Should we boycott American conferences?

In response to the recent travel bans imposed by Trump’s executive order, a common question I’ve seen academics grappling with is whether those outside the US who have the privilege of free travel should boycott American conferences. As one of the few Americans in my department in the UK, this is, of course, a rather awkward conversation to join. After all, boycotting travel to America isn’t possible for me, considering many of my friends and family members live there (although I do note my privilege in present circumstances that my passport allows me to visit freely). But what about my non-American peers? If they have the agency to decide whether they will attend American conferences, should they opt not to?

I’ll preface this argument by noting that I have been absolutely appalled by these recent executive orders (along with so much transpiring in America at the moment). I’ve had the pleasure of working with immigrants and refugees from all seven of the banned countries. They’ve enriched my life and my communities, and I am proud to know them. Like many others, I am angry and I want to be vocal in opposition to these horrible developments.

It’s that very same anger that fans the flames of protest against attending American conferences. But while I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment behind the desire to boycott travel to America, I personally feel that it is ultimately misdirected.

For many, protesting attendance at American conferences is meant to make a statement to the US government in solidarity with banned peers. Yet, it’s important to remember that the number of foreign visitors to the United States specifically for the purpose of conference attendance is minuscule compared to total yearly immigration. For citizens who have the privilege of visa waiver, the intent for visit is not even recorded. The problem with boycotting as a statement to the American government, thus, is that it will simply not be recorded. There will be no report that measures the impact of researchers refusing to travel.

But suppose there was? Let’s not pretend that the Trump administration would be anything less than overjoyed at a decrease in foreign scientists visiting the country.

Instead, lack of attendance risks damage to researchers themselves and the universities that sponsor academic conferences. The university loses revenue and reputation due to poor attendance. Members of the academic community lose the opportunity to read and reflect on the work of those who boycott. Researchers (both in attendance and in boycott) lose valuable dissemination of their work, damaging impact. PhD students lose the opportunity to make important connections for their future careers. In a worst case scenario, the advancement of entire fields of research might slow.

And what of those US-based academics banned from traveling outside America? For immigrants and refugees from the seven banned countries who already reside in America, this executive order has essentially stripped them of the ability to leave the country in fear they will not be allowed to return. By choosing to relocate all major conferences outside of the US in the future, we are essentially blacklisting these valued researchers from our scientific communities.

A second common argument for boycotting is from an economic perspective. Again, it’s important to consider who is losing revenue when we boycott conferences. The most obvious are universities and professional organisations when we no longer pay conference fees, spend money at campus cafeterias, or buy postcards from campus bookstores. Airline fees is another large expense, but we can get around this by flying with non-American companies, should we feel inclined. Hotels and restaurants can be chosen ethically by supporting corporations that work with integrity or local businesses, perhaps even those owned by the immigrants and refugees with whom we stand in solidarity. Boycotting also stands to punish the many sanctuary cities that are fighting the current administration with an outlook towards immigrant rights.

Beyond these notions, I argue that academics have a moral obligation to support our peers in America through our common value in the importance of knowledge. After all, what the Trump administration fears most is the dissemination of scientific fact and rational ideas. By choosing not to participate in academic conferences, we are supporting this cycle of ignorance and politics of cynicism. We are emboldening “alternative facts.” We are choosing to curb the advancement of science when we opt not to engage with our peers. This mindset is dangerous, particularly when the advancement of discriminatory policies is markedly the time in which dissemination of knowledge is most imperative.

Rather than boycotting scientific collaboration, how can we instead use our energies to lift up our peers who are unable to travel? What efforts can we make to ensure that, despite the inability to be physically present, their work and ideas can still be heard? How can we ensure that they have the opportunity to participate and absorb ideas in the absence of physical attendance? In what ways can we make their experiences more visible to American lawmakers and citizens in order to sway policy? How can we engage with the general public to spread knowledge and facts during our conference programming?

These are the areas in which academics have real agency to make tangible changes for our disenfranchised peers, our scientific communities, and the greater public good. By working to ensure that our peers who cannot travel can still contribute and participate, we can send a strong message in defiance of artificial (or in some cases, physical) walls. By engaging with the public, we step outside the fishbowl of academia to fight for the value of fact in communities who need that message most.

Ultimately the collective good of scientific advancement is too powerful and too important to blindly forego, especially in times as troubling as these. The free flow of ideas is, after all, a form of resistance and protest itself. What better act of defiance is there than to connect research communities under a collective reverence for facts? What stronger resistance can there be against the Trump administration than to stop these heinous acts from interfering with international collaboration and the spread of ideas? We can make a stronger statement by embracing our scientific communities and being outspoken, collectively, in our dissent.

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