Visa problems persist

Despite shortened delays, security measures still casting wide net for scientists hoping to visit the US

By | March 8, 2006

Fewer foreign life scientists are reporting delays in obtaining visas for US visits, and the delays that do occur are getting shorter. But delays persist, and while statistics or confirmed reports are hard to come by, many in the field fear that difficulties in obtaining a visa, perceived or real, are discouraging scientists from even trying to visit this country. "Even in the absence of any first-hand evidence, I am quite sure that the difficulties in getting visas (especially in time for an event) to visit UK/Europe and the USA put off many scientists," Mohammed Sohail, a senior research associate in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Oxford, said via-E-mail. Sohail is organizing an upcoming UK conference on gene silencing by RNA interference. "I think we're all quite confident that this is an extremely widespread problem," said Victor C. Johnson, associate executive director for public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators, in Washington, D.C. However, several organizers of upcoming life sciences conferences contacted by The Scientist said they had not heard directly of anyone having difficulties. Such "rumors" have arisen concerning US and Canadian meetings, and are appearing again in relation to the third meeting of parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, to be held in Curitiba, Brazil this month, Piet van der Meer, of the Public Research and Regulation Initiative (PRRI), said. PRRI is part of the Research and Information System for Developing Countries, a think-tank supported by the Indian government. "To be honest, while these rumors are always around, I have never seen real proof of this," van der Meer said. In 2003, based on cases reported to The National Academies' International Visitor's Office, the average visa delay for bioscientists was 151 days; in 2005, it was 46. While 30% of scientists' cases were delayed for longer than six months in 2003, that percentage has fallen to 3%. But many experts agree that the recent case of the eminent Indian organic chemist Goverdhan Mehta, who said he was humiliated when US consular officials asked him for additional information in the course of a routine visa interview, underscored that problems do persist. Mehta had visited the US dozens of times previously, and was planning to give a talk at a Florida university and then attend a conference. Mehta was given a letter stating that his visa had been refused and requesting 14 additional pieces of information in order for his application to be processed, including a trip itinerary with information on where he planned to stay, dates and countries of all previous foreign travel, and a description of "planned subjects of research, study or project in the US; practical applications of planned research or study." He was also asked for a detailed description of his current research and professional projects, along with any practical applications. Any biologist whose work can be construed as "dual use" -- for example, the kind of scientific expertise that could be used for harmful purposes, such as creating bioweapons -- runs a greater risk of a similar security review when applying for a visa, said Wendy White, director of the Board on International Scientific Organizations at The National Academies in Washington, D.C. By law, all applicants for visas to visit the US must undergo face-to-face interviews. The US General Accounting Office, in a February 2005 report, noted that while visa wait times had been shortened and the security check process streamlined, consular officers in the field were often confused and unsure about how and when to refer a visa applicant on for additional security review, known as Visa Mantis. "The Bureau of Consular Affairs continues to review and update our training for incoming Consular officers and familiarity with Mantis requirements are certainly part of this," said Angela P. Aggeler, a spokesperson for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs. She added that Consular officers are not required to become "technical experts," and they use "guidance and key words" to determine if someone should receive an additional review. Anne Harding Links within this article: JD Miller, "US societies reverse rules on Iranians," The Scientist, October 24, 2005. NAFSA: Association of International Educators Public Research and Regulation Initiative Research and Information System for Developing Countries National Academies' International Visitors Office Goverdhan Mehta S. Pincock, "EU streamlines visa rules," The Scientist, October 25, 2005. "Streamlined Visas Mantis Program has Lowered Burden on Foreign Science Students and Scholars, But Further Refinements Needed," US General Accounting Office, February 2005

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