I’m a professor. My job description is very simple: to create new knowledge and to transfer it. To students, colleagues, and anyone else, really. To academia, industry, governments, and the rest of society. I do my job by working with a large team of very talented PhD students and postdocs from around the planet and by presenting our work as broadly as possible, to different types of audience and around the world.
Throughout my career my research has centered around the concept of information. Early on in my career I worked on representing and reasoning with information. For the past 15 years, I have focused on information retrieval – technology to connect people to information. It’s a great area to work in, the research problems are challenging, the area has global impact and attracts amazing talent from around the world. Access to information is a human right and information retrieval is the basis of a critical technology for providing that access.
In a few days, the main conference in my research area, SIGIR, the ACM international conference on research and development in information retrieval, will take place in Ann Arbor, Michigan, US. It promises to be a really good edition. The community is expanding, experimenting with new ideas, new directions, new formats. And developments in machine learning, in conversational agents, and related to societal implications of the technology that we develop are creating new energy and excitement. My team and I are scheduled to present a large number of papers, both full papers and short papers, we are also organizing a workshop, presenting a tutorial, I’m on a panel on future directions in information retrieval, in a lunch session on diversity, a student lunch session, in editorial board meetings for journals for which I have editorial responsibility, and, of course, there will be a large number of exciting high-quality paper presentations by colleagues. To top it off, the conference takes place on a university campus, which I much prefer as a conference location over a hotel. This promises to be a fantastic edition of SIGIR.
But I won’t be going.
In November 2017 I visited Iran. I gave two talks. A strategy talk on our experience in Amsterdam in bringing together data scientists from diverse institutions with diverse disciplinary backgrounds. And a science talk on the interface between data science and information retrieval. A two day trip with two talks plus the opportunity to meet some fantastic students. Of course, the trip to Iran meant that I was no longer authorized to travel to the US under the ESTA visa waiver program. I knew this in advance and so I applied for a DS-160 nonimmigrant visa on December 2, 2017, a few days after my return from Iran. Unfortunately, my visa application was refused. Further information from my end was requested (my CV), which I submitted in mid December 2017. Seven months have passed since I started the process. I have had to skip the WSDM 2018 conference, which took place in Los Angeles, and the FAT*2018 conference, which took place in New York. The latest status update of my visa application as of a few days ago was “no news yet, unfortunately,” which means that I will have to skip SIGIR 2018 as well.
There is no point in lowering myself to the standards of a policy that I oppose and to stop submitting papers to conferences that are being held in the US. Halting the conversation is never the answer. It’s neither helpful nor effective in promoting what is essential to my job as a professor. The pursuit of science “requires freedom of movement, association, expression and communication for scientists”. With a Dutch passport, I’m one of the lucky few: even after having my ESTA privilege revoked, I can still travel visa-free to 185 destinations. The majority of the PhD students and postdocs in my team are from China, Iran and Russia, all of which are countries ranked lower or even much lower on the Passport Index than the Netherlands. I regularly see how they face impenetrable walls in their education or career simply because of the country on their passport.
Scientific progress and human and environmental well-being are our collective responsibility. Open exchange of people and ideas are key to fulfilling such collective responsibilities. If you have the opportunity, please help to facilitate more open exchange, of talent and of knowledge. If you are in academia, share your publications, share your teaching materials, share your code, share your data, share your time. Support and encourage visits to your institution, based on scientific excellence only. If you’re from a country that’s ranked high on the Passport Index, go and visit other institutions around the planet and share your expertise. I believe that every bit helps. For my part, I’ll try to raise 100K Euro per year, over the next 10 years, to bring an information retrieval researcher to my university for a 12-month visiting position. Scientific excellence will be the entry ticket, not the country in someone’s passport.
 Justin Zobel. What We Talk About When We Talk About Information Retrieval. SIGIR Forum 51(3):18-26, 2017. PDF
 ICSU, Freedom, Responsibility and Universality of Science, 2014. PDF
 Henley & Partners, Passport Index, 2018. URL