Commentary: How the War on Terror Is Damaging the Brain Pool

By Catherine Arnst

Malaysian engineering students have long flocked to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. It used to take about two weeks for an entering freshman from the mostly Muslim nation to get a student visa, but last year, 20 Malaysian freshmen had to wait six months before receiving their visas, forcing them to miss the fall semester. "This is a very difficult time," says RPI assistant dean of students Jane D. Havis. "I'm telling foreign students not to go home this summer if it means they need to apply for a new visa stamp."

The visa problems hitting many of the 583,000 foreign students enrolled at U.S. college and graduate programs stem from a government crackdown following the September 11 attacks. At that time, tough measures made sense: Three Saudi-born September 11 terrorists had entered the U.S. on student visas for flight school. And it was clear that the Immigration & Naturalization Service had no effective means of tracking thousands of other people who were entering on such visas every year -- and then illegally seeking employment.

Yet even if some new requirements and tighter surveillance are warranted, these measures may soon take a dire toll. Already, they have caused massive disruptions for legitimate scholars -- especially in science and engineering, the fields that attract the vast majority of foreign students. At many U.S. embassies around the world, applicants for student visas now face months of delays. In one recent survey, 53% of U.S. universities said they had students who missed the fall semester because of the roadblocks.

There is evidence that immigration officials are especially leery of applicants seeking training in a long list of technical and scientific fields listed in new homeland-security guidelines. The State Dept. reports that the number of student-visa applications held up for special security reviews because they were in technical fields rose to 14,000 last year from just 2,500 the year before. Yet these are precisely the areas where foreign students make the biggest contribution to American society. Foreign research assistants make up one-third or more of the staffs of the nation's top academic labs. Nearly a third of the doctoral degrees in science and engineering awarded in the U.S. each year go to foreign nationals, as do 40% of the PhDs in engineering and computer science, according to the National Science Foundation's 2002 Science & Engineering Indicators.

At Princeton University, for example, 43% of graduate students are foreign nationals, most of them in technical fields. And despite a common belief, the degree programs don't simply benefit the students' homelands. Two-thirds of foreign students earning PhDs in science or engineering remain in the U.S. Foreign-born scientists "have helped the U.S. achieve the preeminence in science and technology that has led to our strong economic growth and long-term national security," Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman recently testified before Congress. Furthermore, she noted, some one-third of U.S. Nobel prize winners are born overseas.

Complaints from university administrators cover the treatment of students once they arrive in addition to their difficulties in getting in. At Arizona State University, federal agents raided the homes of six Muslim students in April, handcuffing them while searching for weapons. The raid was sparked by a visit the men made to a local shooting range a week earlier. No weapons were found, and no charges were brought.

Such examples are by no means confined to America's foreign-born Islamic community. Concerned about the general problem of students overstaying their visas, federal agents have targeted a wide swath of foreign nationals. University of Wisconsin President John D. Wiley tells of a highly regarded Chinese doctoral candidate who went home this spring to visit his wife. Customs officials barred the man from reentering the U.S., even though his visa was in order. "This is a brilliant man, a man any university would be eager to hire, and now he cannot return," Wiley complains. Princeton University administrators say the school has been waiting for months for a Russian physicist who applied for his visa in January. And a Brazilian doctor at Johns Hopkins Medical School is stuck in his home country after going back for a conference, leaving others to take on his caseload.

Wiley and others worry that incessant visa troubles will cause foreign students to give up on America and choose instead to study in Europe, Australia, or Canada, all of which are competing for the world's best and brightest. Already, Indiana's Purdue University, which has more foreign students than any other public university, has seen a 10% decline in overseas graduate applications and a 5% drop in undergrad applications for September. Arizona State, where 19.2% of students are foreign, is also feeling the fall-off. "If our international enrollment dropped significantly, it would pause, if not halt, a lot of research projects," says Marjorie S. Zatz, associate dean of the school's graduate programs.

Washington is aware of the danger. As White House Science Advisor John H. Marburger III told a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science: "Most of the current delays and backlogs are related to our efforts to screen more applicants more rigorously and not as a result of policies to exclude."

Yet for some in Washington, the debate about visas stokes misplaced fears about the influx of foreigners. When the House Science Committee held a hearing in March to investigate the visa backlog, some committee members appeared to be more concerned about how to preserve science and engineering posts for U.S. students. The appropriate objective, in the words of Representative Dana Rohrbacher (R-Calif.), is "to reduce the need to attract such a high percentage of foreign students."

Improving science education for primary and high school students is a worthy goal. But success in this endeavor is probably a long way off. And it won't offset America's loss if the country ceases to attract the world's most accomplished students, budding scientists, and scholars. U.S. educational institutions should be encouraged to continue sharing their intellectual riches. We reap the returns many times over.

With William C. Symonds in Boston

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