[IP] As one door closes... From tomorrow's Nature (fwd from dave@farber.net)

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Thu Jan 15 03:29:36 PST 2004

----- Forwarded message from Dave Farber <dave at farber.net> -----

From: Dave Farber <dave at farber.net>
Date: Thu, 15 Jan 2004 06:22:53 -0500
To: ip at v2.listbox.com
Subject: [IP] As one door closes...  From tomorrow's
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Date: Wed, 14 Jan 2004 22:26:11 -0500
From: John Adams <jadams01 at sprynet.com>
Subject: For IP? From tomorrow's Nature
To: dave at farber.net

Hi, Dave,

        Seen this yet? I bolded paragraph three--it seems to sum it up. 

Nature 427, 190 - 195 (15 January 2004); doi:10.1038/427190a

As one door closes...

Immigration controls introduced under the 'war on terror' are restricting 
the flow of foreign researchers into the United States. With other 
countries moving in on this pool of talent, will the balance of scientific 
power shift?

Zhang is a fifth-year chemistry graduate student at the University of 
Wisconsin at Madison. He is hardworking, popular with his colleagues, and 
should be on the threshold of a rewarding future in science. Yet a 2002 
visit to Zhang's native China nearly derailed that career. He is so scarred 
by the experience that he agreed to be interviewed only on condition that 
his real name was not used in this article.

Nature's reporters are used to Chinese scientists requesting anonymity 
before speaking openly on controversial issues. But Zhang is not worried 
about the attitude of the government in Beijing. Rather, he is wary of 
consular officers, FBI operatives and other officials of the US federal 
government who seem to regard him as a potential terrorist, rather than a 
valuable member of their country's scientific workforce.

Zhang's nightmare began in January 2002, when he left Madison to spend the 
Chinese New Year with his friends and family. Zhang knew that immigration 
controls had been tightened up since the terrorist attacks of the previous 
September, and sought advice from his university about how to avoid any 
problems getting back into the United States. He carried with him proof of 
enrolment, details of the courses he had taken, a letter from his 
department and government forms confirming his immigration status — which 
he assumed would allow him to get his student visa renewed. "I did all that 
I could have done," Zhang says.

But when he went to the nearest US consulate for an interview, Zhang was 
told he would have to wait. His particular field of study overlapped with a 
'watch list' of technologies of potential interest to terrorists that had 
been supplied to consular officials. This meant that his application would 
have to undergo an interagency security review, involving security 
officials from agencies including the FBI and the Department of State.

Days stretched into weeks, then months, with no news of progress with his 
application. Eventually, Zhang found himself working in the office of a 
shipping company to make ends meet, while his colleagues continued their 
research without him. Because he didn't know when he was going to return, 
he was forced to continue paying rent on his apartment in Madison. Zhang 
finally received his visa in September 2002, leaving him hopelessly behind 
with his PhD studies. "My whole plan for graduation has been postponed," he 

Zhang is not an anomaly. "There have been enormous problems," says John 
Wright, who chairs the University of Wisconsin's chemistry department. Most 
of the students and postdocs whose applications to enter the United States 
have been questioned have eventually been let in. But Wright frets that the 
new immigration rules will deter future applications, weakening his 
department, which is currently considered among the best in the world. "The 
quality of research will decrease," he says.

Many US researchers and university officials share Wright's concerns. The 
United States is a nation of immigrants, and nowhere is this more evident 
than in the country's research labs. Strip away the legions of foreign PhD 
students, postdocs and tenure-track researchers, and the behemoth that is 
the US scientific enterprise would look much less impressive (see figure). 
What's more, in recent years, other countries have realized the value of 
attracting the best of the world's young researchers, and have started 
taking steps to compete more effectively in this marketplace (see 'You're 

So will the United States' draconian response to the terrorist threat cause 
a fundamental shift in the international movement of researchers — and 
perhaps even alter the global balance of scientific power? It's difficult 
to say, because attaching firm numbers to such trends is all but 
impossible. Scientists travel to the United States on a wide variety of 
visa types, depending on the purpose and length of their stay. And because 
they make up a tiny proportion of the total number of foreigners entering 
the country each year, even a major decline would fail to show up in 
overall visa statistics. Data collected in different countries are also 
hard to compare: many nations don't separate visiting scientists from 
researchers in the humanities and other disciplines; some consider students 
separately from postdoctoral researchers, whereas others lump them all 

"One of the great problems in dealing with this issue is that you get tons 
of anecdotes, but it is difficult to get data," says Norman Neureiter, who 
served as science adviser to US Secretary of State Colin Powell for three 
years until September 2003. Nature's enquiries reinforce Neureiter's view 
of the anecdotal evidence. Our reporters found dozens of examples of 
scientists at every level who have experienced problems entering the United 
States. And in some cases, they found researchers now looking for work in 
countries such as Australia, Britain and Canada, rather than enduring the 
US immigration process.

