Free movement of science

Diversity is an important part of what makes research so much fun. Photo via Anita

Trying to stay politically neutral

By and large we try to stay out of politics here at FLG. This past year has been particularly difficult in light of the shifting geopolitical climate. That isn’t to say that we don’t enjoy a good hearty debate on certain topics, particularly when members of our team have opposing views. To the contrary, we love it. It helps show how easy it is to make assumptions or, worse yet, say something you had no idea someone would find deeply offensive.

For the kinds of stories we tend to cover, we try to keep politics and personal biases out of it as much as we can and focus on the science. This isn’t always easy, but as our audience continues to grow we know that people come to us for our slightly odd look at the world of genomics, not hard hitting social commentary. That being said, every now and again we feel certain issues deserve some attention. Last time we got ‘serious’ was on the issue of racial bias in genomics. Today we’re talking about immigration.

Why The Scientific Community Is Special

Scientific research is often linked to political agendas. I don’t think that there are many who can argue against that. Those at the top of the ladder probably feel that side of things a lot more than the rest of us. However, at its best, the research community represents a utopia of sorts where borders become irrelevant and a common language rules as well as a passion to find answers. That may sound idealistic and naïve, so I’ll illustrate with a few examples. I had the great fortune to carry out my research at University College London, here in the UK. As with several universities around the world, it has a very cosmopolitan mix of people. That was a big factor in creating such an open learning, and researching, environment. People bond over mutual research interests. Often having a completely different perspective or thought process to collaborate with can yield better results.

More like this: Genomics is failing on diversity

Diversity is an important part of what makes research so much fun. Outside of UCL, this is also something that became abundantly clear when we would head over to international conferences. I would meet people from all corners of the world, and be able to jump into a conversation about our research straight away. Those exchanges and sharing of ideas were fantastic. I remember sitting down at a café, furiously scribbling down notes on a napkin to bring back to the lab with me.

More recently, here at Front Line Genomics, it’s something I feel and see all the time. Genomics is an incredibly internationally collaborative field. From our position here on the media side of things, we get to talk and meet with people from all over the world. Often they describe facing similar challenges, or trying to reach similar goals in their work. Being able to connect people either directly, or by them meeting at our events, has been a fulfilling experience.

More to the point, having an open and cooperative international genomic community is essential to what we want to see happen. Our mission is to deliver the benefits of genomics to patients faster. I never thought we would need to alter that, but perhaps it should read: to deliver the benefits of genomics to all patients faster.

Troubling Times

And so, to President Trump’s immigration policy. This great article on Genomeweb perfectly captures the human aspect of what’s going on within the research community. This article from Science explains some of the ramifications. You can argue that any boycott of the USA for meetings, or organisations missing out on the best talent because they can’t or don’t want to live in the US, will be damaging to the field of genomics. It would certainly be damaging to US genomics, but any void left behind would quickly be filled elsewhere. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it very well could be, but it would certainly be sad to see. The majority of the FLG audience tends to be based in the US. Many of them are immigrants; many of them are US citizens; all of them work tirelessly to improve genomics on a local scale and a global scale. This isn’t unique to the US by any means, but it would be such a shame to have so many people feeling disillusioned by their own government.

There are plenty of people that still can’t fathom how or why anyone voted for Trump. I am not one of them. Regardless of whether or not I agree with his proposed policies, his election should not have come as quite as big a shock as many found it. The government exists to serve the people, and President Trump is the elected head of the US government. I can’t think of anything more arrogant than to tell that many people that they are wrong. What I cannot stay silent about is what we are seeing now. These kinds of proposed restrictions set a very dangerous precedent. Anything that threatens an open, cohesive, free scientific community should be seen as negative and as obstructing progress. In our case, it will almost certainly slow down delivery of the benefits of genomics to patients.

Photo via m01229 (not text)

Not so long ago, the following words meant quite a lot:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

It’s that attitude that helped establish the US as a country of innovation and collaboration. Look around your office or your lab. How many 1st, 2nd, 3rd generation immigrants are there? I’m willing to bet there are quite a few. 200 of the companies on the Fortune 500 list were founded by immigrants or their children. Granted, not all of those are from countries that Trump is imposing his policy on. I’ll resist going into reasons why I believe the ban isn’t an effective method for its intended goal. I’ll leave this blog post by urging you all to remain intelligent, and to do what you can to avoid this situation impacting on our freedom to create and share knowledge with each other.

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