Although the purpose of policies that affect travel and immigration may have little or nothing to do with science, in practice researchers are adjusting to policies such as Brexit in the UK and the executive order on immigration in the US. Many scientists are uncertain about their international collaborations, and the future of their current projects — and as early as January scientists were reporting problems with collaborative projects based on travel policy-related concerns.
Marine scientist Andrew Rosenberg, who is director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, explained to The Scientist that collaboration, funding, and travel “are closely linked in people’s minds. If you deconstruct [the contributions of] funding, blocks on where you can recruit talent, and hindering collaboration, you start to impact research departments and laboratories around the world.”
Rosenberg predicts that the US immigration order and other policies that limit travel will have the most influence on scientists who are just starting out in their careers. “It’s more than just countries in an immigration list. People [from all over] will be much more wary of doing their postdoctoral work or being a visiting professor” in the US, he told The Scientist, which could have “a generational effect.”
Travel limitations also restrict applicant pools at universities and narrow the range and depth of training students can access. Marga Soler, project director for the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy, told New Scientist in January that the US was in danger of losing its scientific standing in the world community: “In terms of scientific diplomacy, this is obviously a big hit on US soft power — the capacity to attract the best and the brightest,” she said. “Brain drain is a real possibility because other countries, like Canada, are offering to take in the people affected by this policy. It’s a loss for the US.”
In fact, even travelling to conferences and other events is so important to scientific collaboration that professional organizations like the American Society of Hematology (ASH) formally recognize its significance; ASH provides private rooms at its annual meeting that can be reserved by clinicians and scientists to meet and discuss collaboration. In 2016, there were more than 1,000 such face-to-face meetings at the event, and more than one-third of attendees traveled from outside the US.
“A policy that limits travel across borders will hurt science because we don’t know if scientists from overseas will still want to travel to the United States. We don’t know if they’ll feel welcome, or if they’ll even apply for a visa,” ASH President and cancer researcher Kenneth Anderson tells The Scientist. “International collaborations are essential to advance science. Limiting the exchange of ideas or practices or data across cultures will significantly slow down scientific progress, which ultimately hurts public health, not only in North America, but around the world.”
There’s no need to take their word for it; even a cursory examination of the world of scientific research proves that international collaboration has been at the core of some of the world’s most notable discoveries in recent years. Thanks to international collaboration between governments, agencies, nonprofits, and private companies, polio has been almost totally eradicated. Canada is opening an international hub for stem cell therapy in recognition of its importance to human health. The International Space Station (ISS) is a shining example of what international collaboration can achieve.
The need for collaboration remains pressing. Angela Merkel of Germany prioritized global digital regulation at the G20 meeting this month, another important collaboration which will be taking place in the near future. The European Space Agency plans to have an international moon village in place within 20 years — a lunar microcosm of our own global village.
In fact, research from earlier this year proves that international collaboration is more important now to scientific progress than ever, with the number of papers with authors from multiple countries more than doubling between 1990 and 2015. This trend will surely continue, but only in parts of the world where free travel is possible.