Public Release: 

Fear of 'foreigners' may slow scientific progress

American Association for the Advancement of Science

Saria Mohamed Hassan's dream of becoming a doctor was interrupted for a year when she left the United States to conduct a brief malaria workshop in Dakar, Senegal, and then found herself stranded in a bureaucratic no-man's land: Her international student visa had expired while she was away, and her bid to renew it quickly became mired in a massive, ever-growing backlog of cases under review. Faced with a seemingly impenetrable firewall of post-9/11 security procedures, the Sudanese medical student eventually lost a year's worth of classes at Harvard.

The student-visa crisis emerged from understandable concerns, since a number of 9/11 terrorists held non-immigrant student visas. Unfortunately, suspicion seems to have turned in some quarters to something worse--xenophobia, a fear or hatred of "foreigners," which may hinder progress, notes Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS); executive publisher of the AAAS journal, Science; and president of the Cambridge, U.K.-based Science International.

"Multi-national research supports life-saving advances and technological innovation, and it enriches the learning environment," Leshner says. "It's important for the scientific community to speak out against xenophobia. It jeopardizes the long-standing, important tradition of cross- cultural research collaborations, and it works against scientific advances that promise to benefit us all."

Since a shaken U.S. government tightened visa rules in the wake of terrorist attacks, the backlog of visa applications from young scholars like Hassan has continued to grow--from 1,000 cases tagged for review during 2000 under the code- named MANTIS program, one of several U.S. screening checkpoints, to 14,000 in 2002. Today, some 1,000 cases are being subjected to MANTIS review at any given point in time, U.S. Presidential Science Advisor John Marburger III reported at a recent AAAS meeting.

Sadly, a few members of the U.S. Congress recently have begun to suggest that students like Hassan may be taking university slots that would otherwise be given to Americans. If only foreigners weren't taking university slots from Americans, these policymakers have hinted, U.S. students would be better able to succeed.

In a recent public exchange on this issue, U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher commented that "U.S. taxpayers pay a lot" for higher education, and thus, "we should not be competing [with foreign students]."

International students play an important role on U.S. campuses, since visa holders made up 36 percent of all graduate enrollments in U.S. science and engineering fields in 2000, according to data from the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology (CPST). Computer science, engineering and other fields have reported serious difficulties in recruiting qualified U.S. graduate students.

But, the solution is to help U.S. students compete, by improving K-12 science education, not by stamping out competition that is likely to exist in the workplace, too, Princeton University President Shirley M. Tilghman told Rep. Rohrabacher.

Without a doubt, American K-12 science education needs further strengthening. At the same time, too few women and minorities are entering the U.S. science pipeline--and apathy or anti-Affirmative Action lawsuits hinder diverse recruitment. The U.S. economy has long depended upon international talent to help drive scientific advances, AAAS notes.

Obstacles to scientific advances should sound more alarms than international competition. Science is now thoroughly multi-national, and too many boundaries inevitably hinder scientific creativity and advances to benefit human welfare.

Further, the learning environment is enriched by international students, who contribute scientific discoveries and billions of dollars to the U.S. economy each year: Some 583,000 international students were expected to add almost $12 billion to the American economic machine during the 2001- 02 school year, according to reports by the Institute of International Education and the Association of International Educators.

The need to ensure U.S. national security is indisputable. But, xenophobic viewpoints actually work against the national good, particularly when they are expressed by officials who have been elected to represent common causes such as scientific innovation and better educational opportunities for everyone.

At the same time, Hassan points out, overly restrictive policies are preventing international researchers from learning about, and potentially appreciating the United States: "They are pushing away those very people who need to understand U.S. culture - the people who could be going back to their countries and changing the way that others think of America," she notes.

Hassan--whose father serves as executive director of the Third World Academy of Sciences--says that she fully understands the need for increased security measures. But, she adds, common sense in applying the new rules should permit reasonable exceptions, and more efficient processing should reduce delays.

The U.S. government is now taking steps toward improvement: Science Advisor Marburger has acknowledged excessive delays in reviewing student visas, and he has pledged to address the problem. The U.S. House Science Committee also is investigating delays and denials affecting international students, meanwhile, and members have asked the U.S. General Accounting Office to study the issue.

But, for many international students, the wait continues. Saria Hassan knows that if she leaves the United States before graduating, she probably will find herself stranded once again.

Hassan says she wants an education to help improve the welfare of the Sudanese people, by advancing the quality of medicine available to communities in her homeland. Such aspirations have served the United States--and the world--well in the past.

"Xenophobia is not the answer to our security problems," Leshner says. "We must safeguard the advances that promise to improve all our lives, no matter where we live, by upholding the tradition of scientific openness, even as we balance this with the need to ensure national security. We must remember, too, that competitiveness and innovation may depend, in large part, on how well America can create an inclusive learning environment, by reaching out to American women and minority scientists, and to other young researchers born beyond the U.S. borders."

NOTE: This issue also was the focus of an opinion essay by Dr. Leshner, published 30 May, 2003 by the Financial Times. See (comment & analysis section).


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