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Despite fears, autism researchers arrive in U.S. for global conference

by  /  10 May 2017
Coming to America: Hundreds of autism researchers plan to cross the U.S. border this week, despite concerns about immigration policies.

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This article is more than five years old. Autism research - and science in general - is constantly evolving, so older articles may contain information or theories that have been reevaluated since their original publication date.

More than 700 scientists from outside the United States plan to attend the International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) in San Francisco, California, tomorrow — a steep increase from the 484 who attended the same meeting last year.

The trend is surprising given that, according to conference organizers, some international researchers were ready to boycott the meeting three months ago.

Many of these scientists say they decided to brave the risk of being detained at the border for a chance to meet and talk with their peers.

“Fear, in any form or degree, is not conducive to the growth and dissemination of science,” says Koyeli Sengupta, director of Autism Intervention Services at the Ummeed Child Development Center in Mumbai, India.

On 27 January, President Donald Trump signed an executive order blocking citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S., even if they already held a visa. A federal court blocked two versions of this executive order.

Still, the move has had a chilling effect on travel to the U.S. By one estimate, the country could see 4.3 million fewer international visitors in 2017 than in 2016.

Some autism researchers expressed concern over traveling to the U.S. after the first ban was implemented, according to Geraldine Dawson, president of the International Society for Autism Research (INSAR), which organizes IMFAR. “I’m very disappointed and concerned about that,” Dawson says. “I think we need to show our unity and our commitment to having an open and collaborative society by actually coming to the meeting.”

Global conversation:

Not all researchers share that sentiment. Darren Hedley initially planned to attend the meeting but now says he plans to boycott all conferences in the U.S. “It seemed like scientists and researchers from certain countries would be unable to enter the U.S.; I felt it was important to stand in solidarity,” says Hedley, a research fellow from La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.

Sengupta says she also considered skipping the meeting. But both INSAR’s statement denouncing Trump’s executive order and San Francisco’s status as a ‘sanctuary city’ for immigrants convinced her to attend.

San Francisco’s welcoming nature wasn’t enough to convince others, however. Christoph Licht, a German and soon-to-be Canadian citizen, declined a prestigious opportunity as an invited speaker at the Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting in San Francisco this week. He says he wanted to take a stand against policies that seem disturbingly reminiscent of Nazi Germany. “The response is meant as a token of opposition,” says Licht, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto. “There is a specific responsibility that I’m aware of as an ambassador of my country.”

Sengupta also sees herself as more than just a casual visitor. “IMFAR is an amazing meeting of minds, and people like me attend not just as individuals, but as representatives of our countries,” she says. She got her U.S. visa before Trump took office, and says she was happy to hear that her colleagues have had no trouble obtaining visas to attend the meeting. “It reinforces my belief that the U.S. of A is, essentially, a fair country,” she says.

Still, she says, for the first time she is wary about coming back to the U.S.

Closed borders:

Others who made the difficult choice to attend the meeting declined to comment, saying they feared any open criticism about U.S. immigration policy could hurt their ability to cross the border. IMFAR provided researchers with letters of invitation that they can show at the border to validate their trip.

Canadians have been turned away at the U.S. border over the past couple of months for seemingly political reasons. The Girl Guides of Canada (the Canadian equivalent of the Girl Scouts) and the school boards of several cities, including Toronto — the largest in the country — have decided not to book trips to the U.S. for fear that some children may be denied entry.

Reports of overt racism in the U.S. nearly dissuaded Mayada Elsabbagh of McGill University in Montreal from coming to the meeting. “It just ends up creating a climate of legitimizing racism and hatred and bringing that to the forefront of the conversation,” says Elsabbagh, assistant professor of psychiatry. Elsabbagh was born in Palestine and says she is impressed by scientists who have pushed back against the rhetoric. “Obviously, the scientific community in the United States has been extremely vocal.”

IMFAR has been working to expand its international reach for several years, including providing travel awards to researchers from low- and middle-resource countries. But there was no policy change this year that explains the rise in international attendees, says Julia Tomkins, a press officer for IMFAR.

Attending international meetings outside the U.S. could be difficult for researchers working in the U.S. on visas. Next year’s IMFAR is scheduled to be held in the Dutch city of Rotterdam.

TAGS:   IMFAR 2017, policy