2004 July 09 Friday
Visa Policy, Research Controls Seen As Counterproductive

Cornell University physicist Robert C. Richardson, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on low temperature helium, tells the New York Times that restrictions on the movement and work of foreign scientists and restrictions on the handling of dangerous pathogens and compounds are undermining American science.

A. Let me give you an interesting example from Cornell. The Patriot Act, which was passed after 9/11, has a section in it to control who can work on "select agents," pathogens that might be developed as bioweapons. At Cornell, we had something like 76 faculty members who had projects on lethal pathogens and something like 38 working specifically on select agents. There were stringent regulations for control of the pathogens - certain categories of foreign nationals who were not allowed to handle them, be in a room with them or even be aware of research results. So what is the situation now? We went from 38 people who could work on select agents to 2. We've got a lot less people working on interventions to vaccinate the public against smallpox, West Nile virus, anthrax and any of 30 other scourges.

He doesn't break out the relative importance of the various causes of the reduction of the number of people working on vaccines and other work related to pathogens. But paperwork, need for higher security in the storage of pathogens, higher security on the labs, and the presence of foreign nationals as students, post-docs, and faculty all are probably playing roles. Even if a faculty member is an American how can he work on some pathogen if half his grad students are foreign?

There is a lot more research money available specifically targetted at developing bioweapons threats. So the total amount of work in the whole country may not have gone up even as it has cgone down in elite research universities that have a large foreign element to their student bodies. But it useful to have more information to try to figure out the net effect of the restrictions and the increases in money are having on biodefense research.

More generally, is the US being substantially harmed either in the rate of advance of science or in the technological prowess of industry by the increased difficulties faced by scientists and engineers who want to come to the United States for meetings or work? I think the visa granting process would be greatly helped if recognition was made of the obvious fact that the most credentialed and accomplished scientists and engineers have a much much lower probability of being terrorists than some Middle Eastern kid who has a less impressive education.

The same pattern holds for students. A student smart enough to get into the Ivy League is far less likely to be a terrorist than some kid who has gotten accepted to some vocational training program at a technical institute or who has applied to attend some other program which does not require a high level of demonstrated intellectual ability to be accepted into a training program. A simple IQ test with a high minimum score (say 120 and above) for visa applicants seeking to study or attend conferences in the United States would do more to reduce the threat of terrorists making it into the United States than would consulate interviews. Just let the bright ones in to study and work and that will keep out most of those who intend to inflict real harm.

Update: Andrew Silke, an expert in the psychology of terrorism from the Scarman Centre at Leicester University, says terrorists are not crazy and some have higher education.

"They certainly aren't crazy, they certainly aren't mad," he said.

All of the Al-Qaeda members studied came from middle or upper class backgrounds.

Two-thirds were college educated, a tenth had a postgraduate degree and more than seven out of 10 were married with children.

Aside: Yet another nail in the coffin for the idea that college education is a panacea.

But are the Al Qaeda members studied representative of all Al Qaeda members? It is my impression that all the 9/11 hikackers were single guys. Also, the quality of the college degrees of these Al Qaeda members that Silke refers to? Were they in easy majors or tough scientific subjects?

I still think IQ tests would help a great deal. One reason an IQ test would help is that it would have the least economic impact. The smarter people who could contribute the most by being here would still be able to get in. On top of that here's another useful rule: Keep out the Muslims. The Hindus and Buddhists do not want to blow us up. Neither do the Zoroastrians or Ba Hai or the Shintos. Why not have a visa and immigration policy that acknowledges the obvious? We are at much greater risk when we let in Muslims.

Any filter we apply to try to keep out terrorists will be flawed. We are best off using filters that reduce the need for subjective judgement of visa application reviewers and that allow applications to be processed rapidly.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2004 July 09 03:44 PM  Immigration Terrorism

Rob Sperry said at July 9, 2004 10:12 PM:

If you are going to screen by some metric, why not earning? In other words if you can find a job in the US for above X$ then you can get a visa. There are lots of high IQ people that never amount to much and lower IQ people that work hard and contribute (even though on average the high IQ will tend to earn more). This also requires someone here to sponsor to be here and vouch for them. I would also want what ever work visa the person has to be fully transferable to different jobs. We could then regulate the flow of immigrants by adjusting the wages level we would accept, or we could have quota's for different wage levels.

Randall Parker said at July 9, 2004 11:30 PM:


Earnings is not a bad filter. For instance, anyone capable of getting a job with a $100k salary is probably not going to be a terrorist and is unlikely to be a criminal or a welfare recipient It is not a bad filter.

However, I think such a filter would need to be adjusted somehow for occupation and age. Some occupations have greater increases in incomes with age than other occupations. A plumber might make more money at age 25 than a young scientist but the scientist probably has a bigger up side and will make a larger contribution in ways that creates wealth for us all.

One way to adjust a work visa for potential upside is to say that unless income increase X percent per year for Y 3 years then the person has to leave. The employer then gets to see if the person is worth the raises and if not then the person wasn't all that productive.

