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The Visa Vise 

Homeland Security's hold on American science

Thursday, May 20 2004
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Photo by Lena Herzog

Few people can forget the moment they learned about the attack on the World Trade Center. For Lena Herzog it was particularly surreal. On that ostensibly mundane morning, Herzog was delivering a paper by her father, a Russian scientist, at the annual conference of the Society for Exploration Geophysicists in San Antonio. Throughout the talk, which she had carefully translated from her native tongue, Herzog witnessed a steady flow of people from the room. By the end of the presentation, it was empty. “Even my father had disappeared,” she says.

Bewildered, Herzog waited on the podium until her peripatetic parent came rushing up to insist she follow him downstairs to the convention hall. There she walked into a scene in which “It appeared the world was on fire.” Wall-size video screens used to display the latest technology for oil and gas exploration were tuned to CNN, each blazing forth the scene of Armageddon playing out 2,000 miles away.

Given the nation’s love affair with SUVs — to say nothing of the two wars we’ve waged in part to secure our supply of oil — you’d think Herzog’s father, Dr. Vladimir Pisetski, would be welcomed with open arms. Pisetski is an expert on seismic-data analysis and the architect of a new theory of geophysical behavior which enables engineers to predict where oil and gas might be found. He is dean of the Department of Geoinformation at the Urals State Academy of Mining, Russia’s foremost center for geophysical research and the former Soviet Union’s counterpart to the prestigious Colorado School of Mines.





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Since 1991, Pisetski has been coming to the U.S. to give presentations about his theory, known as the Dynamic Fluid Method, to oil industry experts; yet for the past two years he has been unable to get a visa. Since 9/11, tens of thousands of scientists have faced similar obstacles. Of course, there’s nothing special about scientists — musicians, journalists, film producers and rubber-band manufacturers have also been subject to visa hassles. But the U.S. economy relies on science as
an engine of innovation; by keeping foreign scientists away we are damaging our high-tech industrial base. The visa process has become so cumbersome, even the National Science Board (NSB) warns in a new report of its negative impact.





 

Since 1980, science and engineering jobs have grown at a rate four times that of the general U.S. work force. Increasingly, however, these slots have been filled by foreigners. A quarter of all degree-holding workers in U.S. scientific professions are now foreign-born. Of those holding engineering jobs at the doctoral level, 51 percent come from overseas. As do almost 45 percent in the life sciences, the physical sciences and the mathematical and computer sciences. While Americans love the fruits of science — cell phones enabled by microwave networks and video games driven by high-speed graphics chips — the sad fact is that not many of us want to do science. We are not producing nearly enough scientists of our own.

And just at the time we are dependent on foreign labor, homeland security fears are making it more onerous for them to come here. According to the NSB report, Science and Engineering Indicators 2004, high skill–related visas granted to temporary workers, students and exchange visitors (like Pisetski) have dropped from a high of 787,000 in 2001 to 625,000 in 2003.

Issued biennially, the Indicators is a kind of state-of-the-science-nation report. This year the authors take the unusual step of including a section titled “Has September 11th Affected the U.S. Scientific Labor Force?” The answer, unequivocally, is yes. In 2002, the total number of high-skilled work visas declined by almost 20 percent. In part, the report says, this drop reflects the fewer number of applicants — itself a worrisome trend indicating stiffer global competition — but most of the slide can be attributed to an upturn in State Department refusal rates. Since 2001, refusals for both high-skilled workers and exchange visitors have almost doubled. Refusals for student visas have likewise escalated, to 35 percent, causing a precipitous decline in enrollments at graduate programs in computer science and engineering departments across the country.

The Indicators authors are blunt about the consequences: “The ability and willingness of people to cross national borders crucially affects the science and technology enterprise in the United States,” they write. Industry is hurting because employers can’t get personnel. The report notes that the U.S. share of global high-tech exports is declining, while that of Asian countries (led by China and South Korea) has climbed to nearly 30 percent. Basic science is also suffering. According to another report by the National Science Foundation, U.S. output of scientific papers has fallen by 10 percent in the past decade. In the mid-1990s, Europe surpassed us as the leading engine of scientific literature. In a small but stinging index of wider global trends, the number of Nobel Prizes won by U.S. scientists is down. Of more concrete concern, the percentage of U.S. industrial patents issued to American companies has been falling, and is now at 52 percent of the total.

The visa spigot has become so clogged that last week 20 leading science organizations, including the National Academies of Science and Engineering, released a statement urging the federal
government to take action. Among the six recommendations was one to “revise visa reciprocity agreements between the United States and key sending countries such
as China and Russia,” to reduce the number of times repeat visitors like Pisetski must renew
their visas.

 

Like many homeland security measures, visa tightening works not by outright denial but by smothering applicants in red tape. In the past, explains Jim Lawnick from the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG), foreign scientists wishing to attend a conference here simply needed a letter of invitation, and with two to three weeks’ notice they could get a visa from their local U.S. embassy or consulate. Post-9/11, every applicant must undergo an interview, and merely scheduling that can take up to six weeks. Getting an actual visa can take many months more. Especially in a place like Siberia, where Pisetski lives. In 2002, Herzog says, her father was eventually granted a visa, but not until five months after he’d applied and three months after the conference ended. In 2003, he was told he didn’t have sufficient paperwork to put in an application — his SEG letter wasn’t enough. Just what would be enough was not made clear.

Pisetski is by no means the only foreign scientist who’s been unable to attend SEG events. Since 9/11, Lawnick says, there has been a major drop-off in attendance among their 10,000 overseas members. Last year, at least a hundred Chinese scientists also failed to obtain visas, “and these are just the one’s we know about.” This year the SEG is going out of its way to help, particularly toward the Chinese. Each invitation letter will now be numbered, and a list of names and associated numbers will be sent to every U.S. consulate in China. Lawnick notes that all this “adds another layer of complexity. But we want to do whatever we can.”

Not surprisingly, he says, some scientists “have just given up.” They are looking for conferences elsewhere, particularly in Europe where, despite the bombings in Madrid, neurosis about the new world order is less hysterical. The SEG’s European sister event taking place in Paris next month will be attended by a large number of Russian geophysicists, including Pisetski.

The group’s U.S. conference will be held again in October, and Herzog says her father will try once more for a visa. But they are not optimistic. In the meantime, Pisetski’s geophysical consulting firm, Trans Seismic, is evaluating oil fields for the Mexican state company Pemex. Herzog, who is now a U.S. citizen and a co-director of Trans Seismic, says they would love to be doing business in the U.S., but it’s almost impossible to operate here unless her father can come to demonstrate his technology. “The chances are that in the future we’ll be doing business with French rather than U.S. companies,” she says.

View the National Science Board’s report, Science and Engineering Indicators 2004.

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