Travel ban another example of Trump's war on science
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This has been a time of unprecedented turmoil for scientists who study energy and the environment, especially for our colleagues serving in government. 

At the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Trump team imposed a gag order on scientists and officials and sought removal of websites about climate change. The issuing and then lifting of a freeze on grants and contracts raises doubts about whether the EPA will follow through on its commitments. The climate skeptic that headed President Trump's transition team called for slashing the EPA's workforce and budget, while a frequent litigant against the agency may soon lead it. 

Beyond the EPA, it remains unclear what will come of threats to ax programs such as the Department of Energy's Offices of Fossil Energy and Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and even the entire Earth Sciences program at NASA.

Meanwhile, several of Trump's Cabinet nominees have denied consensus conclusions of climate science, while critics fear his Education nominee may weaken science instruction in schools.

(Disclosure: I teach atmospheric science and have received research funding from NASA and the EPA).

All of this has prompted hundreds of thousands of scientists and allies to join social media sites planning Marches for Science in Washington and cities across the country. I have joined those efforts here in Houston.

Yet even as we prepare to march for science, some of us are recognizing that advocating for science compels us to speak out against Trump's executive order on immigration as well.

The seemingly unrelated assaults on science and immigration are in fact deeply intertwined.

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The United States has become the unquestioned leader in science and innovation in large part by attracting the best and bright minds from around the world. This becomes obvious with a quick glance at the foreign birthplaces of so many of our Nobel Prize winners, National Academies of Science and Engineering members, and top scientists in universities, national laboratories, and industry.

 

Beyond the headline achievers, an enormous share of the day-to-day work behind their discoveries is carried out by graduate students and postdoctoral researchers who hail from every corner of the planet.

Collaborations with foreign-born American residents are essential to nearly all of us working as professors in science and engineering.

My own modest career in academia has depended on collaborations with colleagues from predominantly Muslim countries. My Ph.D. dissertation was made possible by the research of fellow graduate students born in Iran and Pakistan. My closest colleagues in graduate school hailed from Pakistan, China, Israel, Iran, Thailand, Belarus, Mexico, Turkey and South Korea. My latest manuscript was led by a postdoctoral researcher from Iran and a Muslim graduate student from India. A talented young professor in my department was born in Iran.

In the universities where I have studied and worked, students and faculty from all nationalities and religions are welcomed with open arms. Seeking the most talented candidates for our graduate programs requires considering applicants from around the world. In fact, Iran is the sixth-leading source of international graduate students in the United States, and especially prominent in science and engineering disciplines.

For those students to succeed, they will need the opportunity to travel to international conferences and research opportunities. Beyond scholarly productivity, simple human compassion dictates that they should be able to visit family and friends without fear of being detained on their return.

The very fabric of our scientific community is therefore threatened by Trump's executive order on immigration. The vagueness of the order has even sowed doubt about whether permanent residents with green cards will be allowed to return to the U.S. from travel abroad.

The resulting strain on our colleagues and students at a human level is unimaginable. Beyond the initially targeted seven countries, how many of the next generation of promising scientists and engineers will take their talents elsewhere, for fear of what executive orders may come next?

The international greatness of American science won't be wiped away by a single executive order. But the initial warning signs are already troubling. A Cleveland Clinic medical resident from Sudan was detained. Google has recalled its staff traveling abroad. Apple's CEO wrote that the company "would not exist without immigration, let alone thrive and innovate the way we do."

How many global scientific conferences will locate elsewhere to ensure scientists from predominantly Muslim countries can attend? How many U.S.-based scientists won't attend for fear of being blocked upon return?

Whatever illusion of safety is gained by barring entry to people from the targeted countries is dwarfed by the loss of the talents they contribute to science, engineering and technological innovation in the United States.

That's even before considering our nation's moral obligation to provide refuge to people fleeing atrocities of war and persecution in the most troubled parts of the world. Holocaust Remembrance Day reminds us of the human costs of an "America First" disregard and callousness toward those in need.

As Benjamin Franklin put it, "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." Whatever we gain in safety, we lose far more in talents not arrived, refuge not provided and American ideals not upheld.

As scientists, we are often reticent to speak out about matters beyond our core disciplines. But as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. taught, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. … Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

In my view, this is no time of comfort, and no time to remain silent about the threats that Trump's visa bans pose to our colleagues, our students and our profession.

I look forward to returning my focus to the science and policy of air pollution, climate change and energy. But for now, I feel compelled to unite with scientists and allies across disciplines to address threats to the entire enterprise of science in our democracy.

In doing so, we can dispel emerging doubts that the best and brightest from all nations and faiths are welcomed to bring their talents here.

Dan Cohan is associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University.


The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.