This neuroscientist’s poster showed how US travel bans stifle groundbreaking research

Open borders make for open science.
Open borders make for open science.
Image: AP Photo/Eric Risberg
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One of president Trump’s first actions after taking office in 2017 was declaring a travel ban on citizens from several countries with majority-Muslim populations, such as Iran, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria, from traveling to the US. The case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in June that Trump does indeed have the authority to declare such a ban. The ban is especially difficult for students studying in the US or citizens with family in those countries, but also has other far-reaching consequences, like stifling academics’ work.

This past weekend, the Society for Neuroscience, the world’s largest organization for researchers studying the brain, held its annual conference in San Diego, California. At these conferences, tens of thousands of scientists gather to discuss the latest in their field, and attendees submit applications to present a talk or poster about research.

Among a sea of posters at the conference’s Sunday morning session, one stood out. Beneath a translucent layer of black, the sections of a traditional poster were barely visible—abstract, methods, results, references. The effect was a poster that looks blacked-out, as if the lights had been turned off around it. The right side of the poster, however, showed a clear photo of the main author, Leila Akbari with a note, which read:

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.

Akbari’s poster is a tangible reminder of her absence at the conference, as well as scientific costs of the US travel ban: if researchers from banned countries can’t attend conferences, their entire field misses out on the knowledge they’d contribute. This is a mounting problem, given that many large scientific conferences are often held in the US. The Society for Neuroscience’s conferences, for instance, are always held in US cities.

University of Western Ontario neurophysiologist Matthew Leavitt says his Iranian labmate was unable to attend SfN due to the travel ban, and after seeing tweets from others describing similar situations, he became curious about how many scientists were affected. As a scientist, it seemed only natural to answer that question with data, so Leavitt created a survey for scientists to share their experiences.

“As a major platform for scientific communication and collaboration, they’re one of the avenues for furthering the scientific enterprise,” says Leavitt. “Restricting attendance to conferences damages science and scientists.” Conferences present opportunities for researchers to learn about what their colleagues are working on, and to enter into new collaborations. When scientists from other countries can’t attend, their work goes unrepresented. Scientists responding to Leavitt’s survey say they no longer consider submitting work to US conferences because they knew they would be unable to get a visa to attend.

There’s also a cost to individual scientists. To continue on the academic track, students must seek out opportunities for postdoctoral fellowships and professorships, and the professional connections made at big conferences like SfN are key to landing these jobs, which often rely more on word-of-mouth than formal application processes.

One participant who consented to anonymous sharing of their comment from Leavitt’s survey said SfN was “the most important venue for me to network and present my work.” This participant would like to have their own lab someday, but it’s “very difficult to achieve this without having the opportunities to meet others.”

Leavitt hopes that gathering this data will not only give a voice to affected scientists, but also lead to real-world changes. “The data has utility for journalism, informing policy, and convincing conference organizers to host conferences outside the USA,” he says.