President Donald J. Trump’s executive order on Jan. 27 barring travel to the U.S. by residents of seven Muslim-majority countries sent ripples through the chemistry enterprise.
Chaos reigned as visitors from the seven countries—Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—were detained at airports or prevented from leaving on trips that had already been approved. Permanent residents who have lived in the U.S. for years were also affected. Universities, federal researchers, and companies all wrestled with what the ban would mean for them, their employees, or their students.
The ban was designed to help prevent terrorist attacks, Trump said. Administrative officials say it is temporary in most cases; entry to the U.S. was suspended for 90 days for most of those affected. Syrian refugee programs were halted altogether. But enforcement has been erratic, and it’s unclear when people with visas will be allowed to enter the U.S.
Scientists quickly started speaking out as stories of detained travelers, including researchers, started to circulate. By Feb. 1, more than 18,000 scientists, including Nobel Prize winners, had signed a petition opposing the order.
C&EN did not uncover reports of chemists who were caught up in the immediate detentions at airports. But the normally cautious American Chemical Society, which publishes C&EN, reacted strongly.
“The order itself is overly broad in its reach, unfairly targets individuals from a handful of nations, ignores established mechanisms designed to achieve the ends sought by the order, and sets potential precedent for future executive orders,” the society said in a statement. ACS has 109 members in Iraq, 41 in Iran, two in Libya, and one in Sudan.
ACS joined 151 other science organizations and universities in a letter to Trump Jan. 31 expressing their concerns: “Implementation of this policy will compromise the United States’ ability to attract international scientific talent and maintain scientific and economic leadership.”
The largest number of affected scientists likely comes from Iran. More than 12,000 students came from Iran to the U.S. last year, according to data from the Institute of International Education. That’s far more than the other countries covered by the ban. Universities scrambled to help international students and scholars who were held in airports or turned back.
“The order is stranding students who have been approved to study here and are trying to get back to campus and threatens to disrupt the education and research of many others,” says Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, a coalition of the top research universities. She urged the Administration to make it clear that the U.S. “continues to welcome the most talented individuals from all countries.”
Alison Hatt, the user program director at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Molecular Foundry, says an Iranian postdoc from an Italian research institution was supposed to work on a project there but would be unlikely to get a visa. “Our researchers are definitely being impacted by the anti-immigration order.”
Collaborators from other countries will be reluctant to work with U.S. scientists if this is not resolved, says Zafra Lerman, president of the Malta Conferences Foundation, which promotes international scientific and technical collaborations.
“We are losing the opportunity to lead by example that was ours for so many years, and we are impacting the progress of science,” Lerman says. “By putting obstacles on science diplomacy, we will just torpedo its purpose of security and safety.”
Although many companies spoke out, the life sciences industry was largely silent on the ban. Neither of the main industry groups—the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America and the Biotechnology Industry Organization—commented on the executive order.
Neither did major U.S. chemical companies, none of which responded to C&EN’s request for comment. Other than Iran, most of the countries with large chemical industries, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, were excluded from the order.
Few big pharma firms have made a substantive statement. Allergan CEO Brent Saunders was the notable exception, tweeting on Jan. 29 that his company “is strong & bold [because] of diversity. Oppose any policy that puts limitations on our ability to attract the best & diverse talent.”
Novartis said in a statement, “Upholding our steadfast commitment to associates of all nationalities and religions is core to our values as we work to address society’s most pressing health care challenges.” So far, none of its employees have experienced a disruption to business travel.
Jason Kelly, founder of the small but rapidly growing start-up Ginkgo Bioworks, is concerned that the action will have a lasting impact on U.S. science.
“Many of my cofounders and colleagues are immigrants or first-generation Americans from countries all over the world,” he says. “That immigrants to the U.S. play a key role in science and technology is plainly obvious—all American winners of scientific Nobel prizes last year were immigrants—but immigrants don’t have to be scientists or engineers to be deserving of respect and rights.”