Evelyn Katingi and Tsehay Gashaw of the International Livestock Research Institute working on their laptops at a conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo: ILRI\Zerihun Sewunet

American Prosperity Depends on International Science: Our Border Policy Should Reflect That

Tyeen Taylor, , UCS | June 26, 2017, 1:54 pm EDT
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At first, the new ‘laptop ban’ sounded like a minor nuisance. This is a part of a recent executive order prohibiting large electronics as carry-on items on flights to the U.S. from eight countries in northern Africa and the Middle East. Only when I saw a Facebook outburst from my American colleague in Africa did it become clear how even a small encumbrance like this can cast a devastating blow to science.

This travel restriction is one of several that could fast cripple scientific and technological progress in the US. That is bad for the US economy and the livelihood of its citizens. Here’s why.

Christine is a climate change scientist working in Kenya. She posted to Facebook:

“This latest [Executive Order] just eliminated four out of seven of my major routes home from Nairobi. As a professional scientist, I cannot travel without my laptop. I see devastating impacts on collaborations with professionals from the targeted countries, and those who live in Africa and Asia and use these airports to connect to the U.K. and the U.S.”

Sure, technically she could check her laptop, but would you abandon yours to the potential of being rained on, crushed, stolen, or “examined” by security agents, risking the leakage of personal data and the loss of your primary tool? Obstacles like this, combined with sweeping immigration bans, will steadily reduce our scientific connectivity to the world.

The position of the US as a frontrunner in science is sustained by engagement with the international scientific community. We need foreign partnerships because societies across the globe face a suite of common challenges. Many are interconnected by economies of trade, others by planetary physics. And many of these challenges require science-based solutions that are not resolvable in national isolation. Three examples are climate change, emerging technologies, and sustainable food production.

Climate change

Climate change is a global phenomenon, but the responses of some regions will have greater impacts on future climate than others. For example, tropical forest biology is a driver of atmospheric circulation. The US Department of Energy funds US scientists to travel abroad for tropical research, because biological responses to climate change there have the potential to alter weather, and thereby energy security, in the US.

We need to work with scientists around the world to learn about climate migration and displacement from sea level rise and other climate impacts. Photo: Jason Evans/Georgia Sea Grant

The human response to climate change is another shared problem. The US is far from immune to population displacement by future sea level rise. We would be smart to work with social scientists abroad to learn how climate migrations are being managed elsewhere.

But we cannot simply travel abroad and study at will. Doing my dissertation work in Brazil, I learned that international partnerships are carefully cultivated through fair, reciprocal exchange. If we hassle our foreign partners to hand over their social media passwords upon entry to the US, how welcoming will they be to us?

Emerging technologies

China and India are now two of the world’s leaders in investment in renewable energy. Saudi Arabia and Morocco are funding ambitions for large-scale solar. Each country will be innovating to overcome the significant challenges of production, storage, and distribution that an energy market dominated by renewables faces. The latter two countries have air hubs on the laptop ban list.

As Africa’s tech workforce grows in numbers and ability, other useful technologies are emerging such as mobile-phone banking, and nimble cloud-computing services. These technologies are likely to become imports to the US, just as the crisis-mapping software Ushahidi, originating in Kenya, has been adopted for disaster relief coordination and elections monitoring around the world. It will be difficult to import Africa’s experts to develop similar technologies here if we eliminate skilled worker visas.

Sustainable food

As we deal with drought here in the US, we have a lot we can learn from scientists abroad. Photo: NASA JPL.

Much of our imported food production depends on fossil water—water in aquifers that will not be replenished in our lifetimes. That includes sources in Mexico, our dominant international supplier. Determining the longevity of deep reservoirs is a hard scientific problem. Through international research collaborations, we can aid in predicting the sustainability of water sources on which our food supplies depend, and help develop appropriate farming practices. We can again look to Africa for expertise, where indigenous superfoods are gaining popularity as vegetables that are more nutritious and require less water than our staple European brassicas.

Here again, US scientists may be reluctant to cross the border for collaborative research with Latin American suppliers if we are subject to unlimited laptop and cellphone searches upon re-entry. And Mexican industries may not welcome our scientists if our leaders continue to paint the country in an unfavorable light.

International collaboration promotes science and peace

Just as face-to-face communication with international colleagues fosters trust and begets lasting collaborations, fair and open international exchange cultivates mutual understanding and respect between countries. Our border policies must carefully balance the tradeoffs between restriction and openness. Where possible, we should seek synergies. By facilitating collaboration with other countries on shared problems, we can encourage both peace and expedient solutions.

What can you do to help? Share this post, and present the central concept to your senators and representatives. Share the insight that our country’s economic prosperity and peace depend on international scientific exchange.

I am grateful to my international scientific colleagues for valuable comments on this essay: Dr. Christine Lamanna (American in Kenya) in Kenya; Dr. Bernardo Flores (Brazilian); Dr. Alberto Burquez (Mexican); and Dr. Karen Taylor (American).

 

Dr. Tyeen Taylor studies the shifting ecology of tropical forests amid the onset of rapid climate warming. He avidly shares the joy and practicality of scientific knowledge with non-scientists through films, photography, writing, and public events. Public Facebook page: /TyeenCTscience. Twitter: @TyeenTaylor. YouTube: Tyeen Taylor. Website: www.ttphilos.org

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

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