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Forum: America needs the world's best and brightest

Call it collateral damage in the domestic war on terrorism: Harsher visa policies are preventing legitimate students from coming to America, says M. Granger Morgan, and the long-term damage is immense

Sunday, July 27, 2003

In a remarkably shortsighted overreaction to the 2001 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration has established a set of draconian new visa policies for foreign technical students and professionals. The policies are doing serious long-term damage to America's leadership in science and technology.

Completing an advanced degree in science or engineering requires years of focused hard work. As our country has grown more prosperous, fewer and fewer native-born young people have been prepared to make the necessary sacrifice. America's youth are not alone in this. Similar trends can be seen among the youth of many advanced economies. But, in contrast to a country like Japan, America has long been an open society that welcomed people from many diverse cultures.

M. Granger Morgan is head of the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University (gm5d@andrew.cmu.edu).

For years, the best and brightest of the world's ambitious young people have flocked to America to do Ph.D.s in science and engineering. Once they graduated, about half of them have chosen to stay, thus assuring this nation's continued technical leadership, and the economic prosperity that leadership makes possible.

Just look at the rosters of top experts in any U.S. industrial research laboratory, the faculty in science or engineering of any of the country's leading research universities or the membership of the National Academies of Science or of Engineering. They are full of patriotic Americans who were not born in the United States, but who got their education here, and since then, have made enormous contributions to our national strength.

The Bush administration's new shortsighted visa policies have begun to seriously disrupt the flow of first-rate students from abroad. Once students have been accepted to do graduate work in a U.S. university, they must apply for a student visa. Consular officers, most of whom are liberal arts graduates who have little or no knowledge of science or technology, have been given a "technology alert list" of "sensitive" academic subjects. That might not be so bad if the items on this list were few and narrowly focused, and the people applying the list had reasonable technical credentials.

Unfortunately, neither is true. Many of the entries on this list are remarkably broad. Thus, if a student tells a consular officer that he or she will be studying chemical engineering, robotics or even urban planning, that often has been enough to get their file sent to Washington for a review that might take many months.

Moreover, there are strong incentives for consular officers to be extremely conservative in their judgments. If a student subsequently becomes a problem, this can result in "professional sanctions" against those who approved the visa.

The problem is not restricted to new students. For example, a Chinese doctoral student in the Department of Material Science and Engineering at Carnegie Mellon went home for what he thought was a few days of vacation last winter. Several months later, he was still cooling his heels in China waiting for a visa renewal because the consular officer had heard the words "solid state electronics." It was not until the university enlisted the help of members of Pennsylvania's congressional delegation that the student was finally allowed to return to this country to resume his studies.

Sometimes things get even more ridiculous. Last spring my department at Carnegie Mellon admitted a Chinese student to work with one of our faculty who is a China expert. After completing courses here, the student will do field work in China, where she will apply a method we have developed to allow jury-like groups of laypeople to rank risks to health, safety and the environment. How such work on risks in China could possibly be construed to pose a threat to U.S. security is beyond any of us. But the student has waited many weeks in Beijing while her file got reviewed in Washington.

The problem is not limited to students. Tsinghua University is the leading engineering school in China. This is no lightweight place. Students and faculty at Tsinghua can hold their own with any in the world. Last year, a delegation of distinguished professors from Tsinghua, including their vice president for research, planned a visit to Carnegie Mellon to explore opportunities for collaboration between the two universities. The members of the delegation were all well-known professionals who have been at their university for years. Carnegie Mellon's president supplied a letter of invitation to the delegation for use in the visa applications, listing all the members by name. Many weeks later, the U.S. Consular Office in Beijing had still not issued the visas. The trip had to be canceled.

So, you might ask, what's the big deal? A little inconvenience to students and technical professionals, but a small price to pay for enhanced security.

The problem is that the United States is not the only place in the industrialized world that has first-rate technical universities. Since English is the operating language of science and engineering, students from countries like China, India or Brazil, have been reluctant to go to places like the Netherlands or Germany for advanced degrees. That is changing.

Today, many leading technical schools in non-English speaking countries, such as the Technical University of Delft, in the Netherlands, are offering graduate programs in English. Their explicitly stated reason: to attract more foreign students. Similarly, newly industrialized countries, such as Singapore, are rapidly developing high quality technical universities. If we make it hard enough for students to get into the United States to study, or for their faculty advisors to come work with us, they will simply start opting for less restrictive alternatives. In that case, the big loser will be the future of U.S. technical prowess.

The American Institute of Physics reports that at least 20 percent of foreign students accepted by U.S. universities in 2002 to pursue graduate studies in physics were originally denied entry. Some may have persisted and ultimately gotten in, but many have now gone to study elsewhere. The fraction denied was even higher, a remarkable 40 percent, at departments granting only the M.S. degree.

The Association of American Universities reports that while recent practice has been to interview about 40 percent of all visa applicants, under new instructions embassies and consulates will now have to interview virtually all applicants between the ages of 16 and 60 without any increase in resources. This will include students visa applicants from European countries, where interviews have often not been required.

What should be done?

The technology alert list needs to be made more focused and specific.

The U.S. government needs to locate more technically knowledgeable staff at embassies that process many student applicants so that informed decisions can be made on the spot.

Better and more extensive technical reference resources should be provided on-line and via telephone to support Consular Officers and minimize the number of files sent to Washington.

Reviews in Washington need to be done more rapidly. The Department of State recently promised to reduce the review time to a month. If that proves true, it will be a useful step in the right direction.

When a U.S. university accepts a foreign student, the faculty involved should be asked to provide a brief description of the area that the student will be working in and an assessment of whether such work carries any significant security risk. Currently, faculty can write such a letter, but they are not asked to do so, and few are aware of this option.

Finally, there needs to be a mechanism, short of intervention by elected members of Congress, by which universities can appeal unjustified or arbitrary decisions by technically uninformed consular officers or reviewers.

This is no small issue. It is not an exaggeration to say that the future technical strength of the nation hangs in the balance.

The damage will be gradual so that by the time it has occurred, most of today's politicians will have long ago left office. But the damage will be real, and will not be something that can be easily repaired.

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