News Notes
Science policy
Scientific travels after 9/11

First of a series on conducting science after September 11.

At the end of September, Lois Peterson at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) received 102 requests for help from space scientists unable to attend the World Space Congress in Houston in October; they had not received their visas. At around the same time, another NAS office was getting urgent requests from Chinese scientists unable to get their visas in time to attend the NAS-sponsored Chinese-American Frontiers of Science, a symposium on topics ranging from string theory to gas hydrates. In the meantime, Russian scientists were having problems getting their visas for a meeting of the NAS Committee on U.S.-Russian Cooperation on Nuclear Non-Proliferation.

“I remember one of the Indian space scientist in his pleas to us said, ‘I don’t work with missiles; I work with weather balloons,’” says Peterson, assistant director of the Board on International Scientific Organizations.

In the end, only three of the 102 scientists obtained their visas in time for the space conference. NAS had to postpone the Chinese-American conference at a cost of almost $40,000, even after getting help from high-level members of the State Department (reportedly even Colin Powell) in obtaining visas — just too late for the October date. One day before the start of the nuclear meeting, State Department officials secured visas for the Russian delegation.

Worldwide, scientists are having an increasingly tough time traveling to the United States for short-term conference or research visits because of new visa restrictions. And the scientific community is beginning to take notice. On Dec. 13, NAS President Bruce Alberts wrote a statement of concern, saying that “recent efforts by our government to constrain the flow of international visitors in the name of national security are having serious unintended consequences for American science, engineering, and medicine.”

“We do not think such visa restrictions are helpful to the healthy development of science,” says Huaiyang Zhou of the Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, one of the Chinese delegates unable to get his visa in time for the Frontiers symposium. Zhou stresses that the difficulties he experienced last fall were unique from his many travels to the United States.

Interviews with geoscientists who work internationally reveal no clear consensus. Some report no change since September 11; others cite case after case of inconvenience and frustration. Most, however, share the same fear — that the United States is becoming a less powerful and, perhaps more importantly, a less friendly, participant in international scientific collaboration as a result of stricter regulations.

“It’s a difficult time to do business with our international colleagues — and especially with residents of any nation that is not considered ‘friendly.’ I’m concerned that in the final analysis, the United States will be the loser,” says Anna Lenox, deputy chief of the International Water Resources Branch at the U.S. Geological Survey.

When a person applies for a non-immigrant visa to come to the United States, the consular officer must decide two things: first, whether the person will overstay the visit and second, if the person poses a security risk. For example, would a nuclear physicist learn some high-level secret while attending a nuclear energy conference in the United States? The security-flagged applications go to Washington, where the State Department sends out inquiries to various agencies to confirm that the individual in question is not in any way dangerous.

“The way it used to work was that there were 30 days where if they did not receive a response, that was the same thing as an okay,” Peterson says. “But that changed in the summer of 2002; now you must have a response.”

On top of that, consular officers, who are criminally responsible if they issue a visa to someone who later commits a crime while in the United States, are becoming more leery, and sending many more applications to Washington. “So it’s unknown how many thousands of visa applications are in process, having been sent to Washington and out being reviewed by other agencies,” Peterson says. “A lot of people aren’t necessarily being denied visas; they just aren’t receiving visas.”

And that is taking its toll on many in the geosciences. For Lenox’s water projects in both the Middle East and in China, she is seeing more and more colleagues denied access to the United States for workshops and meetings. “As suggested by our political advisors, we have stopped planning events here in the United States rather than struggle through the uncertainty of visa issue. We now convene events in European venues,” she says.

Foster Brown, a geologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Research Center, works with Brazilian ecologists and geophysicists on land-use studies in the Amazon. He says that the increasing number of negative stories coming out of the scientific community related to traveling to the United States is “weakening ourselves, alienating friends and making the United States more isolated from the rest of the scientific community.” Many of his colleagues are becoming more reluctant to travel to the United States for any reason.

“We need to work with other scientists around the world as we try to find solutions to global problems. We need to figure out how to increase scientific cooperation at a time when trends are going in the opposite direction,” Brown says.

In the past, the United States has led the scientific community in freely exchanging ideas collaboratively, says Carthage Smith, deputy executive director for the International Council for Science in Paris. “Scientists from China, Iraq, North Korea — a long list — suddenly find they can’t get into the United States because of visa restrictions and that affects all scientific disciplines.”

Scientists, anywhere and everyone, should be able to work together without discrimination, Smith says. But since September 11, collaboration has become much more difficult. “There’s a real danger that in trying to cut out a tiny risk … the United States is actually isolating itself from the rest of the international scientific community.”

The solution to these problems is unclear. No one denies the need for a strong system of national security. “We need security checks, but there must be some way to speed up the security check process by informing those agencies who are having to do it that we know who this person is; we can help provide information,” Peterson says.

The NAS statement suggests similar actions: “The U.S. research community can assist consular officials by providing appropriate documentation of those foreign citizens who are engaged in collaborations with our scientists and engineers.” Other recommendations include instituting a special visa category for established scientists and engineers and involving U.S. scientists in determining areas of particular security concern.

Peterson says many people think the NAS statement means scientists deserve special attention. “And maybe to a certain extent we are saying that. More generally, let’s make sure that when we’re doing things in the name of security, we’re helping security and not hurting security.” Citing the American-Russian nuclear non-proliferation meeting, Peterson adds: “The meeting almost didn’t happen in the name of security; but yet the whole purpose of this meeting is to enhance our security.”

Lisa M. Pinsker

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