Published on February 14th, 2017 | by Tina Casey


Trump’s Muslim Ban Trips Up A Christian Science Scientist From NASA

February 14th, 2017 by  

The Intertubes have begun buzzing with the story of Sidd Bikkannavar, a US citizen and NASA scientist who was detained at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Texas on January 30, when he returned from a trip to Chile. The incident occurred three days after President Trump issued his now-infamous executive order that abruptly banned entry to the US from citizens of seven Muslim-majority companies even if they had valid visas or green cards.

The Muslim ban was aimed at non-citizens, but the episode demonstrates how this radical new policy can effect US citizens and the entire scientific community.

Why Sidd Bikkannavar?

The detention sparked notice because Bikkannavar appears to have been singled out for no particular reason, except perhaps for his name. He is a natural born US citizen and his family’s roots are in India, a country that was not named in the executive order.

Bikkannavar described his experience on Facebook shortly after it happened. As of this writing the account is dormant, but a friend of the scientist provided this snippet on Twitter (also available in a cache):

Muslim ban BikkannavarThe story gained traction earlier this week when The Verge and Gizmodo picked up the story, followed shortly by CNN and many others.

According to The Verge, Bikkannavar’s trip to Chile was a personal matter involving his hobby of solar car racing.

He was detained without explanation upon arrival in Houston, even though he is included in the Global Entry program that pre-screens people for travel because they have already undergone a background check.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where Bikkannavar is employed, began requiring such checks after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 (the new requirement was challenged by longtime employees but upheld by the Supreme Court in 2011).

The Plot Thickens

That a US citizen was detained without being given a reason is cause enough for concern. In addition, Customs and Border Control agents pressured Bikkannavar to hand over his NASA-issued phone and passcode, reportedly citing a legal authority that does not exist.

In effect, the demand constituted a significant breach of security for NASA and the Jet propulsion laboratory.

In addition to the implications of this abuse for the security of US government information, the episode raises serious concerns for scientists working with academic institutions, nonprofits, and private companies, regardless of whether or not those scientists are US citizens.

Pushback Against The Muslim Ban

The Muslim ban was widely considered a transparent exercise in discrimination on the basis of religion, and the tension and confusion it spawned has roiled the global science community.

In addition to grassroots opposition, the pushback against the Trump Administration from stakeholder players in the science and technology fields has been remarkably vigorous (Silicon Valley billionaire investor Peter Thiel being one notable exception).

On the corporate side, for example, 166 biotech companies and other stakeholders have signed on to an open letter against the ban. The American Chemical Society has also weighed in on behalf of its members.

More dramatically, last week one hundred tech companies participated in an extremely rare joint legal brief, in support of the ultimately successful effort to get a restraining order against Trump’s executive order.

Religious organizations have also waded into the fray, and considering Bikkannavar’s background, it might be only a matter of time before the Church of Christ, Scientist steps up.

By the time he graduated from Principia college in 2004, Bikkannavar was already working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as one of its youngest employees.

Here’s a snippet from his bio on the school’s website:

“Bikkannavar and his team were awarded the NASA Software of the Year medal for their developments in this field (Adaptive MGS Phase Retrieval).

“In addition, Bikkannavar recently finished writing a college textbook chapter on Wavefront Sensing and Control, his area of expertise. The book is used at Caltech and other graduate schools. His work has also led to involvement on national security issues as well as potential developments in correcting human eyesight.”

And, here’s the Principia mission statement:

“The Principia shall seek to serve the Cause of Christian Science through appropriate channels open to it as an educational institution.” Our students will be future lawmakers, educators, scientists, church officers, parents, citizens — and we consider it Principia’s duty to help them “think things through from the basis of Principle…”

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Photo (cropped) via Principia, screenshot via Twitter.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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