Changes to the US visa system mean foreign science and technology professionals could get approval within two weeks

The US government has implemented changes to its visa system that are expected to make it dramatically easier for foreign researchers and graduate students to enter the country to work or attend scientific conferences.

The State Department has hired additional staff in Washington, DC to process visa applications from individuals whose advanced scientific and technical backgrounds raise red flags from a national security or technology transfer perspective. The agency anticipates that extra staff, together with ’procedural modifications’ made in early June, will allow foreign science and technology professionals who apply for US visas to receive approval within two weeks.

’We found that the processing times of these visas were increasing, and over the last year had increased to a point that made us concerned,’ State Department spokesman Andy Laine tells Chemistry World. ’These delays were creating an obstacle to the legitimate sharing of scientific information.’  

US science advocacy groups like the National Academies and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) are hailing the developments as a victory. They have complained for years that foreign scientists, engineers, and students involved in scientific disciplines face a visa application backlog that harms the nation’s research enterprise. Roughly one-third of all US Nobel laureates in science are born outside the US.

The State Department says 8.7 million people applied for a non-immigrant US visa from October 2007 to September 2008; 56,000 of those were subject to an extra layer of review in Washington because of the applicant’s scientific background.

Chemistry feels the pain

The US chemistry sector is among the science communities adversely affected by visa roadblocks. ’We lose talent to other counties at all levels - graduate students, postdocs, and senior people who could come here to work in academia or industry,’ Stanford University chemistry professor Michael Fayer tells Chemistry World

Chemists who were considering applying for postdoctoral positions or assistant professorships at US universities are choosing to go elsewhere, Canadian or German universities for example, he says. Fayer, who has chaired the school’s chemistry graduate admissions committee, further notes that international participation in US scientific conferences has suffered in recent years. 

Data from the American Chemical Society confirm that there is room for improvement. The group surveyed scientists abroad who were invited to participate in its last three national conferences, which took place in various US cities during 2008 and 2009. Of those who responded, less than half said their visas were approved in time to attend the meetings, and just over three per cent were either denied a visa or were not granted a visa in time. 

While the State Department is confident these latest changes will make a difference, others are not so sure. 

’The proof, of course, will be in the pudding - once we actually start seeing the backlog shrink and the process speeding up,’ states Al Teich, head of science and policy programmes at AAAS. ’The moves that State is currently implementing will not solve all of the problems with the visa system,’ he warns.

Representatives from the National Academies also say they are reserving final judgment until they witness actual improvements. The organisation expects to see results within the next few months and vows to monitor the situation.

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Europe