Blocking the flow of information in the information age

Study after study after study tells us that one of the most important channels of information flow is face to face contact. That is why contact among scientists is so important. And, as many (including the critics of the current push for more research funding) have pointed out, the ability to absorb scientific knowledge is key to our economic prosperity — knowledge from everywhere and anywhere.
But somehow that message hasn’t filtered down through the bureaucracy – where foreign scientists are seen as “threats.” For example, as related in today’s Washington Post – Scientist’s Visa Denial Sparks Outrage in India:

A decision two weeks ago by a U.S. consulate in India to refuse a visa to a prominent Indian scientist has triggered heated protests in that country and set off a major diplomatic flap on the eve of President Bush’s first visit to India.
The incident has also caused embarrassment at the highest reaches of the American scientific establishment, which has worked to get the State Department to issue a visa to Goverdhan Mehta, who said the U.S. consulate in the south Indian city of Chennai told him that his expertise in chemistry was deemed a threat.
. . .
The scientist told Indian newspapers that his dealing with the U.S. consulate was “the most degrading experience of my life.” Mehta is president of the International Council for Science, a Paris-based organization comprising the national scientific academies of a number of countries. The council advocates that scientists should have free access to one another.
. . .
State Department spokesman Justin Higgins denied yesterday that the United States had rejected Mehta’s visa and said the consulate had merely followed standard procedure in dealing with applicants with certain kinds of scientific expertise.

I can understand that our security officials are concerned that terrorists with a high degree of technical knowledge might try to enter the US to direct an attack. But surely our procedures should be able to differentiate between those individuals and a distinguished scientist. More in the grey area are all of the foreign graduate students who are finding it more and more difficult to enter the US.
In the information age, the US needs to keep its borders open to the flow of information through all channels – including people to people. Just as I have argued before about patents (which have the potential to restrict the flow of information and innovation), our future economic prosperity demands that we need to get our border security procedures right. This is another reason why our current push for competitiveness legislation needs to encompass the broad issues — not just the narrow issue of R&D funding. There are too many important parts to this puzzle to take the narrow view.

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