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Science policy
Following scientists post-9/11

Despite facing greater challenges after September 11, 2001, in getting visas and entering the country, foreign-born scientists working in U.S. academia have increased in numbers in proportion to their American counterparts, according to a new report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). But maintaining the influx of visiting foreign students and researchers may be problematic, the NAS committee found, despite recent improvements.

“This has historically been a very welcoming country,” said committee chair Phillip Griffiths of the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J., at a press conference releasing the NAS report on May 10, and a “good place for people to work for economic reasons,” as well as for innovation. The committee concluded that foreign scientists have bolstered U.S. standings in many fields, as American students’ interest in the sciences and engineering has waned.

A main finding of the report is that the numbers of students and scientists arriving in the United States increased fivefold from 1996 to 2003, mainly from Southeast Asia. The NAS committee members also are concerned “with what happened after 2002,” said committee member Samuel Preston, of the University of Pennsylvania, at the press conference. “Between 2003 and 2004, there was a very large drop of 28 percent in applications from international students,” he said, with an additional drop between 2004 and 2005.

Perceptions that the United States is less welcoming, as well as the real and perceived difficulties in getting visas, may have contributed to the decrease, according to the NAS committee (see also Geotimes, March 2003). One indication is a falloff in GRE tests taken in India and China, but a confounding factor may be tighter restrictions for taking the exam in those countries. Some evidence shows that international students are heading elsewhere, to E.U. countries and China, for example, where investment is higher in science and engineering education infrastructure.

On the other hand, the committee found that the percentage of international post-docs in the United States rose to 59 percent of the total in 2002, from about 37 percent two decades prior. Also, visa entry procedures may be improving, the committee found, as denial rates for visa applications have decreased from 25 percent to 22 percent in the past year or so, said committee member Alice Gast of MIT in Cambridge, Mass., also at the press conference.

International-student specialists at a variety of universities agree that the process has improved. “I was running 40 active cases a year,” related to students having trouble getting visas in the past few years, says Marjory Gooding, head of Caltech’s International Scholar Services department for the science- and engineering-focused school in Pasadena, Calif. “We’re now down to five at any one time,” she says, due to the streamlining of some federal agencies’ processes, from the Department of Homeland Security to the Department of State and consular offices abroad. Security clearances that were taking nine months now take two to four weeks, says Adria Baker, director of the Office of International Students and Scholars for Rice University in Houston, Texas. “With the visas, we’ve seen some things get better,” Baker says, but “there are still things we’re working on.”

Issues “potentially coming down the pike,” says Richard Tudisco, the head of Columbia University’s international scholars department in New York City, include policy matters in the new Patriot Act (pending this year in Congress), as well as issues of technology transfer and access to technology (which the Department of Commerce has suggested controlling), confidentiality issues related to the Real ID act (concerning drivers’ licenses), and other matters. Tudisco and others would like to see issues addressed for Ph.D. candidates “who are here for five, six and seven years,” concerning “opportunities to go to conferences, to travel home to see family, to deal with all the elements of life that could occur over a seven-year stretch,” Tudisco says.

The NAS committee suggested a new visa category might ease immigration and visa problems. “The best tend to stay in this country,” Gast of MIT said, and it may be beneficial to ease their entry to begin with, while not compromising security concerns.

Still, Tudisco says, he currently has no cases from Columbia University that he is following, after several years of having tens of cases to track, and gives “credit where it is due” to the responsible agencies.

Naomi Lubick

Links:

"Terrorism puts foreign students in spotlight," Geotimes, March 2003
National Academy of Sciences report: Policy Implications of International Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Scholars in the United States

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