Current Visa Restrictions Interfere with U.S. Science and Engineering Contributions to Important National Needs

Statement from
Bruce Alberts, President, National Academy of Sciences,
Wm. A. Wulf, President, National Academy of Engineering,
and Harvey Fineberg, President, Institute of Medicine

Dec. 13, 2002 (Revised June 13, 2003)

To make our nation safer, it is extremely important that our visa policy not only keep out foreigners who intend to do us harm, but also facilitate the acceptance of those who bring us considerable benefit. The professional visits of foreign scientists and engineers and the training of highly qualified foreign students are important for maintaining the vitality and quality of the U.S. research enterprise. This research, in turn, underlies national security and the health and welfare of both our economy and society. But 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. The evidence we have collected from the U.S. scientific community reveals that ongoing research collaborations have been hampered; that outstanding young scientists, engineers, and health researchers have been prevented from or delayed in entering this country; that important international conferences have been canceled or negatively impacted; and that such conferences will be moved out of the United States in the future if the situation is not corrected. Prompt action is needed.

Under current rules, consular officials send many visa applications back to the United States for sequential security clearances by several agencies, leading to long delays and backlogs. In addition, consular officials in some countries are denying visas by telling applicants -- even high-ranking officials from major research institutions -- that there is fear that they may try to remain in the United States. Consular officers who grant a visa to someone who later commits a terrorist act in the United States may be subjected to department review and serious disciplinary action. Unfortunately, there are currently no offsetting incentives for consular officers to serve the national interest by facilitating scientific exchanges.

The list of those who have been prevented from entering the United States includes scholars asked to speak at major conferences, distinguished professors invited to teach at our universities, and even foreign associates of our Academies. It includes research collaborators for U.S. laboratories whose absence not only halts projects, but also compromises commitments made in long-standing international cooperative agreements. It includes scientists from countries such as Iran and Pakistan whose exclusion from this country blocks our efforts to build allied educational and scientific institutions in those parts of the world. Perhaps most seriously, the list also includes large numbers of outstanding young graduate and postdoctoral students who contribute in many ways to the U.S. research enterprise and our economy.

In order to correct these problems as rapidly as possible, we pledge the help of the U.S. scientific community and urgently call upon the U.S. government to implement an effective and timely visa screening procedure for foreign scientists, engineers, and medical researchers, one that is consistent with the twin goals of maintaining the health of science and technology in the United States and protecting our nation's security. We ask the Department of State and its consular officials to recognize that, in addition to their paramount responsibility to deny visas to potential terrorists, the long-term security of the United States depends on admitting scholars who benefit our nation.

Possible mechanisms for streamlining the process without compromising security might include:

· Reinstating a procedure of pre-security clearance for scientists and engineers with the proper credentials;
· Instituting a special visa category for established scientists, engineers, and health researchers; and
· Involving the U.S. scientific and technical community in determining areas of particular security concern.

The U.S. research community can assist consular officials by providing appropriate documentation for those foreign citizens who are engaged in collaborations with our scientists and engineers.

An approach that welcomes qualified foreign scientists, engineers, health professionals, and students serves three general purposes in support of national goals. We outline these briefly below.

Harnessing international cooperation for counterterrorism. The National Academies have been working with foreign scientists and engineers on several efforts directly related to combating terrorism. Last September visa restrictions came within one day of forcing the cancellation of an important meeting in Washington of our Committee on U.S.-Russian Cooperation on Nuclear Non-Proliferation. This committee's responsibilities include assuring that nuclear weapons-grade materials are under control and out of the hands of terrorists. It required intervention at the highest levels of the State Department to gain the needed visas. Similar collaborations are under way in many other venues, and these require that we welcome qualified foreigners to our nation without restrictions or delays.

Building stronger allies through scientific and technological cooperation. It is clearly in our national interest to help developing countries fight diseases such as AIDS, improve their agricultural production, establish new industries, and generally raise their standard of living. There is no better way to provide that help than to train young people from such countries to become broadly competent in relevant fields of science and technology. Yet our new visa restrictions are making this more difficult. For example, several hundred outstanding young Pakistanis, carefully selected by their government as potential leaders of universities there and accepted for graduate training in U.S. universities, experienced a 90 percent denial rate in applying for U.S. visas.

Maintaining U.S. global leadership in science and technology. Throughout our history, this nation has benefited enormously from an influx of foreign-born scientists and engineers whose talents and energy have driven many of our advances in scientific research and technological development. Over half a century ago, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, and many others from Western Europe laid the foundations for our global leadership in modern science. More recently, immigrants from other parts of the world -- most notably China, India, and Southeast Asia -- have joined our research institutions and are now the leaders of universities and technology-based industries. Many others have returned to take leadership positions in their home countries, and now are among the best ambassadors that our country has abroad.

Approximately half of the graduate students currently enrolled in the physical sciences and engineering at U.S. universities come from other nations. These foreign students are essential for much of the federally funded research carried out at academic laboratories.

Scientific and engineering research has become a truly global enterprise. International conferences, collaborative research projects, and the shared use of large experimental facilities are essential for progress at the frontiers of these areas. If we allow visa restrictions to stop international collaborations at our experimental facilities, then these facilities will cease to attract international support. Moreover, our scientists and engineers will no longer enjoy reciprocal access to important facilities abroad. And if we continue to exclude foreign researchers from conferences held in the United States, then those meetings may cease to take place in this country in the future, depriving many American scientists of the opportunity to participate in them.

In short, the U.S. scientific, engineering, and health communities cannot hope to maintain their present position of international leadership if they become isolated from the rest of the world. We seek the help of the U.S. government in implementing effective and timely screening systems for issuing visas to qualified foreign scientists and students who bring great benefit to our country. We view this as an urgent matter, one that must be promptly addressed if the United States is to meet both its national security and economic development goals.

Bruce Alberts
National Academy of Sciences

Wm. A. Wulf
National Academy of Engineering

Harvey Fineberg
Institute of Medicine

For additional information on visa issues, please go to the International Visitors Office Web site.