Biotech execs slam Trump’s travel ban, counting the high cost to a global industry

A large majority of the biotech industry has vehemently rejected Donald Trump’s travel ban in no uncertain terms.

We decided to take the temperature of the industry in a snap poll emailed to industry subscribers Sunday afternoon. In just two hours, 600 of our nearly 13,000 subscribers weighed in — the vast majority dead set against the ban, many angrily citing the immediate impact the executive order will have on the biopharma industry.

In our final tally for the survey Tuesday morning, we had registered more than 1,400 responses, with 1,226 opposed (87%) to the ban and only 188 in favor of it. Three out of four felt that the ban is certain to have a negative impact on the industry, threatening diversified staffs, attendance at US conferences, and throttling back key recruiting efforts. Several CEOs reached out to me to voice their concerns for staffers with green cards who come from outside the 7 countries cited by Trump, but who are nonetheless worried about their futures here. And in many cases, it was clear that quite a few execs in the industry were simply outraged by a move that they felt would tarnish the country’s reputation for years to come.

We asked BIO for a comment, but have yet to hear back. We did hear from BIO Chairman Ron Cohen, though, and added it up top.

Some executives sent direct statements. We’ve included them below. Below that you’ll see responses from our biotech readers, directly from the poll. We’ll continue to gather responses and post updates on our poll through Monday. Please spread the word if you get a chance.

Acorda Therapeutics CEO and BIO Chairman Ron Cohen:

I appreciate your efforts in taking and publishing the results of the survey. Frankly, I am dismayed that as many as 13% of respondents actually minimize the importance biopharma of the recent events. That’s more than 1 in 8. I believe what they miss more than anything is that this is not merely an issue of 7 particular countries, which themselves may not be in the vanguard of medical/scientific research; it is an issue of the message that is being sent across the planet, of the chilling effect on would-be immigrants everywhere, who will now see America as less welcoming, more threatening, and many of whom will therefore choose to benefit other countries with their talents instead.
Even people who are already in the US, in my own company, are expressing anxiety. Illustrating my point above, the anxiety extends to green card holders from Western European countries, who travel to Europe for both business and family reasons—although the letter of the Executive Order would seem not to be relevant to them, they have contacted me and our head of HR to ask if they should be concerned about getting back to the US if they leave for such a trip.

Jeremy Levin, CEO of Ovid

Every nation has the right to determine who comes across its boarders. Every nation and particularly America, needs to be vigilant in defending against and hunting down terrorists. The actions taken by the administration however were poorly conceived, ill planned and ill thought through. By these actions the administration has raised deep fears and concerns across the employee base of the industry where diversity, the flow of ideas and people and inclusion have been the mainstay of innovation and making America the powerhouse of medicine it is and should remain. Not only was this a fundamental change in the way we and the outside world interact, it was a blow to good business and a destructive attack on the core of what makes America the greatest engine of innovation.

Alnylam CEO John Maraganore:

At Alnylam we live our values and celebrate many benefits from a diverse workforce. Accordingly, we reject all forms of discrimination and limitations that prevent us from benefiting and growing as a diverse and inclusive workplace. We have a number of international employees working legally at our U.S. locations, and will continue to support them in every way we can.

David Schenkein, the CEO at Agios, sent me this:

I am first generation American and only here because my parents escaped the holocaust and came to America- this ban is horrible and speaks against everything I believe in.

Steve Holtzman, CEO at the startup Decibel, wrote:

Trump’s ban on immigration and the notion of a religious test are deeply repugnant to the fundamental tenets and values of not only the United States but also the biotechnology industry.
We are a science-based enterprise built on the belief that the quality of data, not the position of power, prestige or religious or other affiliation of their proponent, are the source of their authority.
Social exclusion is the moral equivalent of the exclusion of data because they contravenes popular belief.
We cherish all–regardless of nationality, race, religious belief, sexual orientation or gender identification–who wish to join our industry’s battle to combat human disease and address unmet human needs.

Then we got this from Bassil Dahiyat, CEO of Xencor:

To sum up, frightening and destructive. We are one of many companies made up of a large percentage of immigrant staff, highly talented and trained. We cease to function without immigrants, period. Some now cannot leave the country for fear of being shut out. Those not impacted directly have been scared on-and-off for months because of the anti-immigrant sentiment that was validated by the election. They took action to change their status that they wouldn’t have otherwise because of fear. Personally, my parents immigrated from a country adjacent to those banned. Are they next?
This move will have a negative impact on the productivity of the biotech industry if it stands. Talent is hard to come by and closing the door to any sources is bad.
And I hear the fear at Caltech, my grad school, is high among the large percentage of foreign students. They worry that Americans think they are taking their jobs. Campaign rhetoric is listened to. What on earth makes sense about rejecting the best and brightest from our country?  Not to mention refugees.  My next door neighbors growing up were Vietnamese refugees. I can say for sure they were a benefit to America.

Here’s a small collection of the huge response we’re tracking, all taken from the poll.

