Visa Challenges Continue for Many Non-US Scientists

Scientific societies are pushing for change
15 July 2019
By Karen Thomas

In 2017, the Trump administration issued a controversial executive order restricting entry into the US by citizens from multiple countries. A few days after this order, while traveling to SPIE Photonics West in San Francisco, a few non-US attendees were denied entry to the country. Other attendees arriving from outside the US reported having visa-related problems at some ports of entry.

In response, SPIE sent an open letter to the administration in Washington expressing concerns over the travel ban.

"We were surprised and disappointed to hear that speakers and attendees for this conference were denied entry into the United States," said then-SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs. "As a scientific society, a core element of our mission is to provide forums where researchers can share advances that benefit people everywhere. At this conference specifically, a major focus is on technology and applications in biomedical imaging that help improve healthcare around the world."

Despite efforts by SPIE and other scientific societies, this travel issue persists. As Katarina Zimmer writes in The Scientist, individual researchers and science organizations are coming up with solutions to assist colleagues around the globe in attending conferences, including holding remote presentations and relocating conferences. Zimmer notes this is not just a US problem. "Many scientists who hold passports from developing countries have to apply for visas to travel to countries such as Canada—a process that is expensive and subject to delays and stringent requirements from host countries' immigration departments," she writes. "Every year, a number of them can't attend conferences in their field because visa applications aren't processed in time or are rejected outright." Similar issues in the UK made the news last November when 17 researchers from Asian and African countries were kept from attending a London-based World Health Organization conference due to visa-related challenges.

"Scientific and technical conferences provide a vital forum for information exchange, program review, collaboration, and recruitment," says SPIE Government Affairs Director Jennifer Douris O'Bryan. "Broad participation from the whole of the scientific community is key to ensuring the quality of these interactions. Exclusion of portions of society robs the whole community of their valuable contributions and limits scientific advancement."

There is still a little light shining at the end of the tunnel. Addressing a related topic, US Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), recently introduced the Keep STEM Talent Act of 2019 to help international students pursuing advanced degrees in STEM stay in the US after graduation, if they wish to.

"SPIE supports policies that allow for the international mobility of scientists, and we are proud to support the Keep STEM Talent Act of 2019," says SPIE CEO Kent Rochford. "As our development of technology, the sciences, and engineering grows by leaps and bounds, it is imperative for the US to embrace and nurture a workforce capable of growing these areas in innovative and exciting directions. The peace-of-mind that stable and ongoing employment provides is critical to retaining the level of knowledge, expertise, and commitment that optics and photonics and its fellow scientific arenas now need. SPIE thanks Senators Durbin, Blumenthal, Harris, and Klobuchar for introducing this transformative bill, and we urge their fellow lawmakers to support their efforts and move forward this piece of legislation."

Related SPIE content:

SPIE-Endorsed STEM Bill Introduced in US Senate

SPIE leaders ask reconsideration of US entry stance, offer assistance in developing policy

SPIE Position Statements

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