Will the US ever know another Albert Einstein, an immigrant from Germany who moved to the US in 1933 and became an American citizen in 1940? Not only was Einstein a Nobel laureate, but he played a key political role as well. He was effective in urging the US to proceed in developing an atomic bomb before Germany did and, after the war, he was a strong voice warning of the dangers of nuclear proliferation. This is just one example of the important role foreign-born scientists have played in America. The economy, specifically its science and technology sectors, has relied on a continuing flow of foreign-born talent throughout history. Foreign scientists play an integral role in the US scientific community by providing research and teaching assistance to faculty. They conduct critical cutting-edge research in industry. They promote the international flow of knowledge in general and enrich the American scientific community. This ultimately results in economic growth and improved quality of life for everyone. The US has a long history of welcoming the world's top scientists, understanding the enormous benefits available from the exchange of their knowledge. Imagine denying Einstein access to the US. In fact, this is exactly what today's American immigration policy is doing.

Since September 11, 2001, it has become difficult for foreign-born students and professors to obtain visas to study or teach at US institutions. Additionally, foreign-born scientists are encountering barriers to attendance at international conferences being held in the US. In 2001, 30.6% of science doctorates and 54.8% of engineering doctorates at US institutions were earned by individuals with non-US citizenship [National Science Foundation, Science and Engineering Doctorate Awards: 2001, Arlington, VI (2002)]. When foreign-born students successfully obtain a visa, study, and graduate from US universities, a significant majority remain in the US and become a critical part of the innovation talent base. With the exception of new fields, such as computer science, the largest population block of science and technology degree holders is between the ages of 40-49. The retirement of these scientists coupled with the recent visa debacle will result in a critical science talent gap. It is quite clear, the US must act now. The visa system, specifically with regard to scientists, needs to be reexamined.

For example, before a student can apply for a visa, the student must prove their ‘intent to return home’, requiring an investigation to ensure that they have family and assets remaining in the native country. Although this may sound like a good policy for a nonscientist entering the country, it is just not applicable to the science community, who rarely become a ‘burden on society’ but in fact, more often than not, make significant contributions.

Our current visa process is also dauntingly slow. One clear bottleneck is that every applicant is required to have a face-to-face interview. During this interview, a consular officer determines whether an individual's profile meets the Technology Alert List (TAL) criteria. Unfortunately, the list contains broad science-related terms. Therefore, most scientists match the TAL standard, resulting in a more rigorous and time consuming visa process. The TAL needs to be carefully reviewed and individuals conducting the interviews need to possess scientific literacy so that not every scientist triggers this special security check.

In parallel, the US needs to recruit scientists actively from abroad to counteract the negative image that has formed over the past four years. In fact, a study by the Council of Graduate Schools in February 2004 reported that the number of US graduate school applications from international students dropped approximately 32% in 2002-2003. In total, more than 90% of the 113 US graduate schools participating in the survey reported a reduction in international applications.

This issue is even more alarming at a time when the US is relying on foreign suppliers not only for low-end commodity materials but also increasingly for high-tech products; growth and development of new products are rapidly declining on US soil. This country has long depended on innovation as a keystone for economic success. Therefore, the visa system must serve a dual purpose of both preserving US national security and the nation's roots for economic growth. These aspects are not mutually exclusive.

If current trends created largely by the visa system continue then, in a few short years, we will face a devastating cutback in the US talent base. Thus, in keeping with America's long-established policy of welcoming international science students and science exchange, and in order to protect the science and technology sectors for the future, it is essential that we demand change from the government. I don't think I want to risk preventing the next Albert Einstein from entering the country. Do you?

[1] Karin Ezbiansky Pavese is the American Association for the Advancement of Science Congressional Science Policy Fellow sponsored by the Materials Research Society and the Optical Society of America.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(05)00825-4