Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 27  |  February 2004  |  Number 2
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Do You Feel Welcome in the United States?

by John Womersley
DZero co-spokesperson

I was asked this question—a rather personal and an unexpected one to a British citizen—last summer. The DZero experiment held a workshop at Beaune in France and we had invited a number of European physicists to participate, in order to help build some common sense of community. Many of my friends working at CERN seem to believe that while Fermilab may be a great place to do physics, surely, since 9/11, the atmosphere for foreigners has become very unwelcoming. As soon as Run II is finished, wouldn't you rather move back to Europe and work on the LHC?

John Womersley - Photo by Reidar Hahn
I hope the answer isn't so obvious. When I came to Fermilab, it was never as part of a plan to spend the rest of my life here. But I like the place. I like the people, and I am proud to be associated with a lab that has made such a clear and strong statement about its openness to foreign scientists and its commitment to international collaboration in science. I have done all that I can in DZero to extend this openness to new collaborating groups from Europe, Asia and North America.

More than 50 years ago, Enrico Fermi said: "Scientific thinking and invention flourish best where people are allowed to communicate as much as possible unhampered." Even at the height, or depth, of the Cold War, scientists from the Soviet Union were full members of Fermilab experimental collaborations.

Recently, my pride in Fermilab's past has become tinged with some embarrassment. I am sorry that recent events have spoiled Fermi's vision of openness. As a U.S. resident (with "green card"), I have been—so far—subject only to minor inconveniences, but I know that our foreign collaborators have faced increasingly tough, unreasonable and often arbitrary barriers when they try to come to the United States to do physics.

I know most of them, and I know they are not terrorists. They have a hard time understanding why making a scientist from Russia or India wait six months for a visa has anything to do with fighting terrorism. Frankly, so do I. I would like to apologize to each and every one of our colleagues for the fact that they have had to go through such an effort to get here; and I would like to thank each of them for the fact that they have chosen, despite the problems, to continue to work here. I really appreciate the commitment.

I grew up in the UK in the 1970's. At that time, the Northern Ireland conflict was spilling over on to mainland Britain. There were bombings and shootings; thousands of people died in a brutal and senseless war. One thing that became clear in that context, and which remains truer today than ever, is the nature of the deepest challenge with which terrorism confronts a liberal democracy. It is not how to defeat terrorism itself: imposition of a police state can go a long way to achieving that goal. The true challenge is how to defeat terrorism without surrendering those very freedoms that make a liberal democracy worth fighting for.

In 1973, at the height of the Cold War, Universities Research Association president Norman Ramsey (left), National Accelerator Lab scientist William Fowler (light jacket) and Director Robert Wilson (second from right) hosted members of the Soviet Union's atomic energy commission. - Fermilab photo

That is the challenge that the United States faces now. I believe that one of the freedoms that defines a liberal democracy is the ability for people to travel as they wish, among them scientists engaged in peaceful cooperative research. This is something which the recent visa restrictions have called into question, and which is continuing to be undermined. It should not be treated as a privilege or a luxury, one of the first things to be surrendered as soon as things get rough. It goes to the very essence to what makes the U.S. special, one of the things that a country built by immigrants and refugees should be proud to stand up for.

To our foreign colleagues, I can only say: keep the faith. We in the U.S. scientific community share your feelings. This is not just idealism; we understand that the situation is hurting our international standing and our ability to attract future projects. We cannot promise to quickly change any of the visa and immigration rules that are so irksome to you. We can only promise that we will not quietly accept them. Your fight is our fight; we understand that we are all in this together, and we are doing what we can.

last modified 2/5/2004   email Fermilab