Meet the Committee on International Freedom of Scientists

Defending Human Rights for Scientists Around the World

By Ivelisse Cabrera

For 28 years, the APS Committee on International Freedom of Scientists (CIFS) has advocated for the rights of scientists in the U.S. and abroad and has responded to calls to assist scientists in need. CIFS current activities range from advocating on behalf of several Russian scientists who have been convicted of espionage or treason as a result of their legitimate scientific activities to monitoring the situation for academics in Iraq who have been targeted with violence. (An article about the situation in Iraq and written by a member of CIFS appears in the May 2008 issue of APS News.)

One situation that CIFS is currently monitoring was brought to the Committee’s attention by a former member of the FGSA Executive Committee. Due to travel restrictions imposed on the Gaza Strip by Israel, hundreds of Palestinian students there have essentially been denied the right to pursue their higher education abroad. Options for pursuing higher education in Gaza are limited; many subjects are not offered at Gaza’s three universities, and there are no opportunities to pursue doctoral study. Thus, the ability to travel abroad is essential.

This problem was exacerbated in May when several students who had been awarded Fulbright scholarships to study in the United States for the 2008 fall semester had those scholarships withdrawn by the Department of State because the Israeli government had not granted the students permission to leave. There was a subsequent outcry from the international community, including a letter from CIFS to Secretary of State Rice. While the students subsequently had their Fulbright scholarships reinstated, three students had their U.S. visas revoked in August and, thus, have been unable to commence their studies.

As FGSA members know, students in Gaza are not the only ones who encounter travel-related obstacles. Many international students who come to the United States to pursue their educations face visa and immigration difficulties. For many, the U.S. visa application process can be a frustrating one.

This is one reason that The National Academies created the International Visitors Office (IVO), This office provides useful information for student and scientists who are traveling to the U.S. This site includes a questionnaire that visa applicants can use to report application delays and visa denials.  IVO uses this information to inquire of the U.S. Department of State about visa applications that are pending due to security reviews or that are excessively delayed for other reasons.  IVO reports to the Department of State cases in which an application has been pending formore than 60 days after a visa interview, and it reports these cases every week until the applicant has received a decision from the Consulate.

CIFS encourages FGSA members to make their fellow international colleagues aware of this resource. Students who have waited for a decision for an extended period of time or who have been denied a visa should complete the IVO’s questionnaire.

Most importantly, if FGSA members learn that a colleague has been subjected to human rights violations, please bring this to the attention of CIFS. FGSA members can learn more about the Committee on the CIFS web site.