A hot topic in the press right now is President Trump’s immigration ban. In January, President Trump signed an executive order barring immigrants from seven primarily-Muslim countries, and while the federal court put a hold on the original order, a new version temporarily (for 90 days) bans immigration and travel from six Muslim-majority countries as opposed to the original seven. The ban is controversial for many reasons, but one of the less explicit side effects is the disastrous consequences it could have on biotechnology.
The field of science, and biotechnology in particularly, is profoundly global in scope. According to a 2014 study, 52% of the 69,000 biomedical researchers working in the United States are foreign-born. Biotechnology relies upon global collaboration for the sharing of ideas and research, and the advancement of scientific discoveries. Without it, the industry could experience major setbacks. That is why 166 biotechnology leaders, from CEOs of biopharmaceutical companies to life science venture capitalists, came together in February to sign a letter addressed to President Trump denouncing his travel ban. Their reason for the letter, they explained, was to “express our deep concern and opposition to the executive order.”
Although the travel ban is only temporary, there is fear that President Trump’s rhetoric against foreigners could have long-term consequences expanding far beyond its 90-day reach. The ban and rhetoric surrounding it has created a climate of fear and uncertainty among foreigners who worry about the Trump administration’s future plans for immigrants. As the biotech signatories explain in their letter, they fear stigmatization and discrimination based on their religion or where they’re from, and they fear deportation and being cut off from their family abroad.
In general, the travel ban discourages foreign scientists from coming to the United States to pursue their studies, and it threatens collaborative research projects between the U.S. and foreign countries. More specifically, the negative results of the ban are already starting to play out in academia; Dartmouth College’s master’s in engineering program experiences a 30 percent decline in applications, while applications to Vanderbilt University’s engineering program have dropped off by 18 percent.
It remains to be seen what the long-term consequences of the travel ban and President Trump’s anti-immigration stance will be and how biotechnology corporations will respond, but biotechnology leaders have reason for concern. According to Steven Holtzman, the CEO of hearing disorder biotech company Decibel Therapeutics, whose mother was a Cuban immigrant, “I don’t know if my story is possible in Trump’s America.”
Even if President Trump’s policies fail to reflect it, America is a nation of immigrants, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the field of science. Biotechnology cannot thrive and prosper without its global influence.