Muslim ban still resonates with academics

Matthew Leavitt was in San Diego, Calif., attending the annual conference of the Society for Neuroscience – the world’s largest organization for researchers studying the brain – when he realized the palpable, negative effects of U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel ban.

One poster at the conference caught the Western postdoctoral neurophysiologist’s eye. It was not the typical research poster one would expect to see; findings of a study were veiled by a black veneer and shadowy question marks. In the right-hand margin, the researcher, Leila Akbari, had ascribed a note:

Unfortunately, due to the travel ban imposed on citizens of Iran and other countries I am unable to be here to present my poster. My supervisor and I therefore decided not to present the poster at all. Science should be about breaking down barriers not creating new ones. I hope to be able to make the next [Society for Neuroscience] conference in 2019.

Among Trump’s first actions as president was the declaration of a travel ban on citizens from seven countries with majority-Muslim populations, including Iran, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria, from traveling to the United States. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the decree was within the president’s authority.

For Leavitt, the blacked-out poster in San Diego was the impetus to do what he does best.

“I was initially outraged my lab-mate had to pass up the opportunity to attend (the conference) because she’s Iranian. After seeing some pictures and statements on Twitter about people unable to attend the conference due to the travel ban, I wondered aloud how many researchers were being excluded from participating. Then, I realized I shouldn’t have to wonder, and that it would be great to have data on how many people were affected, and how,” Leavitt explained.

“That question didn’t have to be rhetorical. We can collect data on that – easily. I heard stories and people talked about it, theoretically, and the issues (the ban) could have but I didn’t actually know whether there were data people could point to and say, ‘Yes, the travel ban hurts science and scientists.’”

So, Leavitt generated a survey where affected researchers could share their experience. First, it was geared toward scientists who had attended the conference in San Diego. It is now open to any academic in any field.

“I thought it could be important and useful to have these data, to have something to show that can inform policy, or maybe convince conferences to consider re-locating outside of the States, and also so the people affected have their voices heard. That is important for the victims of the travel ban,” Leavitt noted.

“Conferences are critical to one’s scientific career – they’re where professional relationships and reputations are forged and fostered. As a major platform for scientific communication and collaboration, they’re also one of the avenues for furthering the scientific enterprise. Restricting attendance to conferences damages science and scientists.”

One survey participant consented to sharing their statement on not being able to attend the conference in San Diego, provided their identity was anonymous.

“This was the most important venue for me to network and present my work. I would like to move towards having my own lab but find it very difficult to achieve this without having the opportunities to meet others and being known.”

Conferences are indeed where “the human aspects of science” take place, Leavitt added. Scientific conferences are essential for furthering science and advancement in knowledge.

“It’s about building networks, meeting people you are interacting and collaborating with, being exposed to research you might not be seeing in your own field. Preventing someone from engaging is damaging for scientists individually and science as a whole,” he stressed.