500 members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Scientists who spoke with The Post said the scientific community has been supportive, but there's a limit to the influence of academics in the face of a federal rule. “There is very little that it seems we can do, to be honest,” Goodarzi said.

Zaringhalam's parents met in the United States, after her father moved from Iran to study and her mother moved from Iran to study medicine. She said she's been facing a difficult existential question. “If my parents had tried to come today, would I even have been possible? That kind of stress, that feeling of not belonging, that definitely takes a psychological toll.”

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