Out in the cold
The sketchy data available suggest that such anecdotes illustrate a 
widespread problem — and that this is particularly acute for postdoctoral 
researchers in the 'hard' sciences and engineering. In November, for 
instance, the Association of International Educators, an organization based 
in Washington DC that promotes scholarly exchange worldwide, released a 
survey of more than 300 US colleges and universities. The survey revealed 
that the number of students whose start dates were delayed by visa problems 
was 48% higher in 2003 than at the start of the previous academic year; for 
'scholars' — a broad category dominated by young postdoctoral researchers — 
the increase was 76%. More than three-quarters of the delayed students were 
in the physical sciences, biological sciences or engineering; among the 
scholars, these disciplines accounted for 93% of those who experienced 
significant delays.

Other surveys paint a similarly bleak picture. Last July, the American 
Institute of Physics reported that nearly a quarter of foreign students who 
applied to study towards a PhD in physics in the United States in 2002 were 
initially denied a visa. The number of foreign researchers working at the 
five largest institutes on the National Institutes of Health campus in 
Bethesda, Maryland, declined in 2003 for the first time in the nine years 
over which records have been kept. Most strikingly, the total number of 
visiting scholars in the United States declined in the 2002–03 academic 
year for the first time in almost a decade.

For some observers, these statistics are enough to set off alarm bells 
about the future health of US science. "We're at a critical juncture now, 
and I think everybody senses it," says Irving Lerch, director of 
international affairs with the American Physical Society in College Park, 
Maryland. Although the likely consequences of the visa delays remain a 
matter of debate, their main cause is clear — new security procedures 
introduced following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

In the immediate aftermath of those events, the state department began 
expanding its 'Technology Alert List', designed to prevent dangerous 
technologies getting into the hands of terrorists or hostile states. It is 
now classified, but a version issued in August 2002 contained roughly 150 
items, including such broad labels as 'microbiology', and common pieces of 
lab equipment such as low-energy lasers. So if you work on, say, infectious 
disease, or use relatively innocuous devices that have found their way onto 
the state department's list, your application to enter the United States is 
likely to be referred to the FBI and other federal agencies for a security 

Singled out
Scientists from China have borne the brunt of the new policy — even though 
its nationals have never been implicated in terrorism against US targets. 
The survey by the Association of International Educators, for instance, 
found that more than a third of all visiting students whose entry to the 
United States was delayed were from China. In part, the large number of 
Chinese who have been affected by the new restrictions reflects the fact 
that they make up the biggest single group of foreign scientists seeking 
employment or education in the United States. But some Chinese researchers, 
who point out that the current US administration was pursuing an aggressive 
policy towards their country even before the 2001 terror attacks, believe 
that they are being singled out for harsh treatment (see 'We are not the 

Meanwhile, for researchers from countries such as Iran, and several others 
in the Middle East, security reviews have become an almost insurmountable 
barrier (see 'Never apply for a US visa again!' ). Because the US 
government sees Iran as a sponsor of terrorism, its scientists cannot enter 
the United States without undergoing an interagency review. Even senior 
Iranian officials with longstanding ties to the US scientific community 
have been unable to attend major conferences. "I have had many invitations, 
but I had to say no," says Reza Mansouri, a physicist and the deputy of 
research at the Iranian Ministry of Science, Research and Technology in 

Scientists from other countries need not face a full security review, even 
if their work appears on the state department's watch list. But a memo sent 
in August 2002 along with a revised version of the list ensnared many 
scientists who expected to sail through the immigration process. The paper 
instructed that, "when in doubt", consular officers should send 
applications to the state department's headquarters in Washington DC. As 
the consular staff involved were mostly inexperienced, they were in doubt 
all too often. The resulting backlogs caused delays of up to a year.

The memo is still causing problems. The state department claims that more 
than 80% of cases referred to Washington are dealt with in 30 days. But 
Wendy White, who directs the Board on International Scientific 
Organizations at the US National Academies, disputes this figure. "For the 
scientists we hear from, the average wait time is still over five months," 
she says.

