There is no doubt that, since 9/11, it has become significantly harder for foreign students, scientists, and engineers to study, attend a conference, or work in the US. The visa application process is now lengthy in very many cases. As well as many individual anecdotes, a number of indicators now suggest that foreign students and scientists are being discouraged from going to the US. For example, a 2003 American Institute of Physics report found that the number of non-US students entering graduate physics programs had declined, two-thirds of PhD-granting departments had accepted students who then could not attend because of visa difficulties, and many departments were struggling to fill research assistant vacancies.

Karin Ezbiansky Pavese makes it abundantly clear in her Opinion on page 64 that US scientific and economic output has benefited immeasurably from foreign scientists in the past. While there is a need to protect sensitive technology from harmful or terrorist use, currently the balance between security and scientific endeavor is not being struck. The US, which proudly used to welcome the world's top scientists, is in danger of preventing them from reaching its shores.

There have been two pieces of positive news in past weeks. The average time taken to process security checks (Visas Mantis) on visa applicants has been reduced to 15 days from 67 days a year ago. This has been achieved through the addition of staff and more guidance to consular officers. Furthermore, the Departments of State and Homeland Security have extended the validity period of Visas Mantis. Students will now gain security clearance for up to four years to cover their entire course, and visiting scientists can gain clearance for up to two years. These changes have been welcomed by the US National Academies and the chairman of the House Committee on Science, Sherwood Boehlert.

Visa applicants qualify for Visa Mantis checks if they are engaged in technologies with ‘dual-use’ applications, as defined by the State Department's Technology Alert List (TAL). The National Academies have said that the TAL is too broad in its definitions and is of ‘questionable benefit’. Pavese echoes these comments in this issue and calls for the list to be reviewed. “Casting too wide a net in visa reviews actually damages our security,” says Boehlert. “It denies us the students and scientists we need to develop the technology we require both for our defense and our economic well-being. It encourages those students and scientists to go to other nations… and, by expending resources on exhaustive reviews for just about everyone who wants to enter the US, we dilute our focus on those who might truly represent a threat.”

Reducing the time taken for security checks is, of course, welcome. But the need for checks on so many scientists should be reexamined. Uncalled-for, intrusive checks are making scientists feel unwelcome and they are going elsewhere to the detriment of the US scientifc community.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(05)00772-8