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Security Contretemps

Prominent Indian chemist is first denied and then issued a visa

by Lois R. Ember
February 24, 2006

After a two-week imbroglio, State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli announced on Feb. 23 that a distinguished organic chemist from India, Goverdhan Mehta, had been issued a visa that had previously been denied.

In a form letter, which C&EN has obtained, the U.S. Consulate in Chennai, India, refused to issue Mehta a visa on Feb. 9, claiming that his expertise in chemistry and its potential relevance to chemical warfare deemed him a security threat. Expecting to encounter routine questioning at the consulate, Mehta instead was asked in the letter to supply additional information about his work.

Mehta is president of the Paris-based International Council for Science (ICSU), of which the National Academies is a member. He is former director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. And he has made about 20 trips to the U.S., including one last May when he was in Washington, D.C., to deliver a presentation at the National Academy of Sciences.

Mehta was seeking a visa for a two-week visiting professorship at the University of Florida, Gainesville. He immediately canceled his trip after what he called a ???humiliating??? experience at the consulate. He also was scheduled to give a presentation at the George A. Olah Award Symposium at the ACS national meeting in Atlanta in March. It???s not known whether he still plans to attend.

In a Feb. 23 press release, ICSU officers express ???their grave concern at the hostile treatment??? that Mehta received. ???Despite some progress,??? the officers write, ???all is far from well with regards to the visa policies and associated practices for scientists wishing to enter the U.S.A.???

Indeed, Wendy D. White, director of the National Academies' Board on International Scientific Organizations, wonders what has changed. The board had set up an international visitors office to work with the State Department to expedite visa requests under policies set up after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

???Is Mehta's case just an outlier, or is it indicative of a larger underlying problem we have to pay attention to???? White asks. ???I think we need to question some of the underlying assumptions in deciding visas and work with the State Department to make sure that what the U.S. is doing is adding to the security of this country.???



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