Delays were exacerbated last July by a new rule requiring virtually all 
visa applicants to be interviewed face-to-face by a consular officer. Most 
scientists were already being pulled into US embassies for interviews, but 
they suddenly found themselves part of a much longer queue. When Thomas 
Brunold, an assistant professor in chemistry at the University of 
Wisconsin, went home to Switzerland for a short visit last June, he had to 
wait for three months to get an interview to renew his US visa. "I told 
them I had a research group of nine people to run," Brunold says. But his 
pleas fell on deaf ears, and the resulting delay cost Brunold a month's 

For many researchers, the most frustrating thing about the new immigration 
requirements is their inconsistency. As a result, some visa applications 
shoot through the system whereas others are held up for months. And when 
this happens, there is usually no explanation. "The transparency in the 
process is completely missing," says Olexei Motrunich, a Ukranian physicist 
who has worked in the United States since 1994, but has been stranded in 
his home country since July, unable to take up a postdoctoral position at 
the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"I have been telling my relatives and friends how great America is; how one 
does not feel foreign in this country," says Motrunich. "Now I have to 
explain to the same people why, after more than eight years of doing 
science in the United States, I have a hard time receiving a visa to 
continue my work."

Number one no more
For some visiting scientists, the problems don't end at the US border. 
Catheryn Cotten, who directs the International Office at Duke University in 
Durham, North Carolina, says that foreign nationals are finding it more 
difficult than ever to secure social-security numbers, driver's licences 
and other essential documents. Mansouri adds that press reports of assaults 
against Iranian students at US universities are causing many of his 
country's young scientists to think instead about studying in Britain or 

Such comments are worrying organizations that strive to promote 
international scholarly exchange. "There's a perception that visas are too 
difficult to get and the United States is an unwelcoming place," says 
Victor Johnson, associate executive director for public policy at the 
Association of International Educators.

Not surprisingly, researchers and university administrators in other 
countries who are recruiting from the pool of scientists now experiencing 
problems entering the United States are quietly satisfied with the turn of 
events. Countries such as Australia, Britain and Canada were already 
increasing their intake of foreign students before US visa restrictions 
were imposed — and this trend has accelerated since then.

Perhaps even more significant is the calibre of the students and 
researchers now considering destinations other than the United States. 
"I've had professors tell me that the quality of the Iranian students is 
phenomenal," says Amy Aldous, graduate-studies recruitment manager at the 
University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. Baowen Li, a theoretical 
physicist at the National University of Singapore, says that he is now 
seeing many more applications from China's élite universities. "The change 
is not in quantity but quality," says Li. "We have benefited a lot from the 
US policy."

But is this the start of a trend that could ultimately undermine the United 
States' leadership in science? Andreas Schleicher, who heads the Indicators 
and Analysis Division at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and 
Development in Paris, argues that US dominance is so overwhelming that this 
is unlikely. "More than a quarter of all students studying abroad still 
travel to the United States," he says. But Neureiter, who has wrestled with 
the issues from inside the US administration, is not so sanguine. "I tend 
towards an apocalyptic view," he says.

How things unfold will depend on whether the visa delays experienced by 
visiting scientists represent teething troubles or a more lasting obstacle. 
State-department officials argue that they are now taking steps to improve 
the situation. New rules should let students jump to the front of the 
interview line so that they do not miss their start dates. And by March, a 
new computer system should connect embassies overseas directly to security 
agencies in the United States. The idea is to speed the interagency 
security reviews, preventing cases such as Motrunich's from getting stuck 
in limbo.

Still, the ongoing focus on security means it will be impossible to handle 
applications as quickly as they were dealt with before 2001. "I think the 
best we can do is to try to keep with our goal of processing all of the 
cases within a 30-day period," says Janice Jacobs, deputy assistant 
secretary of consular affairs at the state department.

Some US universities report that things do now seem to be getting back on 
track: at Duke, for instance, the number of foreign students studying the 
sciences rose once more in 2003, after two years of zero growth. But 
Neureiter is worried about the potential impact of a rule implemented last 
week that requires the fingerprinting of all visa applicants, and of 
another that will soon demand that students and visiting scholars pay a 
non-refundable fee of $100. "You can't go to a large international 
scientific meeting without visas being the issue on everyone's mind," 
agrees White. "I think there's going to be a solidarity movement against 
the United States."

Back in Madison, Zhang is now applying for postdoctoral positions, while 
writing up his PhD thesis. Despite his experiences, he says that he would 
rather stay in the United States, where he knows the research community. 
"But people who were thinking about coming here for graduate school are 
thinking twice," he warns. While Zhang was in China working at the shipping 
company, he befriended his boss's family. The executive's two daughters 
were thinking of studying medicine. Last year, they began their courses in 

Written and reported by Geoff Brumfiel, with David Cyranoski, Carina 
Dennis, Jim Giles, Hannah Hoag and Quirin Schiermeier.

© 2004 Nature Publishing Group

All the best,

        John A
        see me fulminate at <http://www.jzip.org/>http://www.jzip.org/ 

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