Resnick Institute

Op-Ed From the Director

Jonas Peters

A Call for Global Free Trade in Science

Winter 2017

Science is a global market, one where free trade in the form of hypotheses, results, conclusions, and their applications lifts our collective whole. American science and the technological engine it drives have long benefitted from this global market. But I worry that the recent rhetoric and actions due to foreign mistrust will have unintended consequences in this arena. American science is an industry of immigrants. Look no further than any typical research lab in our nation and you will see faces from every corner of the globe, working together to ferret out nature’s secrets and to solve society’s most vexing challenges. That six Nobel Laureates of 2016 were foreign born and are doing their research within the United States offers a timely reminder of this.

Since early in the 20th century people everywhere began to look to the United States as a place where freedom and the free exchange of ideas had no bounds, and nowhere did this migration have more impact than in the sciences. This remains true to this very day, where research labs in universities and national labs across our nation enjoy the intellectual contributions and hard work of aspiring scientists from places including India, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, Iran, Poland, Romania, Germany, France, England, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, South Africa, Kenya, and so many others. These aspiring scientists, often graduate students and postdoctoral scholars who devotedly labor away into the wee hours of the night, aren’t taking away anybody’s jobs or posing any threats. Instead, they are filling a noble gap in our ranks that we alone cannot fill; we simply don’t have enough young Americans enrolling in our graduate programs in science. These young folks from abroad set out to the US to study and train, often at great distances and far from their families, because we have embraced them, because we share the common tongue of science and logic, and because we choose to work alongside one another for the collective good. Science is openness. And science only works when we invite other scientists—including those of different races, classes, creeds, and genders with diverse perspectives—to look critically at our research, to help ensure that it withstands objective scrutiny. Science stalls when it is limited to a small number of like-minded voices. But it thrives in a global exchange market where everybody can and does win.

The presidential election’s rhetoric and the recent executive actions by our new president are rippling across the globe. While we can and should be worried about what closing our borders will mean to the desperate struggles of so many families risking everything for a better opportunity and a new home, let us also worry about the message our election has broadcast to the entire world of science, take note, and imagine the following. There is a young woman in China and a young man in Kenya that were each born 18 years ago. They both had lofty dreams and were on track to change the world for the better, and in four years time were going to travel to the United States to pursue their graduate research degrees. The girl was ultimately destined to devise a new way to generate fuel from the sun and water, a seemingly magical transformation called artificial photosynthesis. The boy was interested in the health sciences owing to the struggles he saw in his homeland, and was destined to find a new miracle drug that stops numerous advanced cancers cold in their tracks.

But recently they each heard talk of a United States that is no longer so open-minded to fact-based knowledge, and no longer so welcoming to foreigners like themselves, a place where hard working immigrants are seen as a threat and not a solution. As a result, their enthusiasm to risk so much to travel to our country has been dampened. They might try their luck elsewhere, fueling the technological engine of some other country in the West or the East. But what if these other countries are looking to the United States for example, as they so often do, and come to reflect our own narrow-minded rhetoric? In short, what if wealthy democratic countries become less welcoming to the influx of foreign talent that has always offered and delivered so much promise? Few nations have the culture and the resources to grow aspiring scientists into leaders that can realize their full scientific potentials. In this way, the United States has had a unique role to play in the post-WWII era. But, if we start to see the globe as a zero sum game, where for every winner there must also be a loser, and if this attitude permeates immigration policies relevant to the sciences, future discoveries that could have lifted us all will instead become opportunities lost. And lost not just for us, but for the entire world.

The scientific community in America needs to speak out now, loudly and with an uplifting rhetoric that ripples around the globe more loudly than the rhetoric of fear and retraction. We must work more tirelessly than ever to reinforce a global market in scientific free trade, and resist all rhetoric that runs counter to it. We must ask for and count on our scientific brothers and sisters around the planet, of every race, creed, color, and gender, to rally with us and prop us up. Our collective future depends on it.