How researchers overturned US sanctions on a virtual summer school

US rules forced an online neuroscience course to block people in Iran from signing up, but the organizers won a last-minute reprieve.
Christine Ro is a freelance writer and editor in London, UK.

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Mehrad Ansari of Iran holds a sign reading “I am banned” outside the US Supreme Court.

US travel restrictions affect Iranian academics and students who wish to enter or re-enter the United States.Credit: Leah Millis/Reuters

Nosratullah Mohammadi had never bothered applying to attend a scientific event in the United States. As an Afghan refugee resident in Iran since 1998, he was familiar with the US visa rejections that commonly obstruct prospective students and conference delegates from Iran from entering the nation. (Iran has also previously banned US citizens from entering the country.)

But he was enthusiastic about a fresh learning opportunity. A team of international neuroscience researchers had organized a virtual 2.5-week computational-neuroscience course launching on 13 July. Known as Neuromatch Academy, the course had sponsorship from Facebook Reality Labs and involved more than 6,600 students and observers from 65 countries. “Because this kind of event on this scale is rare, I was so excited to be a part of it,” says Mohammadi, a master’s student in computational neuroscience at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Basic Sciences in Zanjan.

Yet on 4 July, two months after he enrolled and nine days before the course was set to begin, Mohammadi and roughly 60 other Iran-based participants learnt from organizers that their nation of residence barred them from attending. The organizers had been told they risked violating sanctions set by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), part of the US Department of the Treasury. The revocation of their registration sparked outrage on social media. It was the latest in a long list of barriers to Iranian participation in the global scientific enterprise.

Several hours before the neuroscience course was to start, OFAC provided an exemption — an emergency licence that allowed participants in Iran to attend. The agency declined to comment for this story.

Those who were finally able to attend were pleased, but still expressed concern over the continuing impacts of US sanctions. “I’m glad that people reacted and were outraged about it on Twitter and other social media,” says Athena Akrami, an Iranian computational neuroscientist at University College London. “And I would like that reaction to continue, even if we cannot measure that impact directly.”

How sanctions affect science

Sanctions against scientists who want to travel to the United States apply not just to Iranians, but also to some researchers from Syria, Cuba, Venezuela, Ukraine and Lebanon, among other countries. OFAC has stated that its sanctions target threats to national security, foreign policy or the economy, including terrorism, narcotics trafficking and weapons of mass destruction.

Some critics argue that the sanctions rarely lead to political reform, yet take a humanitarian toll. A study of the impact of US sanctions on Sudanese academics1 found that access to software, equipment, funding, journals and even the soft skills developed through international exchange have declined as a result, and that this endured even after the restrictions began to be lifted in 2017.

Sanctions against Iran have existed in some form since 1979, in the wake of a hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran. For people such as Mohammadi, the effects have been far-reaching. GitHub, the US-based software-hosting platform, has restricted his account. In a statement on its website, GitHub says that users must comply with applicable law, including US export control and sanctions laws.

Nor is he allowed to use the high-performance computing resources of the Neuroscience Gateway, a supercomputer jointly operated by Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut; the University of California, San Diego; and University College London. And the US-based tech giants Google, Apple and Zoom are among the companies that have curbed or withdrawn their services in Iran.

Owing to the mercurial nature of US sanctions and visa policies, Elnaz Alikarami, an Iranian master’s student at the Canadian Center for Behavioral Neuroscience in Lethbridge and a Neuromatch Academy volunteer, has turned down offers of postdoctoral positions in the United States. Even so, she was surprised to learn that the sanctions would have applied to the online school without the exemption. “It was quite shocking for the science community that something like this [would be included]”, says Alikarami. “It’s just basic science.”

Megan Peters, the chair of the Neuromatch Academy board of directors and a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Irvine, agrees. “I’m teaching math, and math should be available to everyone. I had no idea that the sanctions were this extensive.”

Akrami, a member of Neuromatch Academy’s executive committee, now advises Iranian students against moving to the United States to study or work. “It’s just tough dealing with travel restrictions and limitations due to sanctions as an Iranian scientist in the United States.”

Nosratullah Mohammadi at a parapet.

Nosratullah Mohammadi was one of around 60 people based in Iran who signed up for the Neuromatch Academy online course.Credit: Nosratullah Mohammadi

The Neuromatch Academy online course was a high-profile event, dwarfing the scale of a typical in-person summer school in its field. “Because of the size that we have, we cannot fly under the radar,” says Konrad Kording, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and also a Neuromatch executive-committee member.

The organizers think that the highly interactive nature of their school made it not only distinctive but also particularly exposed to a strict interpretation of US sanctions law. They had received pro bono legal advice early on, but this hadn’t been flagged as a problem. But, as the start date approached, an embargo lawyer told them that they risked violating the prohibition on providing goods or services to Iran.

Ryan Costello, the policy director of the National Iranian American Council, a non-partisan, non-profit body founded in 2002 to give voice to the Iranian American community, explains that there are some academic exemptions to the sanctions law. But, he adds, they apply to certain non-scientific fields. The process of obtaining an exemption tends to take months.

Finding alternatives

Many find it ironic that a large pandemic-proof event, meant to be inclusive, was on the brink of shutting out a specific group. Yet Alikarami sees a silver lining. “Now I’m really happy that this [sweeping sanctions policy] is not undisclosed any more,” she says.

Organizers of scientific events who are based in the United States and wish to involve participants from sanctioned countries should start to plan for this as early as possible, says Peters. “Never assume that you understand the law,” she advises. “The sanctions are much farther-reaching than you might think.”

Scientists who are directly affected by sanctions can look for alternative service providers. Mohammadi has moved computing projects from GitHub to GitLab, a Ukrainian-founded company that doesn’t offer all of GitHub’s features but remains available to him, even though it, too, is headquartered in the United States. Massive open online courses might be accessible from platforms in countries that have not imposed sanctions, or from sites that have obtained special licences. Fellow scientists can share resources as well — keeping in mind that the websites they might typically use for this, such as YouTube, might not be accessible in Iran because of the Iranian government’s own restrictions. Virtual private networks (VPNs) that disguise a user’s location might not always work, either.

Last month, the National Iranian American Council called for the US Treasury Department to issue a general licence that would allow Iranians to collaborate with Americans on public-health activities. Kording, too, hopes for a larger change to the sanctions law. “It’s meant to protect us against the Iranians building a nuclear bomb. Instead it’s preventing the Iranians from helping us cure Alzheimer’s.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-02347-9


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    Bezuidenhout L., Karrar, O., Lezaun, J. & Nobes A. PLoS ONE (2019).

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