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An editorial in last week's issue of Science argues that US visa requirements are damaging scientific exchange between China and the United States.

The authors of the editorial, Ya-Ping Zhang and Shigang He, respectively vice-director of the Kunming Institute of Zoology and professor at the Institute of Biophysics in Beijing, based their claim on a quick opinion poll of Chinese colleagues.

They sent an email survey to 400 professors and graduate students at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the universities of Peking, Fudan, Yunnan and Wuhan. Seventy-six scientists responded.

Of these, 91 per cent said they were "seriously rethinking their collaborations with US scientists and intend to work with scientists in countries where obtaining a visa is not a problem".

Seventy-one per cent said they would avoid going to the United States and 95 per cent thought current US visa requirements were damaging scientific exchange between China and the United States.

"Much of what you are seeing [in this poll] is a reflection of the past," says Dennis Murphy, spokesperson for the US Department of Homeland Security.

Heightened security measures since the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, United States, are said to have increased red tape and delays to visa applications. These include face-to-face interviews and background checks on visa applicants.

"Over the last few years, we have been working very hard with the US State Department to improve the entire process," Murphy told SciDev.Net. He said visa applications were now "much easier, much quicker, and less onerous".

Murphy said the department was continuing to look "aggressively" at the regulations to see where they can be further simplified. "We would urge people to continue to view [the United States] as a welcoming place," he said.

While the visa application process has evolved since the initial surge of heightened security after September 2001, many believe it can still be improved on.

Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the US Council on Education, is among them.

"There is no doubt that the Department of Homeland Security has tried to address problems in the process," he told SciDev.Net. "There is also no doubt that the process is far more complicated than before [11 September 2001]."

However, Hartle agrees with Murphy that the procedural obstacles are only part of the problem; he fears that complicated procedures have made the US seem "less welcoming to would-be international students and scholars than we would want it to be".

"What we want more than anything else is a process that is simple, predictable and transparent," says Hartle. "We haven't yet got there." 

According to a survey by the US Council of Graduate Schools in September, fewer foreign students are going to the United States for their graduate studies (see Foreign students staying away from United States). The largest decrease in admissions is among Chinese students — the largest group of foreign students in the United States. Between 2003 and 2004, admissions of Chinese students dropped by one-third (see US security measures deter foreign graduate students).

According to Zhang and He, more than half of the papers published by Chinese scientists in Science and Nature since September 2004 were co-authored by US researchers.

"This degree of Sino-US collaboration is important for both Chinese and US science," write Zhang and He in Science, "but it is being damaged by the current problems with the US visa process."

They call the recent US isolationism "a backward step", and underline the importance of exchange and collaboration to the scientific process in general, and to the success of US science in particular.

Earlier this year, the United States announced it was taking steps to make it easier for foreign researchers to re-enter the country if they have previously received security clearance (see New US visa policy planned for foreign scientists).

Link to full editorial in Science

Reference: Science 306, 1861 (2004)

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