As Visa Difficulties Persist, Scientists Push for Change
As Visa Difficulties Persist, Scientists Push for Change

As Visa Difficulties Persist, Scientists Push for Change

Individual researchers and science societies are finding solutions so colleagues around the globe can attend conferences, from remote presentations to relocating conferences.

Jul 10, 2019
Katarina Zimmer

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In a few weeks’ time, a research poster exploring how prior experiences can influence human perception will hang at the Cognitive Science Society’s annual conference in Montreal, but its first author won’t be there to present it. Marina Dubova, a Russian cognitive sciences undergraduate and soon-to-be PhD student at Saint Petersburg State University, was recently informed that her application for a visitor visa to attend the conference was denied.

According to Dubova, immigration officials didn’t think it was credible that she’d leave the country after the conference, citing limited employment prospects in Russia and her financial status, among other reasons. This was despite having provided her letter of invitation to the conference, her research, and a receipt for the $205 she had paid in conference registration fees, she says.

Dubova tells The Scientist she was unfairly denied a visa because she’s from Russia, considered a developing country, and one with diplomatic tensions with Western nations. When asked about her case by local media, the Canadian immigration department insisted that visa decisions are made on a case-by-case basis and depend on whether they meet certain requirements and not on an applicants’ country of origin.

Although her coauthor will be presenting the research, Dubova finds it “very frustrating” she can’t attend the conference. “It’s a unique networking opportunity where you can get the state of the whole field in just three or four days,” she says. “For me as a young researcher, it’s very important.” 

In the wake of President Trump’s travel ban, the Organization for Human Brain Mapping decided to host its meetings in diverse locations around the globe, such as Beijing, Singapore, and Rome.

Dubova’s experience is not an isolated incident. Many scientists that hold passports from developing countries have to apply for visas to travel to countries such as Canada—a process that is expensive and subject to delays and stringent requirements from host countries’ immigration departments. Every year, a number of them can’t attend conferences in their field because visa applications aren’t processed in time or are rejected outright.

This problem exists also in the UK, as became apparent last November when 17 researchers from Asian and African countries couldn’t attend a World Health Organization conference in London because of visa-related issues.

In the US, many denials are a result of President Donald Trump’s 2017 executive order to ban nationals of several majority-Muslim countries from entering the US. Multiple scientists have since taken to Twitter or other platforms, raising concerns that these political challenges threaten to push out scientists from countries that are already underrepresented on the international stage.

“The ideal solution is to have political administrations that recognize scientists’ right to travel and interact and present their work,” says Michael Frank, current chair of the Cognitive Sciences Society and a developmental psychologist at Stanford University. But where politics is slow to change, the scientific community can step in to “at least try to mitigate some of the impacts,” he says.

A number of scientists have now called on conference organizers or taken it upon themselves to find solutions quickly. These range from allowing researchers to present their research from afar, moving locations to more welcoming countries, or collecting data to quantify the extent of the issue.

The scale of the problem

There’s no hard data on how many researchers are affected. After an Iranian labmate at Western University in Canada couldn’t attend the Society for Neuroscience’s (SfN) conference last November in San Diego, Matthew Leavitt created a survey to assess the scale of the issue. He received 25 responses by researchers who were denied visas to attend conferences in the US and Canada. Of these, 21 were from Iranians, 2 from Syrians, and 1 from an Iraqi. “In my experience at scientific conferences pre-travel ban, Iran [was] of one of the most widely represented nationalities after the US, Canada, Germany, The Netherlands, and Japan,” Leavitt writes to The Scientist in an email.

These figures are probably a gross underestimate: “I also received dozens of emails from people who were denied visas but hesitant to fill out the survey or speak publicly about their experiences for fear of retaliation, as well as academics who were not personally denied visas but shared stories of colleagues who were affected,” Leavitt explains. 

Several scientific societies are collecting data on how many of their members don’t make it to conferences because of visa-related issues: Out of around 4,000 attendees of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping’s (OHBM) recent conference in Rome, fewer than 20 people cancelled their registration due to visa-related hurdles, according to Mike Mulally, a spokesperson for the organization. Out of some 1,000 attendees at the Cognitive Sciences Society’s conference in Wisconsin last year, four researchers were denied visas, according to Frank. This appeared to predominantly affect researchers from majority-Muslim and Middle Eastern nations, “scientists from communities that are underrepresented already at Cognitive Science,” he says.

