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Society for Social Studies of Science

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4S President’s message – February 2017


Some further reflections on recent political developments in the US

Together with many of our sister societies, particularly those that are international but based in the United States, 4S Council has been engaged over these past weeks in considering the implications of the Executive Order imposing a 90-day ban on entry into the United States by citizens of Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, along with a stay on the admission of refugees.  These orders are clearly indefensible, and their constitutionality under US law (which prohibits discrimination based on religion or country of origin) is now facing significant challenge in the courts.  It is my hope that the rule of US constitutional law in this case will prevail and these presidential bans will be overturned.  But in the meantime this situation has opened up practical, political and moral questions for societies like 4S planning their 2017 annual meetings in the United States.

Following the preliminary statement that we have issued, 4S Council is continuing to discuss the actions that we should take as a society.  In response to our invitation to members we’ve received a number of suggestions, particularly with respect to our annual meeting.  We’ll be considering those carefully and will report back more fully after our March Council meeting, but briefly the two primary suggestions are to move the conference out of the US, or to make available additional capacity for virtual participation. With respect to the first, regretfully, moving the conference to another location is not an option, both because of our binding contractual obligation to the conference venue in Boston and the great difficulty of finding an alternate location for a conference of our size in a short timeframe. With respect to the second, while in the past we’ve discouraged virtual paper presentations in order to ensure that participants come together in person, we will certainly consider a range of possibilities for remote participation at this year’s conference.

As you are no doubt aware, there have been calls on the part of both groups and individuals for a boycott of US conferences in solidarity with those affected by the travel ban.  A central question for me is what those who are most directly affected are asking us to do. With that in mind, I’ve written in my capacity as 4S President to the Council on American Islamic Relations, asking for their recommendations regarding a boycott.  (I’m still waiting to hear back, as CAIR is currently preoccupied with their own lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of President’s Trump’s “Muslim ban”.)  A further consideration is that non-US citizens working in the US who are threatened by the ban are particularly dependent on US-based conferences, given that leaving the country might preclude their return.  With that said, this is a complicated issue and there are compelling arguments both for and against a boycott.

In the remainder of this (rather long!) message, I’d like to share some more personal reflections on the situation that we face, with the understanding that these thoughts are mine and not the official position of 4S Council. My own response to the developments in the US since the election of Donald Trump (albeit by a minority of the US electorate) are informed by my status as a US citizen and as an ex-patriate, dividing my home between Canada and the UK. As a US citizen, my allegiance is to the powerful tradition of dissent and resistance with which I’ve identified since my coming of age as a first year undergraduate at UC Berkeley in 1968. That community of resistance has clearly been mobilized and strengthened in the past days.  As an ex-patriate, I have the luxury of witnessing US developments with some degree of distance, albeit also recognizing their troubling resonance with populist sentiment emerging across the UK and Europe.  And as the recent tragic attack on a mosque in Québec City demonstrates, even Canada is not immune to race-based violence.

I’m thinking about this question myself most immediately in relation to the meeting of the Association of American Geographers, scheduled for April in the very same Boston venue that we’ll be meeting in later this year. (For a thoughtful reflection on the question with respect to this particular conference, but also more generally, see this post by Phil Steinberg, editor of the journal Political Geography.)  As part of a session titled ‘Experiments in Force: Science and the Apparatus of Warfare,’ my co-panelists and I have been discussing various positions that those of us based both outside and within the US might take. In my current leaning towards attending the conference, a key consideration is whether the best way to demonstrate the offensiveness of the Trump administration is through a boycott of scientific conferences (which is unlikely to trouble Trump who has already made clear his anti-science sentiments).  Or does it make more sense to take the occasion of the conference as an opportunity to join forces with the efforts of resistance movements within the US?  The latter would mean taking advantage of my visit to Boston to join in whatever demonstrations are ongoing at the time. (Here it’s also worth noting that Massachusetts has been one of the first states to bring legal action against the ban.)  Attending the AAG would clearly need as well to be accompanied by concerted attention to the relevance of our discussion for those affected by US policy, both past and present. 

While continuing to think about these questions, I would like to propose some steps that 4S might take on the assumption that we do go forward with our meeting in Boston as planned.  These include as a preliminary list:

Committing to make the acts of discrimination and exclusion that characterize the current US Executive policy a focus of our discussions;
Addressing the intersections between our work in STS and relevant political developments not only in the US, but around the world – the presidential plenary titled ‘Interrogating the Threat’ will be one forum in which this will happen;
Dedicating ourselves to bringing the voice of affected scholars into our discussions, in our citations and by enabling alternate modes of participation; and finally,
Encouraging attendees who are concerned to join whatever protests are in progress at the time of our meeting.

In the final analysis, it’s up to each of us to find our own positions.  Over the coming months 4S Council will continue to monitor developments and to discuss the implications for this year’s meeting.  As for future conferences, three out of our four conference venues for the coming years will be outside of the US (in Sydney, Australia in 2018, Europe (with EASST) in 2020, and in Toronto, Canada in 2021).  The one exception to this is New Orleans in 2019, and we’ll consider our commitment there carefully.  Whatever the outcome of our deliberations regarding 4S 2017, as a society or as individuals, I hope that many of us will find ways of standing up against xenophobia and working for social justice in this deeply troubling moment.

wishing safe passages for all,