Twenty-five academic and professional organizations this week asked the Bush Administration to take steps to ease the entry of foreign scientists and students into the United States without undermining national security. "We are confident that it is possible to have a visa system that provides for thorough reviews of applicants and still welcomes the brightest minds in the world," say the signers, which include the National Academy of Sciences, the Association of American Universities, and AAAS (which publishes Science).
The organizations cite six problems in the current visa system and offer ways to reduce their impact on scientific exchanges and the global flow of information. The changes would include fast-tracking visa applications that have been pending for more than 30 days, extending the validity of security clearances from 1 year to the individual's duration of study or academic appointment, and improving the ability of consular officers to recognize when a more detailed review is required and when it is not needed."We now have a consensus that the country must facilitate access to legitimate visitors without compromising security," says Victor Johnson, associate director of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, a co-signer of the statement. "But it is never easy to translate a policy consensus into desired bureaucratic behavior."State Department officials say they are already moving in that direction. The 1-year rule, implemented last summer, replaced a process that subjected visa holders to a security review each time they sought to travel abroad. There's "a good chance" that the validity of clearances will be extended further, says a former senior department official. The department is also trying to reduce the number of cases reviewed by an interagency panel by training consular staff to better identify fields of study regarded as sensitive.The coalition argues that improving visa processing efficiency will both benefit U.S. higher education and science and free up resources for national security. Implementing these measures, the signers say, will correct "the misperception that the United States does not welcome international students, scholars and scientists."