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U.S. immigration ban could lead affected chemists to Europe

Swiss institute in informal discussions with researchers interested in relocation

by Paula Dupraz-Dobias, special to C&EN
February 6, 2017

Although many scientists oppose a presidential order banning nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S., chemists from those nations could head to Europe or elsewhere in the industrialized world.

David Black, secretary general of the International Council of Scientists, says chemists from affected nations “may seek to go to other developed countries” to pursue their work.

Meanwhile Madeleine Von Holzen, a spokesperson for the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland, says “bilateral informal discussions” had already taking place among EPFL staff and non-U.S. researchers interested in relocating to Switzerland as a result of the executive order.

The school—ranked number one in Europe in chemistry by U.S. News & World Report—operates globally. Some 19% of EPFL scientific publications are coauthored by researchers in the U.S. Approximately 200 students and professors at the institute originate from countries targeted by U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s order, according to EPFL.

Von Holzen says the school is advising a number of affected students from the institute—nationals from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—who were expecting to travel to the U.S. after the 90-day ban on their entry expires.

At the University of Cambridge, the head of the chemistry department deferred to a statement issued by the vice-chancellor, Leszek Borysiewicz, in response to questions about the effect of the ban. The statement says, “Even as governments around the world seek to curb freedom of movement, the University of Cambridge remains committed to welcoming the best and brightest students and staff.”

Attempts to contact students or professors at Cambridge, Imperial College London, the University of Oxford, and EPFL were unsuccessful. Representatives from the administrations and student unions told C&EN that students may be uncomfortable speaking as long as their visa statuses may be under threat.

Black tells C&EN that for scientists affected by the ban, the announcement is “career-transforming” as they are unable to work or attend specialized scientific conferences in the U.S.

“Anything that restricts freedom of movement and freedom of cooperation will be a negative for the development of chemistry and other sciences. This is a fundamental truth,” says Black, who is also a professor of organic chemistry at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

Recent popular votes in Europe have changed the panorama for foreign academics and students drawn to certain European countries. Britain’s Brexit referendum last June would affect people from other European Union nations who are working in the U.K. And Switzerland’s electorate in February 2014 voted in favor of an initiative to restrict foreign immigration.

Von Holzen indicated the recruitment process for professors at EPFL was rigorous and could take up to a year. She said the school was mindful of remaining “open for everyone,” and that no decisions had been made yet to introduce a fast-track process for “specific people.”



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