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[BOGOTA] Researchers in Colombia say that they are being increasingly isolated from the world's science community because of difficulties in obtaining visas to travel to international scientific meetings.

Although there is no evidence why Colombians are being targeted in this way, there is widespread suspicion that it could be the result of extra scrutiny given to visa applications from Colombian citizens by countries concerned about the international movement of drugs — even though this problem has nothing to do with the scientific community.

Last week, in a letter to SciDev.Net (see Why the travel restrictions for Colombian researchers?), scientists in Brazil highlighted the problems faced by Colombians at their institute who had been refused entry into Italy and Ireland without any explanation as to why.

But these are not isolated cases, only the most recent. "Every scientist has his or her own story", says Moisés Wasserman, current president of the Colombian Academy of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences.

In late 2003, Germán Poveda, a well-known Colombian researcher at the National University, was initially refused a visa by the Canadian consulate in Bogotá. He had been invited to present his research at a meeting of the 'human dimensions of global environmental change research community', in Montreal.

Poveda had been asked to present his research on climate variability and malaria outbreaks in Colombia. But the consulate told him that he had not adequately demonstrated that he was intending to return to Colombia.

The Canadian consulate eventually approved the visa, but only after receiving letters from the Colombian Academy of Science — of which Poveda is a member — and the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research, as well as many emails and faxes from Poveda's supporters.

Being a well-known scientist may have helped Poveda overcome the bureaucracy, but for younger scientists wishing to attend scientific meetings, things are even more difficult.

"A young scientist who has been accepted onto a doctoral programme in a developed country will not have any problem getting a visa," says Wasserman. "But the problem is for the graduate students who are working in Third World laboratories — for the benefit of their countries — and want to attend [scientific meetings] in developed countries."

Visa requirements for Colombians are often very difficult to meet, and costs can be prohibitive; it costs US$130, for example, for a visa for the United States. Furthermore, most European countries and the United States require applicants to provide evidence that they have already paid for their travel and accommodation, even without a guarantee that the visa will be approved.

A response may take two to three months, during which time the passport is held by the consulate. So if a scientist wants to go to a European country, and then return via the United States, the whole visa application process can last almost a year.

Statistics on the extent of the problem are lacking. But anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of cases is increasing, especially since the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001.

When two members of the Colombian Association of Science Journalism, for example, recently applied for visas from the Spanish consulate to attend the meeting on public communication in science and technology in June 2004, they were given an appointment for January 2005 — seven months after the event!

It was only after the conference organisers in Spain made special requests that the Colombians were able to attend.

According to Wasserman, such visa restrictions contravene articles 13 and 27 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. "The free circulation of scientists is one of the best-established tenets of the scientific community," he says.

Furthermore it does not appear to be only a North–South problem. "Even among the Latin American countries, it is very difficult for a Colombian scientist to get a visa to go, for example, to Mexico to attend a congress," Wassmeran told SciDev.Net.

Poveda and Wasserman suggest that scientists should be eligible for special visas for scientists, in order to ensure that 'science knowledge' can move freely around the world.

"Science progresses when scientists can meet to discuss results", says Poveda. But visa restrictions mean that scientists "are being excluded from the process of building knowledge."

Wasserman argues that the current situation not only reduces communication between scientists, but also increases the knowledge gap between rich and poorer countries – even accepting that many developing countries do not require visas for scientists from the developed world.

The Colombian Institute for the Development of Science and Technology (Colciencias) is trying to solve the problems caused by the current situation, says its director, María del Rosario Guerra de Mesa. "We have failed in some specific cases, because we haven't heard about them in time," she says. "But our international office is working on that."