The Dangers of Closing the Borders on Global Science

Jan. 29, 2017

As I write, news pours in from U.S. airports where hundreds of arriving travelers, including scientists, are being held by immigration authorities. The New York Times reports that the Department of Homeland Security is interpreting the executive order signed by the President last Friday as barring green card holders who are citizens of seven countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen) from re-entering the United States. Should a US permanent-resident green card holder who is a citizen of one of these countries have to leave the U.S.—for example, to attend a scientific meeting—their cases would have to be reviewed individually by US consular offices to determine whether a waiver to return to the United States can be issued. 

I fully understand the importance, even more so in this age of terrorism, of securing borders through careful vetting processes. However, we need to consider how this goal is achieved, and to be aware of unintended consequences, which could create serious problems for US national interests. Let me focus on the unintended consequences for science and microbiology. 

This takes me back ten years when I, an immigrant from Italy, had the privilege of working for Dr. Elias Zerhouni, an immigrant from Algeria, who at the time was the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Every morning as I climbed the steps of the austere Building One at the NIH campus in Bethesda, I would reflect on how extraordinary my walk to work was. I was in a country where those with talent and persistence had a chance in science. Here an Italian immigrant could work for an Algerian immigrant, helping make decisions at the highest levels about the direction of American bioscience. My homeland, Italy, did not grant me such opportunities, and perhaps it is not by chance that I left, adopting the U.S. as my new home. For America, this is an old story; generation after generation of ambitious scientists coming here for opportunity and in some cases, for personal safety. In return, immigrant scientists showered biology, physics, medicine, chemistry, and other scientific areas with major discoveries and glittering scientific prizes, which often stood at the foundation of national security issues. Surely we do not want to cut off this bounty of scientific talent. Scientist immigrants have enriched our culture of innovation and discovery. Today they are providing the fuel that drives American research into better health, a cleaner environment, and a bigger economic engine. 

“The National Institute of Health speaks the universal language of humanitarianism. It has been devoted throughout its long and distinguished history to furthering the health of all mankind, in which service it has recognized no limitations imposed by international boundaries; and has recognized no distinctions of race, creed or color.”  Climbing those steps at NIH each morning, I was reminded of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s words in 1940 when he inaugurated the NIH campus.  In his dedication speech, FDR said:

FDR’s words are even more valid today. In the global village we all live in, science is at its core an international endeavor. It is powered by curiosity, ingenuity, and entrepreneurship. It thrives on our insatiable need to ask questions. Science recognizes no limitations based on the origins of the scientist. We succeed in science if we follow our core principles, regardless of a scientist’s race, creed, gender or color. For American scientists, these are non-negotiable principles. Without them, scientists will not be the only sufferers. Given the stakes, imposing limits based blindly on national origins is ultimately not so much about the future of American science, it is about the future of American society.

From its beginnings, modern science has been international. Renaissance astronomers and geographers made the world round in the 16th century until, in modern times, physicists and mathematicians made it flat again with new computational and communication technologies. For hundreds of years, “natural philosophers” have been travelling the world to learn, to collaborate, and to advance medicine and biology. 

Microbiology here offers us the perfect example. Ilya Mechnikov, a 19th-century Russian microbiologist and immunologist, left Odessa University for Paris in 1888 to work with Louis Pasteur on what would become the rabies vaccine. Pasteur greatly benefited from Mechnikov’s studies on phagocytosis as the basis of cell-mediated immunity. At that time, Mechnikov’s theory was opposed to that of humoral immunity championed by the German scientist Paul Ehrlich and his colleagues. Controversy raged in scientific circles around the world until, as it often happens in science, a new paradigm emerged, propelling the field forward. Twenty years after joining Louis Pasteur in Paris, Mechnikov and Ehrlich were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1908. 

Global collaborations enhance biomedical research. The days when a single Leonardo da Vinci could encompass all science are long gone. The Human Genome Project (HGP), for example, was a massive international collaboration. It succeeded, in part, because of its deliberately informal structure and its relaxed administrative barriers that allowed a dense global network to emerge, capable of passing vast amounts of data and expertise back and forth. The HGP reached its difficult goal far faster than expected, becoming the most successful large-scale international bioscientific collaboration to date.   

Clinical trials and genetic research today rely on international cooperation. It is essential to study diseases in areas where they are prevalent and where trials can be tailored to reach the population who will most benefit. The Gambia Pneumococcal Vaccine Trial is the perfect example. A broad international collaboration carried out in a few years led to a major randomized controlled vaccine trial that quickly showed significant overall reduction in childhood mortality.  Such international collaborations can make a difference for millions in the developing world while deepening our worldwide research abilities.

Despite daunting public health and political challenges, the health landscape in many areas of the world is changing. Now more than ever, the developed nations can engage with the developing world through government and private efforts to build local research infrastructures. From afar, we can help build the workforce and the capacity needed to address local public health needs. 

ASM is the global forum for microbial sciences. It is a professional society, with 50,000 members, half of whom work outside of the US. We are fortunate to have an extremely active global program, focused primarily on training the global workforce in microbial sciences to provide accurate diagnostics and care for those afflicted by infectious diseases. 

At ASM, we have active programs in two of the countries on the immigration restriction list issued Friday—Yemen and Iraq. I would like to send a strong message to all those good and hard-working ASM scientists, and to all scientists working to prevent and cure infectious diseases around the whole world: ASM is your professional society. We are here for you to help the world. We are a global home for your science, a home which has no national borders, because science knows no borders.   

While the new immigration restrictions do not impose direct problems on ASM programs, I am deeply concerned by the message that we are sending to the global scientific community. This is why I want to reiterate my unwavering support for all our members. We will do everything we can, within our legal structure, to help the ASM global community. 

Author: Stefano Bertuzzi

Stefano Bertuzzi
Stefano Bertuzzi is the CEO of the American Society for Microbiology.