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June 27, 2018

International Scientific Conferences Must Leave the U.S.

Moses leads the Exodus from the Egypt (Alex Levin)

So the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld Trump’s so-called “travel ban” – more honestly labeled a Muslim ban. More precisely, it is a ban on people from Muslim-majority countries not hosting Trump business properties (see map and fact check).

Where to Hold Conferences?

This development naturally and rightfully raises again to prominence the question of where responsible scientists should hold their international conferences. We may soon see renewed calls to boycott US-based conferences, in solidarity with the many scientists around the world who can no longer attend conferences held in the U.S. But whether or not an outright boycott may be warranted, responsible scientists clearly have some choice in where to organize future conferences.

Many scientists are I think rightly suggesting that we should move more, if not most, of our international scientific conferences outside the U.S. There is some evidence that this is already happening. Against this suggestion, however, I have often heard the objection that doing so “penalizes people from Muslim-majority countries already in the United States, who are now effectively stuck there.” While true on the surface, this is a weak and rapidly-fading excuse to abdicate responsibility, for two clear reasons: numbers, and choice.


First consider the relevant numbers, and more importantly their trend. Of the population of scientists affected by Trump’s Muslim ban, we can ask: are there more scientists outside the U.S. who are now unable to attend U.S.-based conferences, or are there more currently in the U.S. who now cannot readily travel outside? While I do not have the figures at hand to perform a precise comparison, one fact is clear: the former category of scientists who cannot enter the U.S. is increasing, while the latter category is rapidly declining – and has been already for the past year and a half since Trump’s inauguration, perhaps even since his November 2016 election.

A large portion of the affected scientists already in the U.S. are there on short-term student visas. They must leave the U.S. after their completing their degree, unless they manage to land a U.S. job and get their work visa past Trump’s “extreme vetting” process. And this population from affected countries is not getting replaced: regardless of the complex mix of reasons, the number of U.S. visas issued to people from the affected countries has crashed since Trump came to power.

Assuming that the typical degree is about four years – ignoring both shorter visits for Masters degrees and longer Ph.D. visits – we can reasonably estimate that 18 months into the Trump era, the pipeline of affected students may already be nearly half-empty, and in any case is rapidly draining. Since prominent international conferences take time to organize, those whose locations have not already been determined tend to be still a year or more in the future. By then, it seems safe to predict that the pipeline of students affected by the travel ban will already be nearly dry. For this reason, the balance of pursuing the “greater good” – or least harm – must clearly weigh in favor of the banned scientists outside the U.S.

Of course, some affected scientists do have long-term jobs in the U.S., including faculty positions. However, faculty and other established scientists much more often have the option of sending students or colleagues to present and participate at international conferences on their behalf – and often do so anyway for time and other reasons. And those scientists who do have permanent U.S. jobs eventually have the option of applying for U.S. citizenship, which formally exempts them from the ban, if not from the racism and bigotry behind it. Which raises the topic of choice.


Numeric trends aside, there is a second clear reason we must place the interests of affected scientists outside the U.S. ahead of those currently in the U.S. The affected scientists in the U.S. may not be able to leave the U.S. to attend conferences without risking their visas, but at least they have a choice of how and when they wish to leave the U.S. Affected scientists outside the U.S. have no such choice. Their exclusion is unconditional and permanent, completely outside their control, at least as long as Trump’s travel ban remains in effect.

Yes, there are other ways to mitigate the damage of Trump’s policies, and we should continue implementing those as well. Promptly posting slides and videos of conference talks publicly online, and offering a channel for remote participants to ask questions and participate in discussions, can help. Enabling and encouraging remote participation can also help reduce the carbon footprint of our conferences, and can help include the many scientists around the world who rarely travel to international conferences for reasons having nothing to do with Trump’s policies – such as cost, travel time, or family constraints.

Of course, many of us hope that U.S. travel policies will change after the next election or two. But such hopes have been repeatedly dashed before: witness the seemingly-improbable course of events that brought us to this situation. Hoping for a change in the political winds is no substitute for socially responsible and inclusive planning.

At least until Trump’s Muslim ban actually is lifted, it is time for our international scientific conferences to leave the U.S.

Update: An edited version of this post appeared in the Times of Higher Education blog.

Topics: Research Bryan Ford