Sunday, September 7, 2003

Security impedes research

Foreign students denied visas; research money lost

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Nearly two years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the University of Cincinnati and other higher education institutions are beginning to quantify how new security measures are affecting their schools.

They are reporting missed grant application deadlines, delayed experiments and untold losses in potential funding because of prolonged security reviews and higher visa denial rates for foreign students.

NAFSA: Association of International Educators, the leading organization in the field of international education and exchange, estimates that foreign students and their dependents contributed nearly $12 billion to the U.S. economy in 2001-02. That includes tuition and fees as well as living expenses. Here is a breakdown by state:
Ohio: $379.5 million
(University of Cincinnati students: $40.7 million)
Kentucky: $75.6 million
Indiana: $270.8 million
While the financial impact has not been estimated, educators are anticipating their next move in a scenario that one expert likened to losing the cleanup hitter in a university's research lineup.

"We don't have a gauge about the severity of the impact yet," said Peter Syverson, vice president for research at the Washington, D.C.-based Council of Graduate Schools.

"That's the edge of the cliff we're on."

But the council and other higher education associations are compiling stories of lost lab time and delays in experiment findings for the departments of State and Homeland Security in an effort to assess the effects that post-Sept. 11 security measures are having on scholars' ability to arrive on time - if at all.

They expect to put a dollar value on the impact to research done by these scientists.

UC feels effects

At home, officials at UC - the region's premier research institution - say the sting has been particularly acute. Because of security review backlogs, UC expects to experience up to a 20 percent decline in the number of new international students arriving when classes start Sept. 24.

Already, deadlines for grant applications have been missed. One professor's research in the chemistry department was slowed because a post-doctoral researcher hired in January just recently received his visa papers.

Another professor was forced to teach 20 students in a summer lecture and lab class after a visiting Egyptian professor never arrived.

Officials at UC, ranked 46th in the nation for the amount of money it spends on research, are worried about the impact. In 2001, the university spent $128 million. International students played a key role in conducting that research.

These students perennially fill underenrolled science courses that colleges would otherwise find difficult to offer, said UC's Ron Cushing, director of international student services. Nearly 90 percent of the 1,906 international students enrolled at UC in 2002-03 were graduate students.

"Increasingly, foreign graduate students provide crucial support for teaching and research, especially in the sciences," Cushing said.

Professors stuck

The stories of snags and delays crisscrossing the country are not unlike those told in Ohio.

Officials from Ohio State University report that five research scholars and countless students are experiencing visa application delays for the upcoming school year, which begins Sept. 24 One virologist has been waiting since March 2002 to travel to Columbus.

At Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, the international student services director has fielded three calls from local apartment management companies asking about the status of foreign students.

On UC's campus, the impact is apparent:

• Bing Su, an assistant professor, joined UC Medical School's Genome Research Institute in May 2001. He travels to China two or three times a year to work with Chinese colleagues on a project about modern human origin and prehistoric migrations in East Asia.

Before March, Su never experienced problems with his visa applications. After two interviews, he was told his case would be referred for a security check.

"I got stuck in China since then, and it's been more than four months," he said. "Due to the delay of my visa, my research project at UC had to be put on hold, and I've missed two deadlines for submitting grant proposals (worth $1.8 million in funding). As the funding is critical for my research, my students and staff, it's hard to estimate the damage since the influence is long-term."

• Ahmed Galal Abdo, a professor at the University of Cairo, received his Ph.D. in chemistry at UC in 1992 and has come to teach courses nearly every summer since 1994. He didn't arrive in time for the start of summer quarter, leaving 20 students without their assigned professor days before classes started, until someone else in the department stepped in.

"Ahmed is probably the poster child for how messed up this is," said Tom Ridgway, a chemistry professor and graduate programs director. "He still hasn't gotten permission to come back in. So, as a result, I ended up teaching the courses.''

Companies concerned, too

Stuart Patt, a spokesman for the consular affairs bureau of the State Department, said the agency is aware of students' concerns about arriving to campus on time.

"The advice we try to give is apply three months ahead of time if you can,'' Patt said. "We've asked the consulates to mark whether they are a student so they can get some priority to make it for the fall semester. It's all part of national security.

Still, educators and those in the business community are concerned about the long-term effects these delays may have on research.

Wendy White, director of the board on international scientific organizations for the National Academies, said there have been rumblings about international students who don't want to risk the long waits to study in the United States when there's no guarantee they'll get in.

Even if they arrive, the stateside companies that hire them may restrict their travel home for holidays and birthdays. Some large manufacturing and biotech companies have reported to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that they have restricted the travel of international Ph.D. hires from American schools because of the uncertainty of their return dates.

"Companies are saying, 'If you go home and don't know when you can come back, we can't guarantee your slot or we won't give you leave to go," said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration policy for the chamber.

Tarnished reputation?

Business leaders have rallied, lobbying the State Department to expedite the visa process because the competition from firms outside the United States is building.

"We're hearing enough anecdotes from enough places to know it's a burgeoning problem," Brown said. "It's going to hurt the U.S. economy in terms of competitiveness. Companies are beginning to hear from their customers that the U.S. is an inhospitable place."

That's the attitude that worries UC's Cushing.

"Recent efforts by our government to constrain the flow of international visitors in the name of national security could have serious consequences for America, particularly in science, engineering, and medicine," he said.

"The United States has long been the leader in the international education field. The question is how much longer will it remain the leader?"


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