Scientists Offer Lab Space for Stranded Peers

Researchers in Europe and Canada are offering temporary bench and desk spaces to host scientists denied entry into the U.S. as a result of the President’s executive order on immigration.

Feb 1, 2017
Kerry Grens

WIKIMEDIA, URCOMUNICACIONSome scientists and physicians are among those barred from coming—or returning—to the United States following an executive order from President Donald Trump, which temporarily prohibits some immigrants and refugees from entering the country. In response, numerous labs in Europe have offered to host waylaid researchers. Today (February 1), the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) launched a website to help would-be hosts connect with stranded scientists.

“Everyone agrees we must do something,” Maria Leptin, EMBO’s director, told The Scientist. “It’s a feeling a solidarity with people who are stranded and with our colleagues in the U.S.”

Leptin was the first to join EMBO’s “Science Solidarity” list, offering to host stranded researchers in her own lab, based at the University of Cologne. Within an hour, scientists from Canada, Spain, the U.K., France, Switzerland, Germany, and Austria joined as sites willing to host travelers unable to enter the U.S.

Magnus Nordborg, a population geneticist at the Gregor Mendel Institute of Molecular Plant Biology, and Jürgen Kleine-Vehn, who studies plant growth at the University of Nature Resources and Life Sciences, both in Vienna, were among the first to make personal offers of lab space, via Twitter. (The hashtag #scienceshelters has emerged to spread the word.)

“I fundamentally believe that your fate should not be determined by where you were born,” Nordborg wrote in an email to The Scientist. “Although it is difficult to eliminate this injustice, it is important to recognize that we ought to try.”

“The main issue, of course, is it all depends on whether the scientists in need have their own funding,” Kleine-Vehn told The Scientist. Accommodating a visiting scientist’s lab needs temporarily shouldn’t be too much of a problem, he said, but living costs could be an issue, unless institutions have guest housing.

Host labs will have to work out the financial and legal details with any visiting scientists, Leptin said, but EMBO has an open ear for researchers in need of assistance. There haven’t been any takers yet, she noted, given how recently the initiative began.

Leptin lamented Trump’s executive order, saying that it hurts both thwarted immigrants and the US labs where they were headed. “It’s outrageous. It’s illegal. It’s morally and ethically unacceptable,” she said. “Science will suffer.”

Nordborg said he was stranded for months in Europe following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, while he was an assistant professor at the University of Southern California (his partner, meanwhile, was pregnant and in the U.S.). Colleagues covered his teaching duties while Nordborg stayed with relatives abroad. “History is full of examples of scientists who found refuge under worse circumstances . . . and it seemed obvious that we can and should do something,” he wrote today. “Who knows how long this madness will last? If we can rescue even a single scientific career this way, it will have been worth it!”

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