Why scientific conferences should leave the US in 2017

It’s been three days now since the current US administration issued its new, far-reaching immigration controls. Among the first hit were multinational companies, Silicon Valley and scientific institutions, all of which rely on an international, multi-cultural workforce. As scientists, we know that academic life means a lot of travel, and usually moving from country to country, wherever research funding and projects lead us. Almost instantaneously, reports flooded in about scientists who’d been stranded, detained and otherwise troubled by the new executive order. Those of us outside the US were left helpless, watching as the entire US academic endeavour (the largest and most well-funded in the world) stumbled.

Among the early realisations to set in was the impact the order would have on the participation of foreign scientists in conferences held in the US. As all academics know, conferences and after-conference meetings are where connections are made, new research thought up and collaborations cemented. To exclude scientists from an arbitrary list of nations from such events felt extremely unfair. Among calls to boycott US conferences came the following idea from independent journalist Leonid Schneider.

The idea seemed incredibly popular (as evinced by the retweets and likes) and I decided to create a spreadsheet where scientists could crowdsource conferences that could be petitioned to move.

Screencap of the US Conference Petitions spreadsheet.

An obvious dilemma quickly presented itself. Under the current rules, a legal US resident from the banned countries would not be able to reenter the US if they visited a conference abroad. We have yet to find a solution to this, if indeed, one exists.

The Case for Relocation.

A scientific conference is a difficult thing to organise. Sourcing headline speakers can take months, finding a venue, operating a registration service and even mundane tasks like catering and WiFi access can often take a lot of energy and time. And yes, relocation isn’t fair to US-based immigrants from banned nations. We realise this but we still think conference organisers should seriously consider relocating.

  • The obvious reason first: relocation would allow scientists of all nations to interact with each other, in a welcoming environment. Scientists who’re considering expressing their disgust by boycotting US travel will still be able to enjoy fruitful conferences.
  • Relocating scientific conferences sends a clear global message from scientists, to scientists, that we do not tolerate discrimination. Several other countries have strong scientific communities and a very few of them bar nationals from entering their countries on purely arbitrary grounds. For the first time in a long while, the US (the undoubted leader in Science) has joined that sorry club, and this has to be intolerable to all of us.
  • Some have suggested live-streaming US conferences and we offer this as an option on our petitions. Why though is that better than having conferences in other places and live-streaming them into the US?

And as for the question of privileging either US-based scientists or new immigrants caught up in the mess, consider the following.

Which of the following makes for a better headline to spur US politicians to opposing anti-immigration policies?
1. “US-based academics banned from travelling abroad for scientific meetings”
2. “Foreign scientists banned from visiting US conferences”

Finally, I know that for all the enthusiasm online, few have signed our petitions. Not entirely unexpected.

The whole point of this exercise was to raise the issue, and I hope it does. Too often we scientists are all too comfortable with inaction, especially when it comes to politics; I can only hope this discussion changes things for the better.

If you want to talk, comment below, and please do share your thoughts.