People, Politics

A swarm of top biotech execs protest against Trump’s travel ban, saying it threatens the entire industry

The reaction against President Trump’s decision to ban travel from 7 predominantly Muslim nations drew an instant reaction from the biotech world, gaining a quick thumbs-down from a large majority of the hundreds of industry executives we’ve been in touch with.

Now the biotech opposition is getting organized.

In a letter published in Nature Biotechnology this morning, 166 biotech execs leveled a blast at Trump’s travel ban, now stayed at least temporarily by a court ruling, saying that it strikes at the heart of the industry’s ability to recruit the best and brightest staff from all over the world while raising deep seated fears among all their staffers from outside the US.

The letter was signed by a long lineup of high-profile executives drawn from the CEO suite, venture capital and academia, including Herve Hoppenot, the French CEO of Delaware-based Incyte, George Scangos, the former Biogen CEO who’s now leading a startup, and MIT’s Bob Langer, a serial biotech entrepreneur with more than 30 startups to his credit.

“If this misguided policy is not reversed,” they say, “America is at risk of losing its leadership position in one of its most important sectors, one that will shape the world in the twenty-first century.”

The letter underscores the groundswell of opposition in the industry to the ban. It also highlights a growing divide between the executives who lead this field and BIO, the industry organization which lobbies on their behalf. So far BIO has stayed mum about the travel ban.

(Editor’s note: Late on Tuesday I received the following statement from BIO Chair Ron Cohen and three board members, Jeremy Levin, John Maraganore and Paul Hastings, taking exception to that remark about BIO.

“We did want to highlight an inaccuracy in your report regarding speculation that the letter reflects a “growing rift” between BIO and its CEO and company members. There is no such rift, growing or otherwise; we are choosing to speak out on the ban as industry leaders, not as a trade association. This is not dissimilar to how tech industry CEOs, not their trade association, have spoken out on this matter. Indeed, we believe that BIO is an essential organization for the well-being of our industry, which is why we all devote considerable time out of our busy schedules to its activities.”

My reply: Silence is a position, and it’s markedly different from what execs, including these board members, have expressed.)

Most of the top CEOs of the Big Pharma companies, many of whom have been lobbying for tax reform that would allow them to repatriate billions of dollars in reserves held overseas, have also stayed quiet on this issue. But there was at least one exception to the Big Pharma rule of silence — aside from Allergan CEO Brent Saunders.

“Science doesn’t have any borders, so anything that gets in the way of a borderless science exchange doesn’t help,” said AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot, quoted today by Bloomberg. The UK-based pharma giant has research and manufacturing sites in Massachusetts and Maryland. “We want to be able to move our people and our scientists around the world.”

The Bloomberg story also raises concerns that the Trump administration’s focus on the H-1B visa program used to bring in scientists from around the world could be altered, making it harder to recruit abroad.

Here’s a portion of the letter:

The United States has led the world in medicine production for decades, not only because of its ability to finance drug discovery, but also because, more than any other country, the United States represents opportunity regardless of borders, gender, race, sexual orientation or political cast. This has enabled our industry to attract the best talent, wherever it is found. This aspect of our industry is a core reason the United States has built its unique strength in biopharmaceuticals.

At a stroke, the new administration has compromised years of investment in this national treasure. Our colleagues who are here on visas or are in global outposts are now fearful and uncertain of their status. Scientists based in other countries and employed by our companies are afraid to come to the United States or are canceling trips. The parents and families of immigrants who live and work in the United States are reluctant to attempt to travel to and from the US.

Though the ban from the Trump administration is aimed at seven countries, our global employees interpret the underlying message as, “America is no longer welcoming of any immigrants, whatsoever.” They fear similar orders could be issued for other countries at a moment’s notice. They fear being stigmatized and discriminated against, simply because of their religion, irrespective of the nation they come from. Several among us have heard from employees about their deportation fears, how they do not feel comfortable leaving the country on business or how they now feel cut off from their family abroad.

Every nation has the right to determine who comes across its borders. Every nation needs to be vigilant in defending itself against and hunting down terrorists. The actions taken by the Trump administration, however, were poorly conceived and implemented; they have raised deep fears and concerns across the biotech industry, in which diversity and the free flow of ideas and people have created an American powerhouse of medicine. 

If this misguided policy is not reversed, America is at risk of losing its leadership position in one of its most important sectors, one that will shape the world in the twenty-first century. Indeed, it will harm an industry dominated by smaller companies and startups, the very kind of industry the administration has said it wants to support. It will slow the fight against the many diseases that afflict us, as well as carry negative economic consequences for the United States.

You can find a PDF with the list of executives who signed the letter here: Immigration Letter Signatures


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