Science shouldn’t stop at the border

Image: Shutterstock/1000 Words

I’m a physicist and a science communicator, and I’ve had a lot of unique experiences in my life as a result of those passions. But I never expected to be detained at UK border control for three hours, and eventually denied entry and sent back to Ireland, just for doing science communication.

You see, although I have lived and worked in Ireland for the past six years, I have an American passport and no special privileges in any other part of Europe. And I have been all over Europe as part of my job in Ireland: to attend research conferences, be hosted as a visiting researcher in another lab, speak on panels, and give public lectures and science comedy performances as to engage the public with science. I came to Europe as a postdoctoral researcher and am now a lecturer at NUI Galway, running my own research lab and a plethora of public engagement events such as Bright Club and Soapbox Science in Ireland.

But when I showed up in Cardiff to do a science comedy show as part of a festival, I was stopped at the border. I was not going to be paid for my performance, and had paid for my own travel out of pocket. However the border agents considered the festival ticket and parking pass that I had received (for an event I was to speak at) as a form of payment in kind. This is equivalent to saying that invited speakers at a conference are paid if their conference registration is covered, and nothing I (or the festival organisers who were phoned) could say convinced them otherwise. Throughout this process I was left alone for long stretches, told not to use my phone, and all my travel documents (from both the US and Ireland) were taken off me. It’s a process that is designed to make you feel powerless, and it works. Finally I was fingerprinted and photographed, served with refusal paperwork, and sent back to Ireland. There is now a black mark in my passport indicating I was refused entry to the UK.

This is especially ironic given my next planned trip to the UK will be to collect the IOP’s Mary Somerville Prize – a significant public engagement award that I am honoured to receive for my efforts to communicate science to the public. And yet apparently I am not allowed to do public engagement activities, not just for free but at my own expense, in the UK.

Mobility is a critical issue for physicists. We may need to travel for a conference, to visit collaborators, or even to move abroad to start a new career stage. Recent political developments such as Brexit and the travel ban in the US have been rightly criticized by researchers around the world for failing to account for how necessary the free movement of people is to science today. Early-career researchers who can’t obtain travel visas easily are at a heavy career disadvantage. This is why mobility was a core issue of the recent March for Science.

To me, this is also indicative of how toxic our conversations about immigration in general have become. The border patrol officers I dealt with were as kind as they could be to me, but they were tasked with enforcing a system where all immigration is considered negative. Never mind that immigrants are often young, hard-working, and full of ambition. Never mind that immigrants drive social change, spark innovation, bring new perspectives, and in fact draw less on social safety nets than citizens do (both because of their demographics and often because they aren’t allowed to). Never mind that in science, many researchers move internationally, often multiple times, and in fact a huge number of Nobel Laureates are immigrants themselves. The narrative we hear about immigration often seems to have a Schrödinger’s Cat quality to it: immigrants as lazy welfare cheats, who are also stealing our jobs.

We should respect just how much immigrants contribute, scientifically and otherwise, to the countries they have chosen to call home. I hate that this disrespect starts at a very early stage: the recent story of the Afghan girls’ robotics team who were initially denied entry to the US for a robotics competition is heartbreaking. I was glad to see the decision reversed, as setbacks to girls in science and engineering are plentiful enough already.

I’m an immigrant, a physicist, and a science communicator, and I’m working hard to make the world a better place. Ireland has been welcoming, for me at least, so I’m doing a lot of that work here. But if other countries want talented young people to come enrich their societies, they should actually make that possible. Otherwise we’ll go somewhere else.

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Jessamyn Fairfield

Jessamyn Fairfield

Dr Jessamyn Fairfield is a lecturer in the School of Physics in NUI Galway, whose research focuses on neuromorphic nanoelectronics. She is the director and compere of Bright Club in Ireland, the co-organiser of Soapbox Science Galway, and an established improviser and comedian. She regularly appears on the radio to discuss science news, has given public lectures and talks across Europe and the US, and is the 2017 recipient of the IOP Mary Somerville Medal and Prize.
Jessamyn Fairfield

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3 thoughts on “Science shouldn’t stop at the border

  1. Knowledge is only useful if it is shared internationally. Innaine nationalism will lead to a new dark ages!

  2. I particularly liked this sentence from the wrap-up paragraph: “But if other countries want talented young people to come enrich their societies, they should actually make that possible. ” I’d like to add that those same countries probably want to give their *own* talented young people good chances such as studying abroad – but that’s something that can’t happen without reciprocity. It’s a shame that the UK is so determined to have its cake and eat it.

    I’m really sorry to hear about your experiences at the UK border, and I apologise on behalf of the country I’m now a naturalised citizen of. I myself had similar experiences in the UK in the past, attempting to enter in good faith yet deported – and this was over a decade ago, when the political attitude toward immigration was (slightly) calmer. I can only imagine how awful it might have felt.

  3. You appear to not have addressed the elephant in the room here: the natural reading of what you have written re. payment in-kind is that you were trying to enter the UK for work-related reasons on a tourist visa. As important as you claim your work is to “making the world a better place”, that does not make you immune to the immigration laws we all have to abide by.

    As a European, I can assure you that when I apply for an ESTA for my US conference travel I am obliged to provide full information in advance of the nature of my visit: the conference I am attending, proof of attendance, full details and confirmation of my accommodation and return travel plans. All of these are inspected at the border by US Homeland Security, where my photograph and fingerprints are also taken. This my have seemed unusual and invasive to you, but I can assure you that it’s absolutely routine for visitors to your country of birth.

    Instead of addressing the simple issue that you appear to have – unintentionally and with no malice – messed up by attempting to enter the UK on an unsuitable visa, you have used what is supposed to be a platform for the promotion of physics to instead complain about your personal circumstances and promote your own political views on immigration. While I of course agree that the international mobility of talented people is key to making the world a better place, and in particular to continuing the development of physics, I do not feel that this is an appropriate platform on which to promote views that would be better suited to a personal blog.

    Similarly, I would point out that immigration officers’ diligence in scrutinising those who are entering their country does not represent the Machiavellian system you have attempted to portray: while most immigrants to a given are well-meaning people who contribute richly to the countries they visit, a unfortunate fact of reality is that some people do cause harm and there is a need for basic security and border enforcement.

    I normally do not go out of my way to leave a critical comment like this, and I sincerely apologise if I’m coming across as rude (something that is absolutely not my intention), but I am becoming quite dismayed that this is the level of material that my IOP membership fees are being used to support. Having seen concerning trends regarding the manner in which the Institute is being used of late to promote pet causes, I am edging towards cancelled my relatively long-term membership when is it next up for renewal.

    Less politics, more physics – please, for the sake of the Institute and the field.

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