08 November 2018

Blackout: Poster protests travel ban

You are not supposed to take pictures on the poster session floor of the Neuroscience 2018 meeting.

Photography, video, filming, tape recording, and all other forms of recording are prohibited during the poster sessions, lectures, symposia, minisymposia, nanosymposia, courses, workshops, and on the exhibit floor.

But people broke the rules to take pictures of this poster.


Here’s a closer look at the one visible section of text:


It reads:

Unfortunately, due to the travel ban imposed on citizens of Iran and other countries I am unable to be here to present my poster. My supervisor and I therefore decided not to present the poster at all. Science should be about breaking down barriers not creating new ones. I hope to be able to make the next SFN conference in 2019.

This situation has been brewing since August, according to co-author Chris Dayas’s Twitter timeline. Starting 20 August:

My PhD student who was so excited to attend her first SFN has been denied a visa to enter US based on her nationality... very helpful to progress science in all countries and break down barriers

On 8 September:

Disappointed that @Neurosci2018 @SfNtweets won’t refund my students membership to use at another conference in a country that won’t deny her entry based on her citizenship.... I asked nicely twice ....

On 20 September:

I just spoke with the Executive Director of SFN. He explained SFN's position re membership to SFN V meeting registration i.e. Thus, although she joined solely for attending the meeting only the latter would have been refunded based on her VISA denial @SfNtweets @Neurosci2018

(I’m a little disturbed that the student is almost erased in this discussion. Her name doesn’t appear on by her picture or her words, and Daya never refers to her by name in his tweets. I am guessing she is the first author, L. Akbari.)

This was not unique. Moataz Assem wrote:

It's not just Iran, my turkish wife also didn't get the visa to present her poster. it sucks.

The Lim Lab tweeted:

So far we’ve seen many withdrawan posters due to the travel ban, at #sfn2018. Add many more who even didn’t bother to submit since they knew they won’t be able to attend. This needs to be addressed by @SfNtweets. Stand by #ScienceForAll #NoBanInScience #NoDiscriminationInScience

Matthew Leavitt has a spreadsheet to collect the names of neuroscientists affected by the ban. I’d also point out that this blog recently featured another story of a denied visa.

But back to the poster, and why it is so effective. Click to enlarge!


I’ve seen notices of withdrawn posters before. Usually, someone sticks a page of letter-sized paper with a hand-written note explaining that the poster has been withdrawn. It gets no attention. Making a full-sized poster of the fact that there is no poster has gotten attention.

And it’s not just the “no poster” aspect that gets attention. This is a smart design.

First, you have a bunch of question marks in the left hand side, where people will look first. Any viewer would be wondering why there is not a typical poster with boxes and graphs and data to see here. The image acknowledges, “Look, I know you’re confused. Let me explain.”

Second, the image fades pretty quickly to black around the sides. Black is often used to represent censorship, whether by black redacted lines in text or the word “blackout” itself.

Third, the message from the author is placed on the right, the “bottom line” area. It’s placed at eye level, against the darkest part of the poster so it pops out.

Fourth, when you look closer, you can see the outline of a poster underneath. A scientific ghost of what could have been, which drives home the frustration that there was something ready to go, that could have been presented.

If the author had been slated to give a talk, what could have been the equivalent statement? The session chair would have just said, “The speaker cannot come because of the travel ban. We’ll resume in fifteen minutes.” Even if a co-author would have put up a slide like this poster for those fifteen minutes, nobody would have paid attention. People would have carried on with their business, going to another talk or checking their email while they waited for the next one.

This poster makes a point better than any talk.

Posters have been used for political purposes far longer than they have been used for academic communication.This poster harkens back to that earlier and more common use.

Photos by Lionel Rodriguez, Chris Dayas (poster co-author) and Fergil Mills.

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