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NYC Postdocs Respond to the Travel Ban: A Survey Conducted by the NYC Postdoc Coalition
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The POSTDOCket

Volume 15, Issue 4 (April 2017)

Yelena Bernadskaya

 

The executive order of January 27, 2017 restricting travel of citizens of seven countries to the United States resulted in chaos. People were detained at airports and protests erupted against the ban. There is a general sense that this and the revised executive order of March 6, 2017 target specific demographics without accomplishing the desired goal of protecting U.S. citizens from terrorist threats.

 

While many lives have been directly affected by these orders, scientists are in a unique position. Many researchers travel to receive training or to attend meetings outside of the country. This is an essential way to disseminate their work and gain experience. Due to this collaborative and international nature of scientific research, the ban reverberates beyond those immediately affected and extends to the general scientific community. The New York City Postdoc Coalition (NYCPC) sent out surveys to some of the major research institutions in New York City to learn about reactions to the January executive order, to gauge the number of people affected, and to take the temperature of the scientific community regarding the travel restrictions, particularly in regards to postdoctoral scholars.

The anonymous survey collected data on the participants’ citizenship status and their views on how the travel ban will affect science as a whole and would interfere with their own research. It also provided a space for general statements regarding the ban for those who wished to do so.

 

Postdocs are early career researchers, who generally have an interest in the direction science research in the United States is headed. Over 300 early career scientists responded to the survey. Of the respondents, 89 percent held a postdoctoral position, with a small percentage identifying as grad students, faculty, or other researchers. The responses came from a wide variety of disciplines (Fig. 1).

 

 

Figure 1. Fields of research NYC postdocs engage in. The word cloud was generated from NYCPC survey responses.

 

Four percent of respondents were citizens of the seven countries affected by the initial immigration executive order. However, the ban has affected other researchers: 10 percent expressed concern that their countries will eventually be targeted as well. The stress associated with the travel ban took a toll on the researchers, with 36 percent expressing worry over the ability of scientists to visit friends and family abroad. “Thinking about whether I will be able to see my wife, son, and parents again and being cornered to choose between my career in the States and going back to be able to see my family is excruciating,” said a postdoc from Rockefeller University. “I am too scared to attend my brother's wedding in Pakistan,” a postdoc from Mount Sinai Medical Center stated. This sentiment is echoed even by those not directly affected by the ban.

 

Figure 2. Visa status of the NYCPC survey respondents.

Only 37 percent of respondents held U.S. citizenship or green cards, although data was not collected on how many of the citizens were naturalized immigrants or held dual citizenships. Over 60 percent of respondents held visas such as J-1, H-1B, or F-1 (Fig. 2). This underscores the importance of international scientists to the work being carried out in U.S. universities.

 

Fifty-seven percent of responding researchers felt that the ban would make it difficult for them to collaborate with scientists abroad, and 33 percent said it will affect their ability to work with people in their own group. Others worry about the ability to attend conferences, which are crucially important for scientists just starting out (Fig. 3).

As a group, postdocs feel the ban will hurt science overall. Almost 98 percent of researchers believe the general effects will be negative or at least somewhat negative (Fig. 4). This sentiment is held in all fields of research represented, ranging from biomedicine to social sciences.

 

Figure 3. Areas that NYCPC survey respondents identified to be potentially affected by the January immigration executive order.

 

 

Figure 4. Most NYCPC survey respondents felt that the travel ban would negatively impact research and researchers.

 

Those who do not worry on a personal level are nonetheless concerned about being able to attract students. “I will be starting a faculty position next year and am deeply concerned about the ban impacting my ability to recruit talented students and postdocs to my lab,” a postdoc at NYU said. “This negatively alters the academic environment we all inhabit,” another NYU researcher responded.

 

The survey was sent as a response to mounting worries of how limited mobility of scientists will affect the research being done in the Unites States. The results point to a potential brain drain, as fewer immigrants would choose the United States as a place to study and work, hurting the scientific enterprise and potentially weakening the stance of the United States as a leader in the scientific community.

 

Names of the survey respondents are removed for confidentiality.

 

We thank Jason Dumelie (Cornell Weill Medical College), Yalda Moayedi (Columbia University), and William Chang (Albert Einstein College of Medicine) for collaborating on survey design. We thank Sonali Majumdar (Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center), Alison Sanders and Delaine Ceholski (Mount Sinai Medical Center) for feedback and discussion of the manuscript and infographics.

 

The NYCPC is a group representing early career scientists at seven major research institutes in NYC: Columbia University, Mount Sinai, Albert Einstein, Memorial Sloan Kettering, Rockefeller University, NYU, and Weill Cornell Medical College.

 

This article was adapted from an article originally published on Future of Research on February 13, 2017.

 

Yelena Bernadskaya, PhD, is a postdoctoral scholar at NYU.

 

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