Neuroscience conference highlights travel ban’s effect on science

Neuroscience conference highlights travel ban’s effect on science

A poster grayed-out in protest at the recent Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego.

Enlarge / A poster grayed-out 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 anybody who’s 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.

Because of this international culture, science is feeling the effects of increasing restrictions on international travel. At last week’s Society for Neuroscience (SfN) meeting in San Diego, a research poster drew a lot of attention: the bulk of the poster was grayed out, covered instead by a message from the author explaining that, as a citizen of Iran, she had been unable to enter the US to take part in the conference. “Science should be about breaking barriers,” she wrote, “not creating new ones.”

Tightening barriers

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

The “travel ban” restricting nationals of seven countries from entering the US has gone through various versions, the most recent of which was upheld by the Supreme Court in June of this year. But restrictions have been tightening for some time, with the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of December 2015 making entry to the US tougher for citizens of seven “countries of concern”—including for people holding dual citizenship. The problem extends beyond those seven countries, says Polly; the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) has been having “more visa permission issues, regardless of whether you’re from the travel ban countries 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 the communication of science,” Winstanley said. The lab eventually settled on having a video of Mortazavi presenting her work playing on an iPad alongside the poster.

No trip to brain Disneyland

On an individual level, the ramifications of being blocked from attending a huge international meeting like this are substantial. The SfN meeting is “brain Disneyland,” says neuroscientist Matthew Leavitt. “You can gorge forever on all manner of fascinating stuff and still not have seen the majority of it.” For Leavitt, an early career researcher, annual attendance to the SfN meeting has played a crucial role in helping him form relationships with other scientists, including one individual who served on his thesis committee.

“It would have been an amazing opportunity for me,” Mortazavi says. She plans to apply for grad school and had been planning to use the conference to help her decide what direction she might want to take in her own research. The opportunity to network with potential advisors and employers is a major part of the benefit of going to a meeting, says Winstanley. But interactions with peers are just as essential, as are the ideas and collaborations that come from conversations at conferences.

Winstanley also points to the losses for science itself: “Science requires really innovative thought; we need a diverse group of people to come together on a problem.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Polly, who was recently faced with the dilemma of how to handle members of his organizations who were not able to attend the meeting held in Albuquerque last month. “Paleontology knows no national boundaries,” he says. “Most of what we work on spans continental and international boundaries.”

Paleontology is also a discipline that relies on a lot of 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 for forming those connections.

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

The scope of the problem

It’s not clear how conference organizers can best deal with the problem. There are calls for meetings to be held outside the US, which would allow researchers affected by the travel ban to attend. But there are also scientists currently in the US on single-entry visas who would face difficulty re-entering once they’ve left, so hosting conferences elsewhere ends up excluding people, too. 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 any of the venues.”

Deciding which option is more exclusionary really needs data, and there’s not much of that. This being science, though, people are already starting to look for fixes. Leavitt saw the grayed-out poster and started wondering how many people had been denied access to the conference. Then he realized the question didn’t need to be rhetorical, he says: “It’d be nice to see some data.” So he put together a survey gathering information on people’s experiences.

There’s not enough data yet to draw any conclusions, but he plans to keep the survey open “as long as there are individuals who are being denied access to participating in science internationally,” he says. He hopes it will serve as “evidence of the damage to science and scientists that these policies can cause.”

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

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