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Op-Ed

All Things, Including Science and Tech, Thrive on Diversity

The future of science hangs in the balance.

June JavelosaJanuary 30th 2017

A Timely Reminder

Last week, an executive order issued by Donald Trump moved to ban citizens of several countries from entering the United States. According to the order, regardless of what visa or green card they may hold, citizens from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen can’t enter the country for at least 120 days.

As a result, Samira Asgari, a computational biologist who was headed to Boston (where she had a job at Harvard Medical School), was prevented from entering the country. In fact, Asgari, who holds an Iranian passport, was prevented from even boarding her plane bound for the US from Frankfurt.

And she is just one among thousands.

At times like this, it is important to remember that, despite what may be going on in the political sector, scientists and innovators must maintain an open dialog and stick to the collaborative spirit that has fueled some of humanity’s greatest accomplishments and scientific discoveries. We must remember that scientific and technological innovation—that our very future—depends on our ability to overcome prejudice and bigotry.

A United Effort For A Better Tomorrow

Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum–it’s not a lone man (or woman) toiling away in the winderness—it’s the result of a collaborative effort from the best and brightest minds that the scientific community has to offer. Indeed, the biggest breakthroughs the world has seen to date resulted from organizations that united individuals across disciplines and allowed them to work together to accomplish things that, alone, would be feats requiring superhuman intelligence and ingenuity.

For instance, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), responsible for the discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012 and creating the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), was the product of an international collaboration across a staggering 22 member states.

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The twenty two Member States of CERN (Image: CERN)

CERN was conceptualized in post-WWII Europe, and the CERN website makes the foundational collaborative principles clear:

Fascism and war had depleted most of the continent’s resources and many of the top scientists had fled to the United States…French physicist Louis de Broglie first proposed a multi-national European lab in 1949. After years of lobbying spearheaded by Isador Rabi, a Nobel laureate and the U.S. envoy to UNESCO, 12 European nations came together to sign the convention officially forming CERN in 1954.

The organization’s focus on uncovering the physics that governs our universe—a monumental task—played a huge role in pushing competing nations to work together. “The goal is the same, and it’s very clear that it is fundamental research,” said Maria Spiropulu, a physicist at Caltech and vice-chair of the APS Forum on International Physics. “That alleviates a lot of the conflict…because we’re all going towards the same fundamental goal and the same dream.”

The assembly of the International Space Station (ISS) was also a massive effort that involved five space agencies: the United States’ NASA, Russia’s Roscosmos, Japan’s JAXA, Europe’s ESA, and Canada’s CSA.

Just as CERN is allowing humanity to probe the deepest depths of the fabric of spacetime, the ISS allows us to reach out into the vast recesses of the final frontier and venture beyond the bounds of our home planet.

Notably, NASA asserts that the greatest accomplishment of the ISS “is as much a human achievement as it is a technological one.” One of the most ambitious international collaborations ever attempted, the ISS continues to be assembled in orbit. So far, it has been visited by astronauts from 18 countries.

The work accomplished on the ISS has impacted almost every sector of science and technology, thanks to the zero-gravity environment. These include advances in the fight against food poisoning, new methods for delivering medicine to cancer cells, and even researching better materials for future spacecraft.

Astronaut Kevin Ford says, “[The] space station […] really is one of the more, if not the most, impressive technological achievement of the modern day – not only in what we’ve accomplished engineering-wise, but what we’ve accomplished on this international scale.”

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Facilities around the world support the operation and management of the International Space Station. Credits: NASA

It bears repeating: Whatever may be going on in politics, science and technology must not be sidetracked. Some of our greatest innovations have come from collaboration and the open sharing of information, and the ISS and CERN are just two examples.

As Fred Guterl notes in an article for Scientific American, “Scientists pride themselves on their objectivity, but personal experience and point of view have a lot to do with what questions get asked in the first place and how researchers go about answering them.” The only way to ensure that all the necessary questions are being asked is by allowing—by encouraging—all voices to contribute.

Diversity is one of the key factors that drives the advancement of science in any country. For that reason, diverse expertise and talent have always been welcomed, and it must continue to be…the future of science hangs in the balance.

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