A few weeks ago, I was moderating a panel discussion with some of my Stanford Medicine colleagues. I asked what we needed to do to make sure that 30 years from now, people would look back on this time as one of remarkable medical breakthroughs. Biologist Andrew Fire—a Nobel Prize laureate—answered with three simple words: “science without borders.” The rest of us quickly agreed.
Many kinds of borders can hold back medical research. Perhaps the most fundamental are the artificial borders between scientific disciplines. Famously, the partnership of biologist James Watson and physicist Francis Crick brought us the discovery of DNA’s chemical structure, aided by the work of chemist Rosalind Franklin. The more complex the problems we try to solve, the more we need to rely on a variety of expertise—which means breaking down silos that continue to inhibit research in the scientific community.
But national borders can also stand in the way of science. Collaboration among scientists from around the world, many of them refugees, made vaccines for polio and smallpox possible, and enabled countries to develop crops capable of feeding their populations. Moreover, as the spread of Zika and Ebola has demonstrated, diseases know no boundaries. Fighting and curing them requires cross-border collaboration. Scientific progress is built on the robust sharing of information and ideas.
Because the challenges of health are global realities, biomedical science must be a global pursuit. Medical research, in particular, benefits from the insights of scientists with a broad range of perspectives. Now, immigration policies threaten to shut down scientists’ ability to help people everywhere live longer, healthier lives.
For years, the bulk of international collaboration between scientists has taken place in the United States. The freedom, openness, and research infrastructure here have made this fertile ground for scientists from every corner of the globe. That’s why 12 of the top 20 global universities for biological science are in the US.
The US benefits immeasurably from providing a home for this inclusive process. American patients are often first in line to take advantage of new therapies and preventive strategies that can extend and improve their lives. American entrepreneurs can collaborate with researchers to develop whole new businesses that create jobs and enrich our economy.
This unique dynamism is now at risk. The crisis generated by the White House administration’s immigration executive order doesn’t just affect physicians, researchers, students, and trainees from the listed countries. It also threatens to have an enduring effect on the willingness of our scientific colleagues from around the world to bring their intellect and creativity to our labs. If international researchers do not feel confident that they can travel freely with their families to and from the US, they will take their talents elsewhere.
And if the US shuts itself off from the world, the consequences could mean slowing the pace of all biomedical research, at a time when we need every contribution towards fighting deadly diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes—and promoting better health overall. Indeed, instead of limiting interactions across borders, the government policy should be enhancing it through efforts like the Fulbright Program, which sends US scholars overseas and brings foreign students here. We should be exploring ways to facilitate and encourage data-sharing on a global basis, which would allow greater collaboration at a distance.
There are many considerations involved in developing immigration policies. But as the debate goes forward, my hope is that our lawmakers will remember the lives at stake. We need policies that make medical breakthroughs more likely, not immigration bans that could stifle innovative science and put the health of all Americans—and people around the world—at risk.