Nature, arguably the world's most prestigious science journal, features in its latest issue the recent denial of US visas to some Indian scientists. Here's how its story opens:
Scientific cooperation between India and the United States has been dented ahead of US President George Bush's official visit to New Delhi next month. Bush will find India's scientific community in a bitter mood following the United States' failure to give a visa to a leading Indian organic chemist on the suspicion that his work could be related to chemical warfare.
Newsweek too has picked up the story, and its coverage is the best that I have seen so far:
Visa rejections or delays for foreign academics after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have led to widespread complaints by U.S universities and scientific organizations, but the new incident comes when things are improving, said Wendy White, director of the Board of International Scientific Organizations. The board was set up by the National Academy of Sciences and has helped about 3,000 scientists affected by the new policies.
"This leaves a terrible impression of the United States," said White, who has seen a copy of the consulate's form letter to Mehta. In an interview yesterday, she added that top scientists had worked with senior State Department officials to reverse the decision before Bush's visit next week. "We want people to know the U.S. is an open and welcoming country."
In response to my earlier post on this topic, a commenter suggests that we should not blow this issue out of proportion, implying that we are protesting too much. I disagree. In fact, I would even say our protests so far are not strong enough!
First, science is an international affair that has always placed a high value on collaborations and participation in conferences. Thus, anything that comes in the way of a scientist's freedom to pursue these two activities must be condemned in strongest possible terms.
Second, these two reasons for visiting a country -- conferences and collaboration -- have nothing at all to do with the country in question. You go to a conference because of its prestige, not because it's held in the US. Similarly, you collaborate with Prof. X because he/she is Prof. X, not because he/she lives in the US. Denying people a visa for these purposes is wrong.
When a denial-of-visa attack appears to target a significant section of the scientific commnuity (not just the top scientists, but also others -- including students) in a country, shouldn't we be protesting loudly? Aren't such protests better than demands that our country wage a war of reciprocal visa denials with the US?
Finally, what is wrong in pointing out shameful practices (I am told that in international relations, there is no such thing as shame, but still ...), and demanding that our fellow scientists be treated fairly?
Update (24 February 2006): This issue has been picked up by both NYTimes and Washington Post. Both report that Prof. Mehta's visa has been granted, though he has been quoted as saying that he has already canceled his visit. Dr. Rodriguez's visa has also been granted, after he submitted by e-mail a questionnaire he was asked to fill.
Here's a key paragraph, buried in the middle of the NYTimes report:
The embassy said Dr. Mehta's application would be considered as quickly as he submitted the additional information, which would then be sent to Washington for final approval. Such scrutiny applies to "one-half of 1 percent" of applicants, the embassy noted, adding that it had granted 313,815 visas in 2005. The embassy declined to say how many applications it had rejected.
Don't get carried away by the huge number (300K +) of visas being issued (it includes H1-B, business, student and tourist visas). The number of scientists who wish to visit the US for conferences and collaboration is a far smaller; they probably form the bulk of the "one-half of one percent" of applicants. The recent spate of visa denials is clearly a targeted activity. No wonder the US Embassy here is being slammed by the Paris-based International Council for Science (ICSU), "an umbrella group of 133 national academies of science and international science unions". It's representative gets it exactly right when he says:
"Professor Mehta is a very well known scientist, but there are many lesser known scientists to whom this is happening," [Carthage Smith, Deputy Executive Director of ICSU] said. "The bigger issue is important."
The bigger issue is important, and that's why it's absolutely vital that we voice our protest loudly and strongly. We need to do it, not (just) for high-ranking scientists like Professors Mehta, Rodriguez and Kesavan, but for a lot of other scientists whose cases don't make it to newspapers.
Take the case of one of our students I mentioned in my earlier post. He is unable to schedule another visa interview before the conference begins; the appointments are full up all the way out to the end of April, while the conference is just a couple of weeks away. The proximity of the date of visit, apparently, is not a valid reason for seeking an emergency visa interview (even if it means paying a higher fee). Geeeez!