I think it’s fair to say that in the last week, there’s been quite a shift in the scientific community, or at least certain parts thereof, particularly in the United States. Yesterday’s Executive Orders restricting immigration, though temporarily stayed as of this writing, have rightly caused consternation among many. In research circles, this has meant difficulties for students, faculty, and staff who were travelling overseas, and restrictions on nationals of seven countries from entering the US. The growing anger within the US at this action has resulted in several scientists, many of whom I respect greatly, suggesting that professional scientific societies move their conferences and meetings to venues outside the US, or for non-US researchers to boycott meetings in the US. While these suggestions come from good intentions, it’s rather flawed and, if I might say, a tad hypocritical.
Regardless of where a meeting is held, there will be scientists who cannot or will not, for immigration reasons or reasons of conscience, attend. Hold meetings outside the US could mean some US-based researchers who are not US citizens might not feel safe or comfortable going, for fear of being denied re-entry upon their return. Hold it in the US, and scientists from those seven nations could be unable to attend. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. But this is hardly something new.
I have a list of just under 80 countries where I will not travel, for work or pleasure. Places where being LGBTQ is illegal. Unlike nationality, though, an immigration officer can’t look at me or my paperwork and decide whether I’m queer or not. But the fact remains that, regardless of whether its enforced or not, it’s illegal for me to be me in a sizeable chunk of the world. So if your conference is in Indonesia, Kenya, or Barbados, it’s a non-starter: I’m not going.
Last summer, I wrote about how the Animal Behaviour Society passed a resolution to not hold meetings in North Carolina in response to that state’s anti-trans “bathroom bill”, but at the same time the world’s biggest marine science conference, the IMCC, announced that it’s 2018 meeting would be in Malaysia *, which is on that list of 80 or so countries. Yet where was the concern? The showing of solidarity with scientists who would be affected by holding a scientific conference in such a location?
Some have argued that since these laws aren’t (apparently) enforced, or often aren’t (apparently) applied to foreigners that it would be ok for queer folk to go to conferences in some of these places. F&$# off. Unless you’ve ever had to hide who you were for fear of detention or physical & mental harm – often for years or decades – you have no idea how idiotic that sounds, and how unhealthy it is. Everyone makes their own decisions affecting their personal safety and based on their personal values, and I’ve made mine.
Rather than relocate meetings, societies need to ensure that all of their members can participate. Why, for example, is it still so difficult to allow members to participate by video-conference? It’s 2017 for goodness sake.
No matter where scientific societies hold their meetings, there will be scientists who will not or cannot attend. The sooner we recognize this, the sooner we can work towards a more equitable culture, in science and beyond.
*The folks at IMCC have engaged on this issue, indeed far more than any other conference I’ve heard from, but the fact remains: being gay is illegal in Malaysia.