Science With Borders


Dr Jessamyn Fairfield

Dr Jessamyn Fairfield is a lecturer in the School of Physics in NUI Galway director and compere of Bright Club in Ireland, the co-organiser of Soapbox Science Galway, and an established improviser and comedian.

Dr Fairfield writes:

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.

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

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 criticised 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.

Science shouldn’t stop at the border (Dr Jessamyn Fairfield, Institute of Physics blog)

Thanks Neil Curran

21 thoughts on “Science With Borders

  1. John

    The vast majority of immigrants heading to Europe are not scientists. And aside from Europe, where else would they go? The likes of South Korea, Singapore and Japan are not opening their doors, nor obviously is the US.

    Mass immigration like we see from Africa and the Middle East to Southern Europe is a drain on resources. There are housing and health care crises across Europe right now, how will taking in thousands of jobless immigrants help that?

    A true ‘borderless’ world would lead to complete chaos.

    1. Gorev Mahagut

      We all wear clothes that are manufactured by near-slaves in foreign countries working in conditions which would not be tolerated in Europe. Right now some farmer’s water is being poisoned to mine the raw materials for our smartphones. This is a borderless world. You’re just not allowed move through it if you’re poor.

      1. John

        You can. Tens of thousands of ‘poor’ arrive in Europe every month. Even more move through and around the Third World. Europe’s southern borders are at breaking point. Allowing more refugees in will not help Europe or the refugees.

        1. MoyestWithExcitement

          “Europe’s southern borders are at breaking point.”

          What is the official breaking point in terms of numbers of people? I’m just curious as to whether you’re working off facts or slogans and propaganda?

        2. Gorev Mahagut

          This is how the first world works: first you poo in your neighbour’s front room, then you act like a victim when he rings your doorbell.

  2. edalicious

    Just being devil’s avocado here for a sec, you weren’t travelling as a scientist though, were you? You were travelling as a comedian to do a comedy show at a festival.

      1. edalicious

        No, you’re absolutely correct and there’s a huge discussion to be had about that but this article appears to be about how limiting the movement of scientists is problematic. But she wasn’t being limited in her movement as a scientist, she was being limited in her movement as a performer. Two very different issues. One of the many hats I wear is a musician’s hat and if I wrote a bunch of songs about youth work and then went and performed them in a different country, I couldn’t say that I was there to do youth work, could I?

        1. Andyourpointiswhatexactly?

          Well you could, but you’d be wrong.
          Nevertheless, I agree with your point.

  3. Just Sayin

    Don’t those comedy science demos usually involve blowing things up?
    No wonder they didn’t let her in.

    But seriously visiting a country to do a comedy tour or a science lecture isn’t immigration, but maybe it requires a work permit.

  4. Clampers Outside!

    You should have offered to put a flower in the customs officials weapon or something. Solves everything.

    Peace out and love and honey from the bees an’ nice things for everyone, yay……………….

    Not that I’m excusing what may or may not have been an over zealous customs official – I don’t have the full story, only a gripe, in fairness. But an odd association is made in the gripe, in this…
    ” We should respect just how much immigrants contribute, scientifically and otherwise, to the countries they have chosen to call home. ” True.
    And that’d be Ireland you chose to call home… not the UK, a different country. If you lived in the UK for as long as you had here, I’m sure your travel would have been somewhat better.

    And the majority of immigrants when you count the total are not going around with physics degrees, or any degree, as most (2/3) are not educated beyond their countries equivalent to the A-Levels –

    To turn being stopped at a customs office into some sort of assault on the freedom of academics when the academic in question was going to a comedy festival… is a stretch…. a very very cringey one :)

    1. Rob_G


      I think this is more of a story about over-officious mandarins rather than an attack on science per se.

        1. MoyestWithExcitement

          She’s a white middle class man who thinks equality for minorities is akin to white genocide?

        2. realPolithicks

          “a product of victimhood culture”

          Clampers, you should move over here to the States. The country is drowning in angry white males like yourself complaining about everything and labeling everyone that disagrees with them.

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