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Security Issues Threaten U.S. Science

More than 38 percent of America's doctorates in the fields of science and engineering are foreign-born, and about 50 percent of the medical and scientific professionals at the National Institutes of Health are foreign nationals.
by Catherine Sharoky
Washington (UPI) June 22, 2005
Some restrictive security measures in place to protect the United States from terrorism are having a detrimental effect on the scientific community, as foreign students and researchers are choosing to study elsewhere to avoid potential visa problems, the American Civil Liberties Union reported Tuesday.

"Foreign university students, especially those in the sciences, are being increasingly monitored, excluded from participation in research projects and prevented from entering or re-entering the United States for study," said Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU.

"This brain block may in fact deter our ability to stay at the cutting edge of science and technology for generations to come."

The contribution of foreign students and researchers is essential to both science and security, Romero said.

More than 38 percent of America's doctorates in the fields of science and engineering are foreign-born, and about 50 percent of the medical and scientific professionals at the National Institutes of Health are foreign nationals, according to the report, entitled "Science Under Siege: The Bush Administration's Assault on Academic Freedom and Scientific Inquiry."

"Starting in 2003 and 2004 we've seen a very serious decline in application rates (of foreign students), especially in science and engineering," said Tania Simoncelli, technology and science fellow with the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Project. The decline in enrollment is the first in nearly three decades.

One problem that deters foreign scientists and scholars, according to the report, is that, while all foreigners must go through the visa approval process to enter the United States, scholars and students involved in science and technology fields deemed as potential threats to national security are subject to more security screenings and longer wait times before their visa applications are approved.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the federal government has increased restrictions on security programs to increase protection against the possibility of foreigners using student visas to gain valuable scientific or technological information and export it back to their countries.

Currently, students are tracked through federal security programs including the Student Exchange Visitor Information System, which was created as part of the USA Patriot Act to track courses of study, employment and enrollment status of international students in schools across the country.

Nearly 870,000 students, visitors and their dependents are involved in the program, according to the report.

The Visa Mantis program, run through the State Department, serves as another security check. It requires that those applying for work or study visas in fields involving sensitive technologies and sciences receive additional security screening from various law enforcement, scientific and intelligence agencies before they are approved.

"We are aware of efforts by foreign parties to gather controlled technology here in the United States, whether through companies or through the university research system," said Peter Lichtenbaum, acting under secretary for the Bureau of Industry and Security in the Department of Commerce.

The department requires that foreign nationals receive clearance before working with certain equipment and technology that could pose a threat to national security.

Lichtenbaum said the goal is not to deny foreign scholars access to research technology and equipment, but to balance that with the real threat of information leakage. "We know that is a significant enough problem that we ought to be focusing on it, and we can't pretend that it doesn't exist at all," he said.

But while these and other programs can protect against possible security threats, they can also cause research delays, as many scholars and students have had to put work on hold and have missed the start of their academic programs because they were waiting for visa clearance.

Elena Casacuberta, a former researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was denied re-entry into the United States after taking a vacation to Spain in December 2003. "All my life was in Boston, I had been there for more than six years," she said.

Embassy officials spent five months running security screens and background checks on Casacuberta, who had to put her laboratory work on hold during that time although she said it posed no threat to national security. She now works as a scientist in Spain. "I'm just happy that I don't have to handle visas anymore," she said.

But Casacuberta's experience may not be reflective of the current Visa Mantis process, as clearance time has now decreased from 70 days to an average of less than 14, said a spokeswoman for the Consular of Affairs at the State Department.

"We've been battling a perception that continues to linger on from when we were at the worst," she said, noting the State Department now provides information on visa wait times on its Web site.

Students also receive priorities when applying for visas so they are able to enter the country to begin their coursework on time, she said. "We've striven to make the process more transparent, more accessible, and at least predictable."

Mark Smith, director of government relations for the American Association of University Professors, acknowledged the efforts of the State Department in improving Visa processes for students, but said more needs to be done to ensure future scientists and scholars are not deterred from coming to the United States.

"In these crucial times what we need is more freedom, not less," Smith said.

"These policies are bad for science, bad for freedom and fundamentally ineffective when it comes to advancing our national security."

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