GAO DETAILS RECOMMENDATIONS FOR IMPROVING THE FOREIGN SCIENTIST VISA PROCESS AT HOUSE SCIENCE COMMITTEE HEARING
On February 25, the House Science Committee heard from Bush Administration officials and the Government Accounting Office (GAO) on the current status of the conflict between science and national security in Visa policy. The hearing is a follow-up to a March 2003 hearing that addressed the committee's concerns about the impact of security measures on scientific research. Testifying at the hearing were Asa Hutchinson, Undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS); Jess Ford, Director of International Affairs and Trade at the Government Accounting Office (GAO); Janice Jacobs, Assistant Secretary for the Office of Consular affairs at the Department of State (State) and Robert Garrity, Jr., Deputy Assistand Director for Record/Information Administration at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The hearing charter, witness testimony and archived webcast of the hearing can be viewed at www.house.gov/science/hearings/full04/index.htm. Individuals at academic institutions may find the hearing charter a particularly useful summary of the background information regarding foreign student visas.
Much of the hearing focused on the just-released report by the GAO on the visa adjudication process (http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d04371.pdf). The report documents the GAO's findings from a 2003 review of time to adjudicate visas for science students and scholars. GAO found that visa applications take an average of 67 days to be approved; however, they also found that 400 visa applications were still outstanding after 60 days at posts in China, India, and Russia in September 2003. They also found numerous cases that were pending more than 120 days as of October 16, 2003. GAO noted that the time it takes to clear a visa is highly dependent on whether the applicant must undergo an interagency security check known as visas mantis. A visas mantis check is required by State, FBI and other interested Washington agencies (e.g. USDA) when there are potential concerns that the visa applicant may engage in the illegal transfer of sensitive technology. Despite common belief that much of the delay in Visa processing is due to preventing terrorists from entering the U.S. by posing as students (as did one 9/11 conspirator), State and DHS officials repeatedly pointed out at the hearing that the Mantis process is designed to protect against sensitive technology transfers and that those reviews take some time to complete.
GAO found that a variety of factors could cause delay in processing a visa mantis request, including: improperly formatted requests, inoperability problems among the systems State and FBI use, uncertainty by consular staff at posts as to when they should apply Visas Mantis checks, and delay/wait time for an interview for overseas scholars and students. State, DHS and FBI all reported progress since GAO conducted its study on many of these issues at the hearing, but all three agencies seemed hesitant to directly comply with GAO's number one recommendation to develop and implement a plan to improve the Visas Mantis process. All agencies agreed that they would work together to improve the process, but when pressed by committee members as to whether they would actually write a plan, none of the officials gave a clear affirmative answer.
Hutchinson also spoke about the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), which was implemented as part of the USA PATRIOT Act. SEVIS, implemented in January 2003, is a computerized database of foreign students in the U.S.. Higher education institutions must input information on their foreign students and keep information such as the student's address and educational status up-to-date. In response to prior concern about "breaches of confidentiality" in SEVIS, Hutchinson testified that they have found and implemented a solution to the problem. Hutchinson told the committee that colleges and universities are complying well with the reporting requirements. According to Hutchinson, only anomalies (such as dropping out, not attending classes, unexpected changes in majors (i.e., English literature to nuclear physics) must be reported through the system. Hutchinson noted that through SEVIS, DHS identified 200 individuals posing as legitimate students who were not actually enrolled at an institution of higher education.
Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) expressed concern that "we can't have a visa system that needlessly discourages and alienates scientists from around the world who could be a boon to this country." While concerned over inefficiencies in the agencies charged with handling international visas, Chairman Boehlert also acknowledged Congress's share in the blame, referring to their inability to fully fund the agencies requests to implement technology interoperability (the FBI had requested $400 million, but received only $330 million). Research Subcommittee Chairman Nick Smith (R-MI) summed up the sentiment of many committee members, "This hearing is not a forum to pit the interests of science against the interests of security. Rather, our task is to eliminate bureaucratic inefficiencies in the existing security system that compromise our nation's ability to attract promising scientists and engineers."
INTELLIGENT DESIGN CONTROVERSY RESURFACES IN OHIO
Seemingly missing the spotlight now enjoyed by Georgia, Missouri, Minnesota and Oklahoma, to name a few, Ohio has once again emerged as a player in the campaign to introduce creationism and intelligent design into public school science curricula. In February, with a vote of 13-4 the Ohio State Board of Education gave preliminary approval to a science model teaching guide that the Mansfield News Journal reports "includes a chapter titled 'Critical analysis of evolution' that recommends 10th graders debate several common critiques of the theory" of evolution. Critics of the model note that it includes references and links to creationist and intelligent design materials.
The conservative Christian organization, Focus on the Family, has issued a call to action. In an item in their CitizenLink, the organization contends "Fiercely protective pro-Darwinists are attempting to derail the new science standards before kids in the classroom ever reap the benefits of this dramatic change in policy." The organization has also issued an action alert to mobilize their forces in Ohio to contact members of the Board of Education by March 5th.
