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Some members of the International Astronomical Union, which held its General Assembly in China in 2012 (above), are now calling for a boycott of U.S. meetings in response to the Trump administration’s immigration policies.


Scientists urge boycott of U.S. meetings

A growing number of researchers is calling for a boycott of U.S. scientific meetings to protest the immigration policies of the new Trump administration.

The Organizing Committee of the Commission G2 Massive Stars, part of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), announced today it would not hold any meetings in the United States as long as the ban on entry by persons from seven Muslim-majority countries is in place. The committee asked its parent organization to do likewise after IAU said it was “profoundly concerned by the impact the recent U.S. executive order, and possible reactions to it from other countries, could have on international collaboration in astronomy and the mobility of scientists.”

“People in our committee felt that the statement that came from the IAU wasn’t strong enough,” says Jorick Vink, vice president of the Organizing Committee and an astronomer at Armagh Observatory in the United Kingdom. The committee’s seven members “agreed in a minute” to launch the boycott, Vink notes.

Vink and his colleagues called on other meeting organizers to consider changing venues. “We urge everyone to uphold the principle” that science is universal and to “consider appropriate actions,” they wrote in a statement posted on the commission’s Facebook page.

Anger about President Donald Trump’s executive order, which imposes a 90-day ban on entry into the United States by citizens of Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, has been building in the scientific community since it was issued on 27 January. Several scientists believe that holding U.S. meetings under these circumstances would violate the statutes of the International Council for Science, the umbrella organization for scientific societies around the world, which “opposes discrimination based on such factors as ethnic origin, religion, citizenship, language, political or other opinion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, or age.”

The travel ban is already affecting attendance at some meetings. Ehsan Moravveji, an Iranian-born astrophysicist working at the University of Leuven in Belgium, will do a video presentation rather than appear in person for an invited talk at a meeting this month on “The Mysteries and Inner Workings of Massive Stars” in Santa Barbara, California. “But nothing can really take the place of your physical presence at a conference,” he says. “[Then] you can just open up your laptop, show the results, and go over the little details.”

More than 5000 researchers from around the world have already pledged to boycott U.S. meetings, and signatures are being collected at a second website. “We started it when a friend and colleague of ours, Azadeh Fattahi, an Iranian Ph.D. student at the University of Victoria in Canada, had to turn down a job offer from an American University and refused to attend two conferences in the U.S. due to the ban,” says Mathilde Jauzac, an astronomer at Durham University in the United Kingdom.

Freeke van de Voort, an astronomer currently at the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies in Germany, says she supports the boycott despite having accepted a job offer from Yale University. The Dutch astronomer says it is her “tiny, little way” of showing solidarity with colleagues who have long faced more obstacles than those holding an EU passport. “Now it has become impossible for them to do their jobs, to collaborate with people in the U.S., to advertise their own work in conferences, which is a vital part of science.”

Matthias Bartelmann, a theoretical astrophysicist at Heidelberg University who usually travels to the United States several times a year, supports the boycott and says he is canceling future visits while Trump is president. “There are plenty of meetings and workshops in other countries where I can meet the colleagues I collaborate with.” Bartelmann says he’s also protesting “the mendacity, the disregard for human dignity, the fascist demeanor of Trump” and the nomination of Betsy DeVos as education secretary. “A country like this cannot be the center of international science,” he asserts.

But others wonder whether a boycott is really the best way to react. Cornelis Dullemond, a researcher at Heidelberg University, has not signed the petition yet. “I agree with the aims, but I am not sure this is the right means,” he says. “I’m worried that we are just punishing our colleagues and friends in the U.S.”

U.S. scientists are also uncertain. Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C., says he found no consensus after consulting with several colleagues. "While I understand and sympathize with the scientists who have decided to boycott science meetings in the U.S. as a protest, I am concerned that this boycott will impede the progress of science,” Ferguson writes in an email. An alternative, he suggested, is moving U.S. meetings to a country like Jordan, which "is in the Middle East but easy to enter for Europeans, Americans, and people from the banned countries.”

Moravveji admits he has doubts about the feasibility of a boycott. Many planned meetings will probably take place, he says. And Bartelmann holds out little hope that the boycott will sway the U.S. president.

But Moravveji hopes the boycott will encourage scientists to look at the bigger picture. “The whole science community needs to become aware that the decisions that will be made in the White House are going to impact many different scientists and many different fields,” he says. 

*Update, 6 February, 1 p.m.: This story has been revised to include comments from Charles Ferguson of the Federation of American Scientists.