Xenophobia Run Amok at the National Institutes of Health

April 5, 2019 | 9:16 am
Photo: GaryAlvis/iStock
Kathleen Rest
Former Executive Director

If you’re a scientist, a researcher, a physician, a graduate student, or even a patient visiting our National Institutes of Health (NIH), be sure to bring proof of citizenship with you and be ready to answer questions about your nationality. Otherwise you may be turned away. Even if you’re an international member of our prestigious National Academy of Medicine, or maybe a patient enrolled in a clinical trial.

While a Homeland Security Presidential Directive has been in place since 2004 (in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks), the Washington Post reports that something has changed at our nation’s medical research agency. In their words, “NIH—a research institution built on collaboration—is apparently following the same protocol used by federal security agencies that deal with highly sensitive or classified information and require top secret security clearance for their employees.”

This practice has unnerved researchers both inside and outside the agency. And with good reason.

Xenophobia run amok

Science at the NIH and elsewhere is a global effort. It’s a collaborative enterprise that thrives on diversity and has nothing to do with citizenship. But the NIH now finds itself caught (and caught up) in the anti-immigrant fervor of the Trump administration. As we’ve noted earlier, this is not good for science, scientists, and scientific progress.

What’s happening at NIH is not good for patients and their visitors to the campus. It is not good for ensuring a future pool of talented NIH researchers. And it is certainly not good for public health and for people who rely on the world-class science and research at NIH—be they providers or recipients of health care. It’s just another misguided effort that drags immigration policies into science. (Readers may also recall that earlier in the year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decided to end research grants to scientists who are not US citizens and permanent residents, nor support work in government labs if done by foreign nationals.)

Good science does not depend on passports, nationality, or citizenship

Who knows where the next scientific breakthrough, innovation, or great idea will come from? Maybe from some foreign-born researcher toiling over a dataset or experimental results in one of our national labs. Maybe from the Iranian graduate student who was turned away from NIH when he arrived for a job interview—with an invited presentation.

What are the consequences if the US no longer welcomes scientists from other nations to our laboratories—or subjects them to undue scrutiny and interrogation? We all lose. Good science does not depend on passports, nationality, or citizenship.

Speak out

What’s happening at NIH is wrong—and should set off alarm bells in the scientific, medical, and public health communities. The health and well-being of our nation will suffer when we close our eyes and doors to working with colleagues from other nations.

Collaboration and openness are fundamental to scientific progress; the xenophobic policies of this administration run counter to our ambitions and our values. Let’s replace signs at our national institutes and laboratories that ask for proof of citizenship with signs that say “We welcome you, and your talent and ideas. We do science here, not politics.”

Let’s raise our collective voices to make this happen.