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By placing unnecessarily heavy obstacles in front of foreign students wishing to study at its universities, the United States is alienating those whose support it urgently needs to combat radical extremism in the developing world.

At the height of the war between England and France at the beginning of the 19th century, the British chemist Sir Humphrey Davy was given a personal promise of safe-conduct by Napoleon to visit Paris to give a scientific paper at the Institut Français. Similarly an eminent French scientist and sailor, Chevalier de Rossel, who had been captured during the conflict and held as a prisoner of war, was allowed to accept an invitation to dine at the Royal Society in London.

These two events are cited by historians of science to illustrate how, in the past, the principle of universalism on which modern science is based has occasionally been allowed to hold sway over national political considerations. Of course, the situation has changed significantly since Davy's day; few in London, for example, would have even contemplated inviting a German scientist to dinner at the height of the Second World War. Nevertheless there remains an important sense in which the scientific community prides itself in helping to foster international understanding, particularly at times of political tension.

It is, therefore, all the more regrettable that one of the more tangible ways in which the impact of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001 is currently being felt across the world has been a raising of the barriers to the international movement of scientists into the United States. This was confirmed last week by a report issued by the National Science Foundation, which found, for example, that most of the top US universities are reporting a significant fall in the number of applicants for postgraduate courses from overseas students, particularly from the developing world.

Legitimate concerns

It would be naïve to criticise the tightening of visa restrictions — including, for example, the closer examination given to all those seeking entry visas. After all, at least one of those responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center entered the United States by that route. And other students may well have picked up scientific or technical information during their US stay that could later be used for military purposes (a major concern, for example, of all those currently working in the biological sciences).

The problem is not so much what is being done, as how it is being done, and the impression that is being created. Much of the delay in obtaining visas, for example, could be eliminated if more consular staff were made available in US offices overseas to cope with the extra burden of work that has been imposed on them. Similarly, investment in additional information technology could significantly increase the speed with which applications are assessed in Washington.

The US State Department says that it is paying close attention to both of these issues (and there is certainly evidence that the delays in processing applications have become shorter over the past year). But, by failing to take adequate account of the powerful impression left by these obstacles — namely that the United States is losing interest in becoming a training ground for scientists from the developing world — the country is unnecessarily alienating just those whose support it urgently needs to combat radical extremism in such regions.

The case for self-interest

There is an element of self-interest here. As has been frequently pointed out in recent months, the current supremacy of the United States in many fields of science can be traced directly back to the massive exodus of scientific talent from Nazi-occupied Europe before and during the Second World War. Many of these individuals (and not only those who became engaged in the development of nuclear weapons) helped to provide the intellectual infrastructure on which the rapid expansion of US science in the 1950s and 1960s was built.

More recently, if less obviously, foreign students have become a large and essential part of the workforce of the US research community. As US graduates in emerging fields such as information technology and genomics turn away from the academic world to seek lucrative commercial careers, the gaps they leave in the staffing of university research departments are increasingly filled by postgraduate researchers and research assistants from the developing world. Many are only too happy to work long hours for relatively low financial rewards in exchange for the experience.

By making it increasingly difficult for such individuals to enter the country — and thus encouraging them to look elsewhere, particularly to Europe, for research training — the United States is, ironically, jeopardising its own scientific and technical prowess, and thus indirectly its long-term future. This has been the main thrust of much recent comment, such as warnings from the National Academy of Sciences, and a widely circulated article last week in The New York Times, which describes how the country could be shooting itself in the foot through its current policies.

Underlying values

Even more damaging from a global point of view, however, is the danger that the United States will no longer be seen as a bastion of openness and pluralism, as it has in the past. Both of these values are essential for the health of science; that is why US science has prospered so well in the past 50 years, certainly compared to societies — such as the Soviet Union — in which such values have not been respected, however much political lip-service is paid to the importance of science.

If the United States is no longer perceived to hold such values in their previous esteem, preferring to opt for ideological correctness and intellectual protectionism (whether in the name of military or economic security), then the global threat to the universal norms under which science has prospered for the last three centuries or more will be immense. Science will become increasingly identified with self-interest, in the process losing much of its intellectual (and social) legitimacy in international affairs.

Furthermore, the impact could easily spill over into other areas. As efforts to bring social stability to Iraq have graphically demonstrated, the United States currently needs as much international support as it can muster — particularly in the Arab world — to ensure that moderate reformists are not trampled underfoot by forces of radical extremism. Science has, historically, been able to play a calming role in such situations, emphasising common interests that can transcend national or cultural identities without displacing either of them.

The activities of organisations ranging from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs have, in their different (and admittedly not always successful) ways, demonstrated a commitment to using science as a bridge between nations. Importantly, it is a bridge which is not only seen as an end in itself, but one that can help build the infrastructure of a less conflict-ridden world.

But when the director of the Third World Academy of Sciences is unable to give an invited keynote address to an important scientific conference because of significant visa-processing delays, or a foreign postgraduate student is delayed by several months before being able to return from a brief family trip abroad, commitments to universalism, and the moderation it can bring with it, begin to evaporate. In such circumstances, the bridge provided by science rapidly begins to turn into a fence that underlines different — not common — interests. Which is the last thing that the Middle East currently requires.