Restrictions on Muslims Can Hurt America's Future Scientific Collaborations, Ex-aide Says

'We do our best scientific work when we have the best and brightest working with us,' Dr. Frances Colon tells Haaretz.

Activists write 'messages of resistance' to President Donald Trump at the grounds of the Washington Monument February 3, 2017 in Washington, DC.
ALEX WONG/AFP

In an interview with Haaretz, Dr. Frances Colon, who has advised the White House on global scientific engagement, warns of the chilling effects that restrictions on Muslim scientists might have on scientific collaborations between the United States and other countries, citing the years following the Sept. 11 attacks.

A U.S. appeals court in San Francisco has been hearing arguments on the administration of President Donald Trump's challenge to a lower court order putting his temporary travel ban on hold.  The controversial executive order banned entry for all refugees and visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries.

The order disrupted the lives of thousands of immigrants and travelers, including scientists, who were planning to come to the United States for research, collaboration projects, or those working in the U.S. who had left for a trip or a conference abroad, and couldn’t return.

The travel ban, as well as possible harder restrictions on Muslim scientists still loom large, and could harm not only the scientists, but also future collaboration projects between the U.S. and other countries, says Dr. Frances Colon, a former Deputy Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State.

Colon has worked at the State Department since 2008 and has served as a deputy science and technology adviser to the secretary since 2012.  She has specialized in integration of science and technology into foreign policy dialogue and global scientific engagement.

Colon warns that a ban on scientists from Muslim countries, as well as a policy and an atmosphere perceived to be hostile to Muslim researchers could have a negative impact on scientific collaboration, as well as future projects, by creating an atmosphere of uncertainty surrounding future work with the U.S.

“The ban may impact the scientific collaborations that are ongoing, and the ones that are in the pipeline. The truth is that we do our best scientific work when we have the best and brightest working with us,” says Colon.

“The feeling that people of certain beliefs are not welcome, it may have a chilling effect on people’s willingness to do scientific collaborations with us, even if they are not from these countries, because they are uncertain of what will happen down the road. We should consider the impact that it will have on research that could have been impactful in solving our greatest challenges," she adds.

While the long-term effects of the current ban are yet to be seen, there is a recent precedent in U.S. history when restrictions on scientists from Muslim origins were shown to have a chilling effect on international projects with the United States, Colon says.

“For a long time after 9/11 we’ve been dealing with delayed processing of scientists from certain countries, and the scientific community was very active in trying to resolve this,” says Dr. Colon. “And often times, other countries, from Europe to South Asia to the Middle East, would tell us, we are put through such an unreasonably difficult process that it is sometimes not worth it when we could do research with other countries where the environment is not so hostile.”

Scientists are planning a march in Washington DC to protest the “politicization of science under the current administration.” The march is scheduled for April 22, Earth day, and sister marches are expected to be held in other cities across the country.

More than 370, 000 people are following updates about the march which is generating a lot of discussion in the scientific community about the role scientists should play in criticizing the government.

“I believe that scientists come from different political stripes, but all scientists want science to be a non-political issue,” says Colon, though not involved with the march, about the protest. “We need to be aware of the decisions that are being made on climate change, be vigilant that they are made based on science and not politics.".

In 2015, 12,269 students came to study in the U.S. from Iran, the largest lumber in 29 years. As to other countries affected by the Muslim ban, 1,901 students were from Iraq, 1,514 from Libya, 783 from Syria, 599 from Yemen, 253 from Sudan, and 35 from Somalia.

The ban targeted not only students from the seven countries but also students who may have emigrated from these countries or traveled elsewhere. They would also be impacted by the ban, if they wished to do scientific work in the U.S.

While it is unclear where the next friction between scientists and the Trump administration may come from, policies on global warming policies are also likely to generate debate and media coverage, Colon suggests also keeping a close look for the fate of special programs that the Obama’s administration created to aid women and minorities in science.

“We need to be mindful of the many programs that aid women in science and the programs that were put in place to help girls enter those STEM fields”, she says, using an acronym for a curriculum for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Reuters contributed to this report.