New conference locations

In the wake of Trump’s travel ban, the OHBM decided to host its meetings in diverse locations around the globe, such as Beijing, Singapore, and Rome. “We were worried about the actual people [the travel ban] would affect coming to our meetings, but also the idea of the travel ban itself: the idea of excluding groups of people from coming to the US did not sit very well with a lot of our members/leadership,” writes Mulally in an email. The Cognitive Sciences Society also rotates its conference locations between North America and Europe, and increasingly with Asia.

Pradeep Reddy Raamana, an Indian postdoc in neuroimaging at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, recently started a petition to push the 35,000-member-strong SfN to rotate its annual conferences from the US to more travel-friendly countries. “Given their adequate resources—over $77M in reserve—appointing a committee to seriously consider the possibilities of relocation of future meetings is the least they could do,” he writes.

However, moving conference location isn’t a panacea, Frank warns. If OHBM organizes the conference outside the US, foreign researchers based in the US who only have a single-entry visa could be excluded. This happened to one of Frank’s Iranian students who couldn’t attend the societies’ 2017 conference in London, because he was “unable to leave, or else he wouldn’t have been able to come back and finish his studies,” Frank recalls. For each new host country there will be particular nationalities for whom it will be difficult to attend, he adds.

For some societies, it might not make logistical sense to shift location. “Seventy-five percent of our attendees are from the US, so it makes sense for us to continue hosting our meeting in the US,” writes Joanna Urban, PR coordinator for the American Society for Microbiology, in an email.

Small fixes

A spokesperson for SfN didn’t say whether they would consider moving to another location, but referred to two statements about inclusivity and diversity in science and its Science Knows No Borders program, which launched earlier this year and includes options to get refunds on registration fees and to present research remotely.

Dubova says after she was denied a visa, the Cognitive Sciences Society was quick to refund her conference registration fees, and promised to put a laptop next to her presentation poster so she can present her research virtually. She’s currently exploring more effective ways to communicate with people at the conference, for instance, by having them scan a QR code and then video chat with her on their phones.

Other conferences have introduced similar fixes. The OHBM also offers refunds, and has a remote presentation option. The American Society for Microbiology doesn’t currently have an electronic or remote option for poster presentations, but does issue refunds of conference registration fees.

For Raamana, these fixes are less than ideal. Remote presentation only works “if the technology works and people enthusiastically participate, which is often not the case,” he writes in an email. More importantly, “the role of conferences goes beyond presenting one’s latest results. . . . Networking with peers and potential employers is often the biggest reason, especially for early career researchers. This is even more important for minorities who still face bias while applying for academic jobs online or over email,” he adds.

Several researchers concerned about the high carbon costs associated with air travel to conferences suggest that the visa issue could be tackled with similar solutions as have been proposed to minimize the environmental damage of international meetings. Raamana says that societies such as SfN could analyze their membership to find the optimal conference location that would minimize air traffic alongside visa-related issues. Some researchers have trialed virtual, carbon-neutral “no-fly conferences” in recent years, which everyone can attend online. Others have proposed the idea of “multiple-site conferences,” in which a conference is spread out across a number of regional hubs that are linked together via videoconferencing.

More action is needed to address both issues, notes Sabah Ul-Hasan, a soon-to-be bioinformatics postdoc at the Scripps Research Institute. She has become increasingly concerned about the effects of the travel ban on her family and colleagues, particularly as a Muslim, first-generation American. Powerful academic institutions, such as the University of California system, could help alongside scientific societies in pushing federal immigration policies to change. “It’s . . . disappointing to not see more efforts carried out by scientists, societies, and institutions with more power,” she writes in an email to The Scientist.

After raising her concerns on Twitter, she felt motivated to formalize them as an official statement for scientists to declare their support with researchers facing visa hurdles in attending conferences and develop an action plan to push for effective solutions. “The goal of the statement is to essentially say [to those researchers], ‘We see you. And we are here to do whatever is in our power to better include you, be it at conferences or elsewhere.’”

Katarina Zimmer is a New York–based freelance journalist. Find her on Twitter @katarinazimmer.