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I am currently pursuing my PhD in mechanical engineering in the US and currently working (as part of a team of graduates) with my advisor on a research project. At this stage, we are in the modelling phase which requires us to perform weekly meetings where we perform short presentation about recent literatures and discuss what challenges we might face and brainstorm several ideas.

Recently, my advisor established contact with another team for collaboration from the engineering department of country X to take part in the modelling phase. The issue is that country X has been regarded a sworn enemy country from my native country Y in which country Y forbids to even make contact with any individual from this country. I myself never been interested in politics and have never prompted any conversation regarding this matter with anyone in my academic studies.

Moreover, I don't believe in any form of hate or discrimination including any bias towards any nationality (even people from country X!)

However, my main concern is my academic reputation in my native country which will be challenging to confront and illustrate to individuals there especially since my country is always in a heated political turmoil and having said this my academic career in my native country Y would be put to jeopardy.

My main question:

How should I properly inform my advisor of the conflict of interest that I am facing? How can I briefly discuss the consequences that I might face in my native country without sounding too much political?

While the project itself requires huge amount of work and dedication from our team, I fear that by informing my advisor that I will not to pursue it anymore would either add more obstacles to our modelling progress or it leave a negative impression on me from my advisor.

Note: the term "enemy" is based on what my country states in the media when referring to country X.

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    To be clear, when you say "even make contact", does that include casual interactions like waving to someone on the street or chatting about the weather, or does it really mean something like "providing material assistance to the armed services of that country"? Jul 5, 2022 at 1:00
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    If your question indeed is how to initiate a conversation with your advisor about the potential consequences of such a collaboration, then Buffy's answer certainly is the correct one. But just for clarification: that's the question, right? The question is neither "should I enter this collaboration" nor "how can I tell my advisor that I don't want to enter this collaboration", right? Because these questions would probably require different answers.
    – Schmuddi
    Jul 5, 2022 at 7:10
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    If I may be so bold, I might even say: if your advisor is planning to stay in contact with people of country X, you may suffer consequences from being associated with this advisor in any way at all. This depends on just how fraught the relationship between X and Y is. So you may be forced to choose between your advisor and country Y---which is to say: withdrawing from the project (but staying with your advisor in some way) may not even be a valid pathway. You may need a new advisor altogether. Think it over a lot, get some opinions from colleagues/friends/family.
    – Jerome
    Jul 6, 2022 at 5:36

3 Answers 3

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I think a reasonable advisor would accept what you say here. "I'll be in danger, personally and reputationally, if my name is associated with country X in any way."

People understand that the world isn't a perfect place and that people are constrained in what they can safely do.

Just say it.

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    It might be worth adding that stating facts about political realities is not "sounding (too) political". Jul 4, 2022 at 20:03
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...my main concern is my academic reputation in my native country which will be challenging to confront and illustrate to individuals there especially since my country is always in a heated political turmoil and having said this my academic career in my native country Y would be put to jeopardy. ...

How should I properly inform my advisor of the conflict of interest that I am facing? How can I briefly discuss the consequences that I might face in my native country without sounding too much political?

It would certainly be a sad state of affairs if people view you negatively merely because you collaborate (on a project with positive social value) with a person who is a national of a hated country. If the team of engineers you are proposing to collaborate with are people who do bad things to Country Y, or are going to use their robot for military purposes against Country Y, then I can see why people would have objections. But if they are just civilians doing engineering work on civilian projects with positive social value, it would be unfortunate if this is viewed negatively. If this is indeed a serious risk to you, your advisor is likely to sympathise with your predicament, even if they can't do much of value to solve the problem.

As to how to explain it, just be open with your advisor about the problem at hand and the reputational risk you may face in your native country. Be clear about the culture in your native country and be prepared to explain the kind of problems you might encounter, to assist your advisor to understand your predicament. Your advisor obviously cannot change the underlying attitudes of people in your native country, so cannot solve the underlying problem. Nevertheless, they might be able to offer some options that would give you some choice in how you want to proceed. One option would be to excuse you from the project. Another would be to have you continue on the project anonymously, which has the drawback that you won't get credit on the papers coming out of the project (though your advisor could still specify that you worked on them in letters of reference). Another option would be to continue on the project and accept the reputational risks. Your advisor might be able to counsel you on your decision, and give you some idea of the academic issues arising from the matter.

Finally, there is no reason to be concerned about "sounding political" (in a broad sense) when the issue you are explaining is inherently political. The consequences you face here are political, so clearly articulating those consequences is going to be assisted by providing an explanation of the political dynamics at play in your native country. If you are concerned about "sounding political" in the sense of taking a political stand yourself, then you can avoid that by focusing solely on explaining the exogenous effects of the relevant politics on your career, without expressing support or opposition to the political positions you are explaining. (But having said this, you seem keen in your question to differentiate your own views from the antagonism that is prevalent in your native country, so it sounds like you want to "sound political" after all.)

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    Actually, It is a sad state of affairs. Literally.
    – Buffy
    Jul 4, 2022 at 12:45
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    @Buffy Wouldn't those be sad affairs of state?
    – TimRias
    Jul 4, 2022 at 21:30
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Sadly, we live in a broken world. Your advisor can't stop you from withdrawing from a project, but you will lose advantages. I would not be afraid of discussing the situation with them. They might well have some helpful insight.

But ultimately, your choice is between the loss from your advisor if you withdraw, and the loss from the rest of the world if you participate.

I know someone who was in a similar position regarding "politically incorrect" research. It didn't involve a foreign nation, but (completely legitimate) scientific research in an area that has been (illegitimately) politicized. The research was quite significant, but went against what's generally perceived as "politically correct". It's a bit like going against the church was in the old days.

For what it's worth, the person in question abandoned the research, against my advice.

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    Now I am curious -- what was the subject of the abandoned "politically incorrect" research? Jul 5, 2022 at 14:24
  • @Carl-FredrikNybergBrodda I mean if you read behind the lines probably transgenderism
    – George
    Jul 5, 2022 at 20:09
  • Not transgenderism, but we all know There's a time and place to discuss such things. This isn't it.
    – Addlai
    Jul 7, 2022 at 5:48

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