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When Alena Shkumatava opens the door to the “fish lab” at the Whitehead Institute of MIT, she encounters warm, aquarium-scented air and shelf after shelf of foot-long tanks, each containing one or more zebra fish. She studies the tiny fish in her quest to unravel one of the knottiest problems in biology: how the acting of genes is encouraged or inhibited in cells.

The work, focusing on genetic material called micro-RNAs, is ripe with promise. But Shkumatava, a postdoctoral researcher from Belarus, will not pursue it in the United States, she said, partly because of what happened last year, when she tried to renew her visa.

What should have been a short visit with her family in Belarus punctuated by a routine trip to an American consulate turned into a three-month nightmare of bureaucratic snafus, lost documents and frustrating encounters with embassy employees. “If you write an e-mail, there is no one replying to you,” she said. “Unfortunately, this is very common.”

Shkumatava, who ended up traveling to Moscow for a visa, is among the several hundred thousand students who need a visa to study in the United States. People at universities and scientific organizations who study the issue say they have heard increasing complaints of visa delays since last fall, particularly for students in science engineering and other technical fields.

A State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that delays of two or three months were common and attributed the problem to “an unfortunate staffing shortage.”

The issue matters because American universities rely on foreign students to fill slots in graduate and postdoctoral science and engineering programs. Foreign talent also fuels scientific and technical innovation in American labs. And the United States can no longer assume that this country is everyone’s first choice for undergraduate, graduate or postgraduate work.

Albert H. Teich ’64, the director of science and policy programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, organized a meeting on the subject in January with representatives from the National Academy of Sciences and several dozen other scientific and academic organizations. Among other things, he said, the group will try to bring the issue to the attention of the new administration. It would be hard to argue against security checks for foreigners coming to the United States to pursue high-level scientific or engineering work. And some experts argue that people from certain countries — China, India, Pakistan and Middle Eastern countries are most often mentioned — should be subject to additional scrutiny.

When visa applicants from problem countries seek opportunities in research fields related to national security, the State Department official said, he hoped Americans “would want us to look at those cases very closely.”

Researchers and students seeking to enter the United States routinely encountered difficulties in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, but as security checks became faster and more efficient, most could count on receiving a visa or a visa renewal in about two weeks. That appears to no longer be the case.

“I started hearing this back in early November,” said Amy Scott, assistant vice president for federal relations at the Association of American Universities. “We are very concerned that we are losing ground here, that people are missing the opportunities to come to the U.S., to teach, conduct research or just participate in a conference.”

John Marburger, President George W. Bush’s science adviser, said in an interview in the February issue of the magazine Seed that “it should be easier to get into the U.S. as a student,” adding, “We really need to be careful about our openness to the world.”

According to “Beyond ‘Fortress America,’” a report in January by the National Academy of Sciences, universities around the world now have the research equipment and infrastructure to compete with their American counterparts. When the United States puts up barriers, the report said, “foreign universities are well positioned to extend competing offers.”

Or as Danielle Guichard-Ashbrook of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology put it: “There are other countries that want these folks. They are the best of the best. They have other options.”

Guichard-Ashbrook directs the International Students Office at MIT. Foreign students eventually make it to campus, she said, although the path may be slow and bumpy and they do not necessarily arrive on time. Problems typically occur if they leave the United States — for family visits or scientific meetings abroad — and then find they need a new visa to return.

She told of one student from the Middle East who agonized when he was called home to the bedside of his dying father for fear he would not be allowed back to his classes. He made the trip, she said, and his return was delayed.

Visa requirements vary from country to country, Guichard-Ashbrook said, but because some students must renew their visas often and cannot predict how long it will take for their documents to come through, some of them spend a lot of time calculating when they can travel and when they must start the paperwork dance again.

She and others said that students from all over — even the European Union and Australia — had had problems, but that they seemed most acute for people from China, India, the Middle East and Russia. Belarus was part of the former Soviet Union, which might explain some of Shkumatava’s difficulties, said Kathie Bailey Mathae, director of the Board on International Scientific Organizations, part of the National Academy of Sciences.

“You are never going to have a system that is 100 percent guaranteed to get people in, in the time they need to be in,” she said. “But when you see problems recurring and the same sort of problems over and over — that’s when you know you have a problem.”

She said researchers were increasingly unwilling to schedule conferences or other scientific meetings in the United States. Although the problem is particularly acute for meetings organized on short notice, she said, some groups are looking for sites outside the United States even for meetings scheduled two years or more in advance.

“That’s unfortunate,” the State Department official said. “We want people to think this is the best place to hold their meetings.”

The official said that time limits for visas were ordinarily a matter of reciprocal agreements between nations. Shkumatava’s case, he said, may have been further complicated because Belarus severely limits the number of foreign service officers the United States can have there at any given time.

Shkumatava said her experience was particularly nerve-racking because she was kept from her lab for three months, just as she was struggling to publish new findings before her competitors. When she was required to hand in her passport in Moscow, employees at the embassy lost it, stranding her there for nine days with no documents.

When she returned to the United States, she found that two colleagues had also been stranded by visa problems, one in India and the other in Peru.

Shkumatava said she would probably return to Europe. Her husband, a computational biologist from Germany, left the United States last fall for a job in Vienna. She might have tried to stay on, she said, if entering and leaving the country were not such a “discouraging” process.

“I got the visa and so I am back,” she said. “But it’s for only one year, so next year in December if I am going to stay here I am going to have to reapply for this stamp.”