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Visa snags ground scientists
- Post-9/11 screenings hold up researchers’ return to the US

New York, March 23: Hundreds of foreign scientists have been blocked from entering the US because of new visa rules, disrupting research on diseases such as AIDS, cancer, West Nile virus and leukaemia, and slowing studies in physics, genetics and even bioterrorism.

Although state department officials have insisted in recent months that they were working to clear a visa backlog, interviews with scientists and educators around the US reveal that the problem persists — and may be getting worse.

Visa delays and denials are hampering research at all institutional levels, from government-run labs to the National Institutes of Health. World-renowned scientists who had visited the US with ease have suddenly found themselves locked out. “It has the potential of isolating the US scientific community from the world scientific community,” said Douglas Osheroff, a Nobel Prize winner who heads the physics department at Stanford University.

Recently, the scientists’ complaints have reached the US House of Representatives’ Science Committee, which has tentatively scheduled a hearing on the issue for Wednesday.

The Hartford Courant newspaper found more than two-dozen research studies at 20 universities that have been significantly affected by visa delays. Most of the stranded researchers were already working in the US, then left for brief trips abroad and could not get re-entry visas.

At Rutgers University in New Jersey, hundreds of cultures used in cancer experiments languish in researcher Guanfang Shi’s lab. Guanfang has been stuck in China since December, when she travelled to Beijing for what she thought would be a quick visit with her parents. More than three months later, she is still waiting for a visa to return.

At the University of Utah, research into molecular compounds that can inhibit the virus that causes AIDS has ground to a halt. A key researcher on the $250,000-a-year, NIH-funded project has been stranded in his native Egypt since last May, awaiting visa approval.

Efforts to develop a West Nile vaccine at the University of Kansas have been stymied by a series of visa delays, most recently that of a Russian epidemiologist. Similarly, research into leukaemia at the University of Alabama has been stalled since December, while a researcher waits in China for approval to return. Leading scientists say they support tighter screening of visitors after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The 19 hijackers entered the US on valid travel, business and student visas.

But the scientists say consular officers are using vague, arbitrary standards to decide which visa applications to refer for security reviews, trapping legitimate foreign researchers in a frustrating backlog that could have long-term consequences for American science.

Roald Sagdeev, a prominent Russian physicist who served as an adviser to former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, has found himself counselling dozens of Russian scientists caught in the visa net against abandoning collaborations with the US. “I’m afraid that some of the enthusiasm for co-operative research in the US has already been lost irreversibly,” said Sagdeev, now a US resident and University of Maryland professor. “Other institutions in the rest of the world will benefit from that.”

In December, the National Academies — the National Academy of Science, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine — publicly complained that new visa restrictions were having “serious unintended consequences for American science, engineering and medicine.”

State department officials responded that they were aware of the problem and were working to improve the visa process.

A state department spokesman said most visa applications are now being processed in less than a month; those involving scientific research considered “sensitive” to US security interests are taking two to three months.

But scientists say that delays have stretched as long as 11 months, and that the problem shows no signs of abating.

They blame a system that is understaffed and overwhelmed by the new screening policies, and a jittery bureaucracy that is applying policies broadly.

“I’m anticipating we’re going to experience more, rather than fewer, problems,” said Kevin Casey, Harvard University’s director of federal and state relations. Even taxpayer-funded research to combat potential bio-terrorist attacks has been affected by the visa jam.

At the University of Rochester, for example, a Chinese graduate student who was developing sensors able to detect pathogens, including biological warfare agents, was delayed in China for six months.

“The irony is, if anything, her project would be able to help us in this fight against terrorism,”' said Phillipe M. Fauchet, chairman of Rochester’s electrical and computer engineering department.

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