Ideas

Refugee scientists: quiet pioneers dedicated to discovery

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World map of exile.
In a world torn apart by strife, it is crucial that scientists and academics whose individual and intellectual freedoms are at risk are given a second chance to continue to innovate and work in safe environments. Without these freedoms, as Einstein pointed out, in 1933, “… there would have been no Shakespeare, no Goethe, no Newton, no Pastor, no Lister… It is only men who are free who create the inventions and intellectual works which to us moderns make life worthwhile.”

By Sarah Willcox

For decades, a theoretical physicist defied the suspicions of his government and continued to teach and research, enduring the perpetual fear of surveillance and repression. Educated in Europe, he had published extensively and built an international reputation. He suffered for decades, advocating for political freedoms in his home country, and defending the rights of his students who stood up for the same values. Ultimately, he fled, seeking the safety of universities in the United States.

This was not 1930. Nor was this scientist Albert Einstein. This was 2012, when the Institute of International Education Scholar Rescue Fund (IIE-SRF) − a programme I direct − received his call for help. This renowned scientist is one of thousands of academics forcibly and permanently displaced from their homelands. It is we who now reap the rewards, as he pushes the boundaries of science for our universal good.

History repeats itself. We would hope, then, that the lessons learned from the past would teach and protect us from future crises. Yet here we are in 2017, nearing the end of yet another landmark year in which thousands of lives have been upended by violence and instability.   

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 65.6 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, 22.5 million refugees, and 10 million stateless. On average, 28,300 people are forced to flee their homes every day because of conflict and persecution.


A Carlo Bergamini-class frigate of the Italian navy rescued migrants from this boat in the Mediterranean in June 2014.

Not “just” refugees  

The statistics are staggering, but we may accept them as part of a new global reality. Take a moment to consider the countless millions over the last century who were displaced − we know that  “refugee” does not define them. They are mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, granddaughters and nephews. They are neighbours and integral members of our communities. They have laid the bedrock of our towns and in many cases, crossed national boundaries to bridge our cultures and economies. Many have done this through their academic work: teaching at local universities, publishing the latest scientific discovery − quiet pioneers, contributing to research halfway around the world.

Albert Einstein was lucky to be in the US in 1933 when Hitler came to power. His house was ransacked, convincing him that he could no longer call Germany home. After a brief sojourn to Europe, he returned to the US, where he joined the newly-established Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. We do not need to understand Einstein’s theories to know that the scientific world has benefitted from them immensely.

Few of us are aware that thousands of refugee scientists and scholars from war-torn Europe in the last century excelled in their host countries, even in the face of shocking rejection by their host communities and national academies. In the US, in the 1930s and 1940s, the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars, a consortium of refugee organizations – which included the IIE − helped nearly 400 academics, including 100 physicists, to find academic positions.

According to the economist Petra Moser, patents in the US alone increased by over thirty per cent in fields commonly pursued by Jewish scientists of the 1930s. The positive ripple effect for generations to come is invaluable.

Einstein’s era included Erwin Schrödinger, who fled persecution in his native Austria to join the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies in the late 1930s – his work in theoretical physics won him the Nobel Prize in 1933. And physicist Hans Bethe, the German-American nuclear scientist and winner of the 1967 Nobel Prize in Physics, played an important role in the development of the hydrogen bomb, but more importantly, he later campaigned with Einstein against nuclear testing and the nuclear arms race.


Remains of the University of Mosul, which was burned and destroyed during a battle with ISIS, in Mosul, Iraq, 10 April 2017.

Exceptional contributions

More than a third of Nobel prizes won by the US in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields have been awarded to foreign-born scientists. Today, we continue to celebrate refugees for their contributions to science and society after they were given a second chance. Sergey Brin, who co-founded Google, was just six when his family fled the Soviet Union for the US in 1979, when his father could no longer endure the entrenched academic repression in the Soviet Union.

Since 2002, the IIE Scholar Rescue Fund has carried on the legacy of the Emergency Committee, aiding academics afflicted by conflict and persecution. Most of the academics we work with have been displaced or are on the verge of long-term displacement. They have been singled out for persecution by insecure regimes because of their academic work, religion, ethnicity, and, increasingly, for supporting their fellow academics. At the height of the conflict in Iraq from 2007 to 2013, we helped place hundreds of scientists at universities in neighbouring countries after they received anonymous letters threatening first their positions, and then their families. Their lives were overturned in ways that would paralyze the average person. Yet after a few years of support in the diaspora, most have returned to Iraq or maintained their academic productivity in the region. Many are helping to rebuild their universities.

Based on our own experience, we estimate thousands of academics every year need a safe place to pursue their work. Our programme has provided vital financial support and academic connections to more than 700 academics from over fifty countries. Other refugee organizations have supported thousands of others. But it is difficult to estimate how many displaced scientists have permanently lost their academic work, and will never have the chance to rebuild it in a safe environment.

Opening doors and providing support

Hundreds of displaced scholars have suffered because their publications – lost in the panic of their flight from danger – may pre-date online records that would have safely maintained them. For many more scholars, language barriers feel insurmountable. Without readily available resources – like scholarships and fellowships – and open doors at universities and scientific institutions, the quiet scientist lacking the name-recognition of an Einstein has little to no chance of reviving his academic work. The wasted years of training and the lost potential to society has done irreparable damage to the cause of science.

The Scholar Rescue Fund rose from the IIE’s nearly hundred-year history of helping threatened students and scholars. Ours is now among a handful of formalized programmes that provide essential support for threatened academics. The Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA) was founded in 1933 by Britain’s foremost academics and scientists in response to Hitler’s decision to expel hundreds of leading scholars from German universities on racial grounds. CARA works closely with the Scholars at Risk Network (founded in 2000), and Germany’s Philipp Schwartz Initiative of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. The PAUSE programme of the Collège de France helps welcome scientists in exile, and The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), a UNESCO programme based in Trieste, Italy, supports refugee scientists, especially those from developing countries.

Organizations and universities in Belgium, the European Union, Canada and Jordan also provide aid to refugee scholars. But there is so much more to be done to ensure that the world’s intellectual capital will seed innovation and discovery for generations to come.  

FURTHER READING: 

Millions on the move: the refugee: a staggering world problem, The UNESCO Courier 1956-1

The Brain drain: a hidden subsidy from poor to rich, The UNESCO Courier 1978-11

Migrants; between two worlds, The UNESCO Courier 1985-9

India's loss, West's gain, The UNESCO Courier 1998-9

Immigrants on the borderline, The UNESCO Courier 1998-11

Exiles, The UNESCO Courier 1996-10

Sarah Willcox

Sarah Willcox (USA) is Director of the IIE Scholar Rescue Fund, which she has been involved with since 2003. Based in New York, she oversees the IIE-SRF operations, including partnerships, programme policy, outreach, and communications.