FoR’s mission is to improve the scientific research enterprise. We promote grassroots advocacy amongst junior researchers to discuss the problems they perceive with science, and possible solutions to fix them. We then work on making these solutions a reality, working with and advocating to institutions, scientific societies, federal agencies and senior scientists to effect change – and to speak as a voice of junior researchers. We also seek to empower junior researchers by collecting data about academia and scientific training, and make the data available to help them make rational decisions when figuring out how best to use their passion for science to benefit society.
This mission applies to problems like postdoc salaries and the recent Fair Labor Standards Act fiasco. It also applies to problems like the President’s Executive Order banning nationals of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia from entering the U.S. for at least the next 90 days, and how we as a scientific community respond to them.
A huge number of junior researchers in the U.S. are not U.S. citizens. Two-thirds of postdoctoral researchers are estimated to be foreign nationals, and the majority of those are estimated to be on temporary visas such as J-1 or H-1B visas. Considering just one of the seven affected countries, there were more than 10,000 Iranian students alone in the U.S. in 2013-14, and 1,364 Iranian scholars at U.S. institutions.
This Executive Order prevents these scientists from re-entering the country if they leave, or entering if they are currently outside. It prevents scientists from traveling to and from conferences.
But these actions not only affect scientists directly; they also affect their families and their communities.
Science does not occur in a vacuum. Scientists work within a community. In order to perform their work well, they and their loved ones must feel welcome within our American communities. They come from a variety of backgrounds, and have diverse thoughts and feelings that span the political spectrum. This administration’s actions directly affect women, people of color, people with disabilities, the LGBTQI community, immigrants, those of certain national origins, those with pre-existing health conditions, and Muslims. Therefore these actions affect scientists, and their family members and the people in their support networks.
As widely discussed in academic literature, most of the diversity in science is at the level of junior researchers, while attempts to diversify faculty are not succeeding. This administration’s actions are therefore of critical importance to the junior research community, and the wider communities in which they exist. These are therefore fundamental issues that FoR must also address. We hold ourselves responsible for addressing these issues, as we plan to hold others accountable for their decisions in the coming days in our new campaigns, beginning with a campaign, in collaboration with other organizations, to encourage professional societies and universities to resist anti-scientific and discriminatory policies. We want to enable junior researchers to advocate on these issues and are looking to build a collaborative coalition of organizations interested in junior researchers and their communities, to share resources and work that is under way more widely. We will continue to push for those senior scientists who call for junior researchers’ assistance in advocacy, and other unrecognized labor, to recognize those efforts as productive contributions to science in tenure, promotion, granting and fellowship efforts. We also will start to work with others to ensure that those are advocating are able to receive training to do so, under our mission to see that trainees receive training.
Junior scientists represent the future of science, and policies that impact who is welcome in American institutions today will impact the face of our scientific community for decades to come. Going forward, we will continue to look for ways to take action and speak out against policy decisions that affect our communities, as is within the remit of a nonprofit organization.
There are those who urge that science should transcend politics, that it is somehow apolitical – or that it should be, particularly with regard to different identities in science. This, however, is at odds with the wide body of evidence from social science research that shows that science is not an apolitical meritocracy, but is riddled with issues such as unconscious bias and the colonialism of science, and additionally evidence that discussing issues of diversity and inclusion is necessary to advancing the cause of science. If we hold ourselves to the high standard that our actions should be based on evidence, then biomedical researchers should not dismiss these findings. How can we protest in Washington to defend the use of evidence-based research while ignoring facts grounded in evidence-based research about politics and biases in our own enterprise? Asserting science should be apolitical also does not address the problem that many people simply choose not to believe evidence if they disagree with it. In such a climate, supposedly objective apolitical science can not function, and scientists should take political action to call for change. Furthermore, there is a clear history of examples of scientists succeeding when satisfying political aims, and failing when not. Science and politics are intricately bound, whether scientists like it or not.
Those who are still not convinced that scientists should be political, and discussing issues surrounding diversity and inclusion, should note that if immigration continues to be a target of action then J-1 visas or, very likely given previous rhetoric, H-1B visas, may be the next to be subject to sudden changes targeting immigration – which could have devastating consequences for labs and the scientific enterprise as a whole.
As mentioned above, two-thirds of postdoctoral researchers in the U.S. are estimated to be foreign nationals, and the majority of those are estimated to be on temporary visas such as the J-1 or H-1B visas. A typical path is for an international researcher to arrive for their PhD, or postdoc, and start on a J-1 visa, then proceed to an H-1B, from which many then proceed to attempt to apply for permanent residency, or the Green Card. These visas bind them to the lab in which they are hired, and require a coordinated process to transfer if moving to a new lab or new institution. They are also only available for academic research, and are not transferable into, for example, industry jobs in the U.S..
If an exchange visitor program sponsor terminates a J-1 visa – that is, if a principal investigator terminates a postdoc’s employment before the date agreed for the visa – the postdoc must leave immediately, the very same day. Under the American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act, there is no cap on the number of H-1B visas for researchers who work at (but not necessarily for) universities, nonprofit research facilities associated with universities, and government research facilities. Therefore, a sweeping move to cancel J-1s, or to place constraints such as salary thresholds on non-academic H-1B visas, (a bill introduced earlier this month already targets H-1Bs), in academia could wipe out entire labs at a stroke. This example only highlights issues surrounding immigration. Other groups may be subject to more severe proposed actions, such as the internment of Muslims. Even if you consider these issues to be outside scientist’s remit, asking for more funding, or for more evidence-based decision making, will be futile as scientists vanish from labs.
There are ways that are emerging to fight back against these measures. Two recent developments are the petition, “Academics Against Immigrant Executive Order”, which at time of writing had over 12,000 signatures. There is also the “Scientists’ March on Washington” movement, which, as well as a proposed march in Washington DC, is forming a number of smaller marches around the country. Much debate has taken place since the march was proposed about whether science is political, or scientists should be political. To those of you who are scientists and also U.S. citizens, that choice is up to you. It is not a choice available to the immigrants who live amongst you.
At FoR, we believe that our brightest future lies with a diverse, international scientific enterprise made up of the best minds from across the globe, using their passion for science to benefit society. This requires that women, people of color, non-US citizens, and people of all religions feel equally welcome and supported in our scientific community and within the broader American community. Science flourishes when there is open exchange of ideas and collaboration across international boundaries. FoR is dedicated to opposing any actions that impede this open exchange.