Researchers to the Rescue

(February 7th, 2017) It was one of the most controversial official acts, when Donald Trump ordered a travel ban for citizens of seven countries. Supported by EMBO, scientists in Europe offer their help to stranded colleagues.

On January, 27th, President Trump signed an executive order, denying entry into the US for all citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Sadly, the ban applied not only to refugees but also to those already legally living and working in the country. The scientific community was in uproar with this order, and soon news started appearing about many scientists from those nations stranded outside the US, not knowing when they could go back to their labs. 

Then, offers of help started pouring in from scientists all over the world. Research groups, offering bench space, access to libraries and even help with finding temporary accommodation. As a way to gather all this information, EMBO created a "Science Solidarity List", where potential hosts and stranded scientists could come together. The list quickly grew and currently includes over 900 scientists and their groups, opening the doors to their labs to those that may need it.

One of these was from Pedro Vale's group, from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology at Edinburgh University. For Vale, the ban is targeting researchers for no reason other than their nationality. "Offering desk and lab space is a relatively small gesture but could make a huge difference to those being oppressed. I simply wanted to offer help to my stranded colleagues," says the researcher. "Above all, signing the Solidarity List is important to underline that I feel this ban is discriminatory and unjust. It was a choice between doing nothing and offering help and, as Desmond Tutu once said, if you are neutral in the face of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor."

Aurelien Tellier, from the Technical University of Munich in Germany, has similar views. "I am just glad to help if possible. I would be happy to be helped if this happened to me." The researcher is used to assisting foreign students, in obtaining a visa to come to their lab, and recognises that the current situation with those stranded outside the US is even worse. "I have experience of students/post-docs from abroad, who struggle for visas in Germany. My team and I help them the best we can because this uncertainty in their personal situation is very uncomfortable to say the least," explains Tellier. "As Europeans, we are lucky to (so far) avoid such problems but for the researchers stranded outside of the US, I believe every help is welcome."

For Rita Abranches, now based at the Institute of Technology, Chemistry and Biology in Portugal, the situation in the US is very familiar, as she was living and working there when September, 11th happened. "As you can imagine, I followed closely what was happening at the time," the researcher recalls. "When I found out about stranded scientists prevented from continuing their work in the US, I considered it a moral duty to help them and this EMBO initiative seemed like a good opportunity to do so."

"Science is a global endeavour undertaken by a global community," adds Howard Jacobs, based at the University of Helsinki, Finland. "We consider that we have a duty to assist members of our own community, who are in distress, even if the practical impact is limited." For Katrien de Bock, based at ETH Zurich, Switzerland, scientific progress is dependent on international collaborations. "There are no borders for collaborations, therefore, science should not be limited by politics," concludes the researcher.

At the moment, the ban has been temporarily reversed by a court order but the worry continues. Trump opponents say it's unconstitutional but the President still defends his executive order. In the meantime, researchers from the banned countries - both those stranded outside the US as well as those not daring to leave the country - remain in limbo, not knowing what the future may hold.

Alex Reis

Photo: Kratochvil

Last Changes: 03.03.2017