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Clear and present danger

Editors’ commentary: It’s time for industry to take a stand against anti-immigrant policies

The biopharma industry is distracted by so many false alarms and exaggerated predictions of doom that its leaders have become desensitized to a real and imminent danger. Limitations on immigration and travel will undermine scientific collaboration, slow the pace of biomedical research and disrupt intellectual ecosystems that have made it possible to transform scientific progress in medical products at an astonishing pace.

Around the world, toxic politics that demonize foreigners are fraying the bonds that allow science to transcend national boundaries, which ultimately will stanch the flow of talent and imperil an innovation ecosystem that is built on, and depends on, multinational excellence.

Collectively and individually, the industry and its leaders cannot sit on the sidelines.

The past week alone has seen President Trump threaten to do away with birthright citizenship and ramp up his scaremongering about Central American refugees. This rhetoric cannot be divorced from the global swelling of intolerance and inhumanity.

The Pittsburgh slaughter -- the most deadly attack on Jews in U.S. history -- is only the latest, horrific, example of the cost, a reminder of the deep connections between anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant attitudes.

This is not a U.S. issue alone. The U.K. and its soon-to-be-divorced European neighbors are witnessing their own “blood and soil” nationalism. The Brexit vote both reflected and unleashed massive anti-immigrant sentiment. Collateral damage could include the country’s greatest biotech surge in more than two decades.

“Scientific progress depends on openness, transparency, and the free flow of ideas.”

Margaret Hamburg, AAAS

Entrepreneurs and inventors around the globe will hear the message clearly: You’re not welcome.

Scientists will think twice about uprooting to contribute their expertise elsewhere. Those top achievers are married to citizens of all countries; they will not sacrifice their families to the hostility and hurdles they will encounter. If the next young, ambitious and talented person like Henri Termeer is thinking about his future, will he or she take the risk of moving to the U.S. or the U.K.?

There is no room for the argument that top minds will always make their way to today’s life science epicenters.

This is not only morally bankrupt, but shortsighted. It favors the privileged, and ignores the modest beginnings that are the back stories of many of biotech’s leading innovators.

Nor is there room to hide behind the national security arguments that have been used to justify anti-immigrant policies. At best, this is a form of collective punishment, substituting prejudice for informed judgments about individuals who will create societal value in their adopted homes.

Speak out

Biopharma companies didn’t create the anti-immigrant fervor, and their executives don’t have the power to reverse it. But that is not an excuse to sit idly by.

All corners of the ecosystem stand to lose from the direction immigration policies are headed.

A few notable voices are speaking out.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has consistently taken a position against restrictions on immigration and travel to the U.S.

“Scientific progress depends on openness, transparency, and the free flow of ideas,” AAAS President Margaret Hamburg told BioCentury. “We are concerned that the Trump administration’s visa policies are discouraging many international students, scholars, and scientists from choosing the United States to study and work. The U.S. has historically benefited from its ability to attract international scientific talent, which is essential to our country’s economic and national security.”

The U.K.’s BioIndustry Association (BIA) has also issued a policy statement advocating for pro-immigration policies in post-Brexit Britain.

“The ability to recruit key scientific experts and management talent quickly, in a globally competitive market, will have an impact on the U.K.’s future industry. There needs to be a new immigration system that enables this, at pace, from anywhere in the world,” CEO Steve Bates told BioCentury.

John Maraganore, CEO of Alnylam Pharmaceuticals Inc., said maintaining a position as a leader in translating cutting-edge science “requires a welcoming environment that is open to the best scientific, clinical, and business minds from around the world.”

Last year, over 150 biopharma executives, VCs and academics published a letter in Nature Biotechnology in response to President Trump’s January 2017 executive order banning entry of citizens from seven countries to the U.S.

Biopharma companies didn’t create the anti-immigrant fervor, and their executives don’t have the power to reverse it. But that is not an excuse to sit idly by.

Through it all, PhRMA has been silent, and BIO has only mentioned immigration in passing in a statement about tax policy.

The notion that immigration is not a core issue for the industry, or that the safe route is to avoid taking sides, is gambling not only with industry’s future, but with the future of its core beneficiaries -- patients.

Drug companies and their trade associations should be deploying their voice and influence to resist restrictions on immigration, investment and collaboration that will impede biomedical progress.

First, this means continued public and private pressure on politicians to promote policies that encourage and welcome immigrants and to block policies that have pernicious antibusiness effects by restricting movement across borders. A welcoming attitude toward global talent must be presented as a competitive advantage and a prerequisite for building and maintaining a vibrant life sciences industry.

Second, it means active outreach by companies and institutions to foster international internships, student programs, scholarships and other initiatives that deliberately target scientists from countries that face the hardest path to the U.S. or Europe.

Third, it means funding visa applications and providing employment assistance for families of scientists who are stymied by the hurdles being placed on immigration.

There are no simple solutions. There are, however, consequences to doing and saying nothing. The stakes are too high to remain silent.

Signed commentaries do not necessarily reflect the views of BioCentury.

Companies and Institutions Mentioned

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Washington, D.C.

Alnylam Pharmaceuticals Inc. (NASDAQ:ALNY), Cambridge, Mass.

BioIndustry Association (BIA), London, U.K.

Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), Washington, D.C.

Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), Washington, D.C.

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