Cities have seen various forms of protest against President Trump’s executive order barring immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries. But not all protesters marched or carried signs. Scientists are using social media to coalesce around various forms of protest, including boycotting US conferences and journals. Such acts of academic “civil disobedience” could, in the short term, slow the progress of science. But none promise to do as much damage to science as the ban itself.
In the days since the executive order was announced, more than 4,500 international academics have signed a pledge to boycott US-based conferences, of which there are hundreds every year. “We question the intellectual integrity of these spaces and the dialogues they are designed to encourage while Muslim colleagues are explicitly excluded from them,” the authors of the pledge write. And more than 18,000 academics—most of them from the US—have signed a letter denouncing the ban.
Separately, an Australian anesthesiologist has vowed to stop reviewing scientific articles in US-based journals as a way to oppose the policy. “As an Australian I can do little about current events in the US. However I can do this,” Stuart Marshall wrote on Twitter, along with a screenshot of the letter he sent to six journals.
Marshall says he’s aware of “several” colleagues who have lodged similar protests with journals, “and personal emails and messages for support from academics around the world have stated they will do the same.”
“Your organization and several others that I perform pro bono work for in the scientific community benefits financially from my work and pays taxes to the US government,” Marshall wrote to those undisclosed journals. “This government has decided to systematically discriminate against academics and others on the basis of race, religion and nationality. Henceforth, I do not wish to directly or indirectly support this action.”
Whether a boycott on conferences or journals will have much of an effect on the Trump administration is a different matter. It does not appear, to put it mildly, that Trump and his inner circle rely much on the peer-reviewed literature for help in policymaking. Nor is academia an industry they seem very concerned about appeasing.
We’re reminded of what happened a quarter century ago, when Harvard—in response to a ban on people with HIV entering the country first put in place by the Reagan administration—decided to move a major AIDS conference from Boston to Amsterdam. It was a principled stand, but it would be difficult to argue that the move had any real effect on the ban, which was not lifted until 2009, during the Obama administration. Its real effect was pragmatic: to make sure that more people could attend the meeting.
That points to a broader concern: If conferences don’t move, they’ll likely suffer—not because of the protest, but because of the travel ban itself.
Medicine is international, and advances come from all over the world. So while some efforts at protest may not land their mark, the protest itself is showing the vibrant international community of scientists and academics — the very thing at stake if this immigration ban stands.