The travel ban raises ethical, moral and possibly legal issues. It is regressive along the very dimensions that enabled the US to be the founders and leaders of the biotechnology industry- innovation, entrepreneurship, opportunity and fairness. As has been widely reported, Steve Jobs of Apple, was the biological son of a Syrian immigrant, Abdulfattah Jandali, and was raised by His adoptive mother, Clara, an ethnic Armenian whose parents escaped Ottoman Turkey and immigrated to the US. The current process for vetting refugees is extensive and there has been no evidence presented that previous entrants have posed a danger. Our country went into war in Iraq based on assertions of imminent danger that were later found to be untrue. We need to understand the factual basis behind such extreme and sudden measures in order to avoid repeating our mistakes. To the extent this directive prevents or disrupts the ability of green card holders to re-enter the US, their rights would be affected in a discriminatory way and that seems illegal. The biotech industry relies upon immigrants to a large extent and efforts to create additional barriers than those already in effect would slow innovation and progress. Noubar Afeyan

“Yes, the travel ban will have an impact on the biopharma industry. There are many visa and green card holders from those countries who are either studying to become a researcher or clinician or currently holding those positions. However, now they are unable to see any of their family who might remain in those countries – which can have a devastating emotional toll. In addition, they are now unable to travel outside the US for medical meetings, business development, clinical trial site initiation, etc. This essentially blocks them from advancing research, as well as their own career. (Anonymous)

Part of the strength of biomedical research in the US is its ability to recruit the brightest and best from other countries to come to US for grad school or post-doc, which then feeds into biotech industry. Trump’s hostile stance toward rest of world is going to diminish this flow of talent.  Tom Woiwode

My CEO has dual UK/Iranian citizenship (he lives in the U.K.) and is thus unable to travel to the USA at present. (Anonymous)

“Successful biotech companies need outstanding, highly skilled people and they recruit from all over the world to get talent. And they need reliability they can retain these people and not be afraid they may not re-enter the US because some type of ban has been ordered overnight. Even if your biotech company currently does not employ citizen affected by the current list of countries that are banned…who’s next? This administration – with their unreasonable and unpredictable behaviour – damages biotech industry, damages the US economy and endangers our free way of life.” — Harpreet Singh, CEO, Immatics US Inc., Houston, TX

Any ban on any race or religion has an impact on our industry because our industry is one of science and reason. Many of us are immigrants, sons and daughters of immigrants or married to immigrants ( I am gay and married to my immigrant husband from Vietnam who came here in 1980) . This ban has an impact on every decent human in the world…a negative impact. Plain and simple, this is NOT who we are as an industry or as a people, period. Proudly signed, — Paul James Hastings, Chair and CEO, OncoMed Pharmaceuticals

This is an industry that runs on brains. It needs the best, and they must be able to operate in a supportive environment, where they don’t fear for their safety or face hostility. It is not fortuitous that over a third of the biopharma R&D workforce in the US is foreign-born. Pushing them out will eviscerate innovation. Bernard Munos, InnoThink

“Diversity is the heart of biotech. Walk into any pharma or biotech and you will find people of all ethnicities, religion, nations working together to solve health care problems. Today more than ever, if we are to maintain our competitiveness, we need the smartest people around the Globe to choose to come to United States over other countries. A ban on immigration, ban on refugees, even if temporary, sends the wrong signal. — Sunil Joshi, President & CEO, Gradalis

I am a biotech lawyer. Each of my clients, every shape and size, are fortunate enough to have some of the world’s best and brightest scientific and business minds among their ranks. Many of them hail from outside the US, including the countries covered by this executive order. Why would we want to limit our ability to work to cure life-threatening diseases and conditions? The drug discovery business is hard enough as it is. Never mind the fact that this is a heartless act that flies in the face of this countries most basic tenets. (Anonymous)

We rely on good science. We should attract the brightest and best from around the world whatever their country of origin. — Mike Grey

Deploy second-order thinking. This is only a first step. Extrapolate forward. What this leads to. The best talent goes elsewhere. — Praveen Tipirneni

I have very accomplished friends in our industry who are from those 7 countries. (Anonymous)

All but three of the ‘no impact’ votes (by 2:40 am) were anonymous. And even in the minority of cases where no real impact was expected, you could also see opposition to the move for bigger reasons.

It will hit economy only minor if at all, pharma-biotech even less. But the image of US as leader of the free world goes down the river. (Anonymous)

But Trump has his loyal supporters:

In the long term, firmness encourages respect. (Anonymous)

Biopharma does not rely on any of the 7 countries for employees, collaborations or business opportunities. (Anonymous)

We have many talented researchers and scientists here in the USA that were in fact born and raised here. (Anonymous)

This is a temporary policy which impacts areas not known for their connection to bleeding-edge scientific work. Assuming the component with green card holders is worked out (and the court order around this apparently has started this), there will be minimal impact on the industry over a 90 day period. (Anonymous)

The countries involved are hardly the heartbeat of biotechnology. To try and extrapolate this on technology laden sectors is a political exercise, not an objective or realistic one. (Anonymous)

And, of course, we got trolled, too. Anonymously.

You people are utter dopes in need of a story. Trump “temporarily” banned entry from a few nations…not all muslims, not all immigrants. Get a clue. (Anonymous)

By most accounts it seems that few CEOs of the Big Pharmas have made any kind of comment on the ban, for or against.

For now, a spokesperson for Merck says that the pharma giant is still assessing the situation, adding:

We are committed to our employees of all nationalities and religions. We are actively reaching out to employees who may be affected by the Executive Order to provide legal advice and other assistance.

But a few high-profile execs have stepped up on Twitter.

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Research Scientist - Immunology
Recursion Pharmaceuticals Salt Lake City, UT
Director of Operations
Atlas Venture Cambridge, MA

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