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Trump travel ban disrupts Photonics West conference programme

On 31 January, leaders of SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, wrote a letter to United States President Donald Trump addressing the executive order issued at end the of January banning entry to visa holders whose country of origin is Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, or Yemen. 

Although currently suspended, the ban resulted in several scientists - including conference speakers - not being able to attend Photonics West, one of the largest events for photonics technology that took place in San Francisco between 31 January and 2 February. The speakers were travelling from Canada and the United Kingdom.

'We were surprised and disappointed to hear that speakers and attendees for this conference were denied entry into the United States,' said SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs. 'These scientists had spent considerable time and money preparing to come and contribute to the scientific programme, where they have always been welcome. They had no reason to think this was not the case yet again this year.'

Those banned included photoacoustic imaging researcher Parsin Hajireza from the University of Alberta in Canada, and PhD student Sahar Mirzaei from the University of Southampton in the UK. Mirzaei is originally from Iran and moved to the UK to study for a master's degree in 2011 and is now in the final year of her PhD studying metamaterials. She had been due to present a talk on ways to detect and identify DNA on 1 February as part of the Opto conference. Hajireza was meant to be giving a talk on photoacoustic remote sensing microscopy on the 31 January in the Bios session. 

Mirzaei told Show Daily, Photonics West's magazine, that she was due to fly from London Heathrow airport on 28 January with British Airways. She was travelling on a business visa, but was stopped from boarding the plane after handing over her Iranian passport. She did not receive a refund from British Airways and also lost money on her hotel. 'That's a shame, as I was preparing for months for the conference and visa,' she said.  

SPIE's Eugene Arthurs noted that the benefits of international scientific conferences to the economy and to society as a whole are well established. 'As a scientific society, a core element of our mission is to provide forums where researchers can share advances that benefit people everywhere,' he said. 'At this conference specifically, a major focus is on technology and applications in biomedical imaging that help improve healthcare around the world.'

Scientific collaboration is core to technological advancements that enhance lives around the world in many ways, and the brilliant minds behind these advancements know no border or country of origin, the letter to the President said. 'It is in our nation’s best interest to ensure that these types of interactions continue to happen within the United States,' said SPIE government affairs director Jennifer Douris. 'SPIE is concerned that the executive order as currently written will discourage the broader scientific community from travel to the United States.'

In its letter, SPIE offered the society’s assistance in working with the administration to develop policies that provide the necessary security checks at U.S. borders without inhibiting international scientific collaboration.

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