John S Bolton said at July 10, 2004 12:54 AM:

It would be great to have an all-merit system in immigration; especially for taking care of the needs of science and technology. A single standard is like having moral principles, rather than the cynical scramble involving whatever edge exists on the unprincipled policy mix of the moment. Yet has the danger of high-IQ spies been minimized? Those who are involved in patronage from the hands of a communist dictatorship, no matter how intelligent, are to be considered security risks. If a dictatorship has 1,000 ICBM's pointed at us, and is notorious for using students and immigrants of their group as spies, scientific openness to that activity is treasonable. If the standard were high level verbal IQ's, as tested in this language, and including a difficult spoken component, which was tested by machine (not compassion-stricken or tranzi-influenced proctors), we could have a single standard, and perhaps no greater security risk than that which exists with citizens. If that is not sufficient, then we need a separate determination of national security risk from an individual going into sensitive areas, and perhaps a total exclusion of some nationalities, whose govermnents or populations are hostile. In this connection, it has been mentioned that those whom T Sowell calls 'middleman minorities' very often have bright children with tendencies to go into research, and communist sympathies. At any rate, officials who look at these risks, need to take into account where the chances of espionage are concentrated, when they give out student visas, etc.

Brock said at July 10, 2004 11:15 PM:


I think the best screen you mentioned would be religious based, but unfortunately people can very easily lie about their religion. I really don't think that IQ or education level would be good screens. The less educated are more susceptible to Islamist rhetoric, but the educated are not immune. I've also met a lot of people who are really, really smart, but still believe some really strange things.

Probably the best answer is something like Total Information Awareness. A terrorist can lie about his nation of origin and religion on his passport, but if he wants to be a terrorist he needs to do certain things. TIA would sort through all the data out there to fine patterns of behavior which would reveal the terrorists while giving the post-docs at Cornell a pass.

To answer your question though, we are definately being harmed by the lack of good researchers. Even if we're spending more money this year over last, that doesn't mean we're getting more value for it. Cornell post-docs from China work for a lot less money than American researchers at biotech companies. We might (and I stress 'might', having no numbers) be better off with the students. In the meantime that American researcher who is doing bioterror work could be doing something else useful and profitable. We are forgoing whatever progress she might make in other endeavors.

John S Bolton said at July 11, 2004 2:57 AM:

Another way to avoid this problem would be to give large prizes to high school students in this country who mastered science, technology or mathematics subjects as shown by scores on the GRE exams for those subjects. It is only tens of thousands a year, who would be needed to replace essentially all of the relevant foreign students. Give them 20, 30 or 40 thousand dollars for a 550, 650 or 750 level score while they're in high school, but retest them in a perfectly secure proctored setting. If the performance were actually elicited this way, there could be an expense of several hundred million dollars a year. Compare that to what is spent on the defense budget at cold war levels, if the Chinese get the secrets they need to force us back into that competition. Or, compare it to the cost of monitoring all these foreign students at the level needed to avoid continued espionage, or another terrorist breakthrough. Alternatively, what we really need is more doctors and lawyers to deal with the consequences of another security disaster.

John S Bolton said at July 11, 2004 3:30 AM:

Also, remove the federal funding incentives to the schools for recruiting foreign students in these subjects. Currently, the government pays for foreign students used in several capacities, at a higher rate, such that the American students bring in less money, because they are eligible for standard loans. There is a built-in incentive to use foreign students in science graduate programs, where the means of funding is a per-researcher disbursement. Eliminate any such incentives to prefer the foreign science and engineering students, because of government funding policies, as may exist. Yet since anti-patriotism is the loyalty of our officials and scholars, the above proposals would be considered anti-diversity or anti-foreigner, wouldn't they? Since such proposals as these are unlikely even to be considered, isn't it clear that the relevant academic and political leaders do not care about national security, or are actively hostile to it?

Engineer-Poet said at July 12, 2004 12:39 PM:

It may be easier to test for religion than you might think.  One recent advance in neurology concerns the reactions people have when they recognize something vs. when it is new to them.  The suggested use was to test criminal suspects for knowledge of things only the perpetrator would know, but another possibility is to test visa applicants for exposure to certain religious verses or concepts.  Some things which would be second nature to a Hindu would probably be novel to a Muslim, and vice versa.

Capturing fingerprints, iris prints and DNA during the application process would be worthwhile also; if you found a potential terrorist and refused them entry, you would have a much easier time detecting them later if you had materials to test against forensic evidence.

CalBill said at July 12, 2004 1:54 PM:

John's prizes are the right direction: Encourage our kids to go into technical fields, regardless of what is done with foreign students/immigrants (attempts to make perfect bureaucratic rules will always be flawed). His way may be good (money is a great motivator, but peer-prestige is also important), but some way should be found, for the benefit of our society. Public service commercials are not good enough.

John S Bolton said at July 14, 2004 2:41 AM:

Here is another aspect of the same situation or opportunity: certain regions and population groups are over-represented (read: are subject to quotas to limit their numbers) in the top schools. Students applying to college from these districts or groups need some way to distinguish themselves conspicously, and thus vault over the quotas which anti-merit activists have imposed on them. For example, Long Island, with 1% of the country's population, routinely wins around a quarter of the Intel (formerly Westinghouse) prizes which are awarded. Many students will not be athletic, charity-project-manipulative, or possess any of the other attributes which make for well-roundedness, in the view of the anti-meritocrats. Give them one opening through which they can push by means of intellectual abilities only, and it could be a surprise how many would try.

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