Despite criticisms that they are merely 'whining,' scientists, educators and concerned citizens across the state are coming together in their opposition to the proposed model. A letter from the State University Education Deans to the Ohio Board of Education notes that "Scientists and science educators among the faculty at Ohio's public institutions have shared with us a concern that Intelligent Design is creeping back into the Ohio science standards through the revised lesson plans recently posted on the Ohio Department of Education website and considered for adoption by the State Board." On February 26th, the Faculty Council of The Ohio State University resoundingly passed a resolution supporting "the removal of the 'critical analysis of evolution' module from the state's Model Curriculum, and "support[ing] the addition of new modules" aligned with state standards that "accurately reflect scientific issues in contemporary evolutionary biology." For more information about the status of the proposed lesson plans, visit the Ohio Citizens for Science website at www.ohioscience.org or contact the National Center for Science Education at www.ncseweb.org.
OKLAHOMA LEGISLATION NOT OK
The Oklahoma House of Representatives has passed legislation, HB 2194, which would require the inclusion of a disclaimer in science textbooks. HB 2194 as introduced provided a mechanism for the state to purchase Braille and electronic format materials for blind and low vision students, bringing the state into compliance with federal education requirements. However, the legislation was amended by State Representative Bill Graves (R-Oklahoma City), a perennial champion of creationism. Education advocates in Oklahoma suspect that many members of the Oklahoma State House were unaware that Rep. Graves' textbook disclaimer provision, which has repeatedly been defeated in recent years, had been inserted into the legislation. The disclaimer closely resembles the one used in Alabama from 1996-2001. Specifically, Section 2 of the passed version of HB 2194 would establish a new law requiring that all textbooks used by school districts in the state in which evolution is discussed shall include the following disclaimer: "This textbook discusses evolution, a controversial theory which some scientists present as scientific explanation for the origin of living things, such as plants and humans. No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life's origins should be considered as theory, not fact. The word evolution may refer to many types of changes. Evolution describes changes that occur within a species, for example, white moths may evolve into gray moths. This process is microevolution which can be observed and described as fact. Evolution may also refer to the change of one living thing to another, such as reptiles into birds. This process, called macroevolution has never been observed and should be considered a theory. Evolution also refers to the unproven belief that random, undirected forces produced a world of living things." "There are many unanswered questions about the origin of life which are not mentioned in your textbook, including: Why did the major groups of animals suddenly appear in the fossil record, known as the Cambrian Explosion? Why have no new major groups of living things appeared in the fossil record in a long time? Why do major groups of plants and animals have no transitional forms in the fossil record? How did you and all living things come to possess such a complete and complex set of instructions for building a living body?" "Study hard and keep an open mind. Someday you may contribute to the theories of how living things appeared on earth." According to the legislation, the State Textbook Committee "shall determine which textbooks shall include the disclaimer" and if the disclaimer is not included by the publisher the Committee shall ensure the inclusion of the disclaimer in books approved for use in public schools. Furthermore, the legislation includes provisions that were removed from legislation in the State Senate, SB 894, which would enable local districts to adopt textbooks not on the statewide approval list, and require that the state pay for up to 25 percent of the cost of these unapproved textbooks. This provision increases the potential that books which include intelligent design, young-Earth creationism, or other concepts lacking scientific credibility could be adopted by school districts in Oklahoma. Science education advocates in Oklahoma are working to inform members of the State Senate about the negative impacts of the disclaimer provision now in HB 2194 and to encourage them not to support legislation that includes these provisions.
CONVENTION ON BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY SETS GLOBAL GOALS
A conference on the Convention on Biological Diversity has lead to a decision to set more specific, measurable targets for reducing the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. According to Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, the action by 187 countries attending the forum means governments will be able to accurately monitor whether they are making real progress in protecting species faced with extinction. According to a statement by the United Nations, it was "agreed to conserve at least 10 percent of each ecosystem, stabilize populations of certain declining species and ensure that international trade does not endanger any species of wild flora of fauna." Participants at the conference also agreed to begin talks to identify how to craft a global system for access to genetic resources and benefit-sharing.
NEW IN BIOSCIENCE--THE ECOLOGICAL BENEFITS OF EPA ACTIONS: WHAT ARE THEY WORTH?
The March Washington Watch of BioScience is now available online: "What is the economic benefit of preserving and protecting environmental health in the United States? That is the question being asked of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the branch of the White House that oversees the federal budgeting process. OMB mandates that each regulation or action proposed by federal agencies, including EPA, be justified by cost-benefit analysis in order to be approved for funding. But according to scientists and agency officials, nonmarket goods, such as ecological benefits resulting from EPA decisions, are difficult to quality and 'monetize' (price)."
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