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Among the estimated tens of millions of refugees worldwide, thousands might be scientists, engineers, medical doctors, and students in those fields. Now, a new joint initiative by 10 Italian science institutions hopes to help scientific refugees who have been displaced because of conflicts or instabilities in their home countries.

The institutions have agreed to develop research and study opportunities for scientists in need, according to a statement issued on Monday in Trieste, Italy.

The parties to the agreement will work together “to identify, enhance and develop professional and scientific expertise of refugees and asylum seekers.”

The parties to the agreement will work together “to promote, develop and consolidate opportunities and common initiatives to identify, enhance and develop professional and scientific expertise of refugees and asylum seekers,” according to a statement signed by the institutions, all of which are based in Trieste and the northeast Italian region of Friuli Venezia Giulia.

The parties “will offer opportunities to affected scientists to enrich their professional skills, to foster their human and professional development and integration, and encourage their reintegration in their country of origin once conditions allow,” the statement continues. Science institutions that signed on to the initiative include the World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), Italy’s National Institute of Oceanography and Experimental Geophysics (OGS), Italy’s National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF), and others.

The initiative suggests some initial steps that include identifying the skills of affected scientists, establishing research and training positions for some affected scientists, and developing collaborations with other organizations active in this issue, such as the Scholar Rescue Fund, Science4Refugees, and Scholars at Risk.

A Responsibility to Assist Displaced Scientists

“The scientific community has a responsibility to assist these people.”

“The scientific community has a responsibility to assist these people,” Peter McGrath, coordinator of the TWAS science policy and science diplomacy program, told Eos. McGrath, who also is the coordinator of the InterAcademy Partnership, a global network of 130 academies of science and medicine, said that a rough estimate is that there might be about 10,000 displaced scientists, engineers, medical doctors, and students in those fields among the millions of refugees worldwide and that the numbers could increase with growing conflicts and other causes of instability such as climate change.

McGrath said that the science community can help those displaced keep up to date with current science so that when it is safe for them to return to their own countries, they can make a positive difference there. Although not all of the displaced scientists may want to return to their home countries or be able to do so, the initiative is not meant to be a brain drain, he added.

A Resource, Not a Cost

Maria Cristina Pedicchio, president of OGS, stressed that the idea is to provide displaced scientists with opportunities in Italy “but then to support them going back home to rebuild a new, more peaceful national context in their home countries.”

She added that politicians and others who may be wary of refugees should understand that helping displaced scientists is a win-win for the scientists as well as for host countries that view the scientists as resources rather than costs.

Looking for Ways to Help

“We are looking for ways to be helpful in this type of initiative,” said Giovanni Vladilo, director of INAF’s Astronomical Observatory of Trieste. Vladilo said concrete actions could include conferring with other astronomy organizations about considering special programs to help refugees.

The new initiative is crucial for the scientists in need and for the broader scientific community, Vladilo added. “It’s important to give a signal that scientists are involved in society,” he said.

A Small Start

The initiative “is a small start,” McGrath said. He added that he hopes the accord can serve as a model for other research centers and universities in Europe or elsewhere.

Beyond that, he said, “What we need is either a European-level or global-level clearinghouse where refugee scientists can register, can connect, and can find ways to stay in the scientific system.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer


Showstack, R. (2018), New initiative aims to help displaced scientists, Eos, 99, Published on 20 September 2018.

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