Trump's Cuba Policy Will Stifle Scientific Collaboration Between Cuba And America

Science knows no borders.

26 JAN 2018

Last year, President Trump suspended regular visa operations in Cuba, making it much harder for Cuban scientists to collaborate with American scientists on diseases like Alzheimer's and cancer.


Despite political obstacles, for years American and Cuban scientists have been working together on some of the most cutting-edge medical treatments in the world - and Cuban neuroscientist Marquiza Sablón is one such researcher.

In July of last year, before Trump's immigration policy was put into place, Sablón travelled to Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) as a participant in the AAAS Cuban Biomedical Fellows program.

In Cuba, Sablón was responsible for developing a promising new technology that has the potential to detect and diagnose Alzheimer's disease. After six months of collaboration in the US, the neuroscientist reached her research goal.

"Through this six-month exchange, Marquiza was able to make progress and answer questions about her project that may have taken years in Cuba," said Buck Rogers, director of the lab that hosted Sablón at WUSTL.

"The whole lab learned from her experience and unique perspective while working on the experiments associated with her project. From my experience, it has been a highly productive exchange that benefits both the US and Cuban labs."


But thanks to stricter immigration policies, other Cuban researchers who wish to follow Sablón's lead will find it much harder to obtain the appropriate visa.

Darel Martínez is a researcher at Cuba's Center of Molecular Immunology and the 2016 recipient of the AAAS Fellowship. According to Martínez, international collaboration is crucial to innovation because it ensures scientific research is not needlessly repeated.

"The only way that science can progress constantly is through the accumulation of knowledge used as a basis to build the next level," Martínez said. 

"Without collaboration among scientific groups that show more progress in a particular field, the progress of the research slows, and probably when you reach your goals, they will be obsolete and useless."

As an expert in biology and antibody targeting, Martínez was all set to work at the University of Pennsylvania developing a cancer vaccine. The university's expertise in the development of T cell immunotherapies made the fellowship a perfect fit.

"International collaboration is essential to ensuring that scientists develop and drive forward the best possible therapeutics and ideas, not just the ones that exist within our borders," said Avery Posey, the associate director of the June Lab at UPenn.


Still, after working through a mountain of emails, immigration paperwork and contracts, Martínez has been unable to obtain a visa despite the fact he had an interview scheduled at the US embassy before the new policy was enacted.

"This process, which is not yet finished," said Martínez, "results in a delay of at least four months at the start of the collaboration project and implies an increase in the cost of my trip, money that could be better used on research."

As of right now, if Martínez wants his visa, he has to travel to an interview in a whole other country.

Martínez's story is just one, but it perfectly illustrates why stricter immigration policies are detrimental to scientific research and innovation. Research and innovation - which it must be noted - benefits people in both America and Cuba.

"While not explicitly targeting science, this new US policy on Cuba severely limits travel and the logistical aspects of scientific cooperation," said Marga Gual Soler, project director at the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy.

"These effects will likely disincentivize joint research on both sides."

The original article was published in Science.