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“The U.S. embassy is not afraid of offending people and making enemies,” says Rao Yi of Peking University in Beijing.

Rao Yi

A top Chinese brain scientist wonders how he ended up on the U.S. visa blacklist

SHANGHAI, CHINA—Frustrated with a string of unexplained U.S. visa denials, a top Chinese brain scientist has decided to go public, copying numerous journalists on a 17 July email to officials at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing pleading his case.

"Most embassies try to make more friends for their countries; the U.S. embassy is not afraid of offending people and making enemies," says Rao Yi, a high-profile neuroscientist at Peking University in Beijing who studied and worked in the United States for 22 years. His difficulty obtaining a visa is particularly ironic, given that he has been invited to attend a workshop by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), a government agency based in Alexandria, Virginia.

Rao, 56, earned his Ph.D. in neuroscience in 1991 from University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and did a postdoc at Harvard University. He was on the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri for 10 years and later joined Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, Illinois, where he rose to be a full professor. Along the way, he acquired U.S. citizenship. He returned to China in 2007 to become dean of Peking University's School of Life Sciences. He later gave up his U.S. citizenship.

Rao says he was still regularly traveling to the United States until he was denied a visa to travel to San Francisco for a reunion with his UCSF lab mates in 2016. Since then, he has failed to get visas to join a conference at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, to attend a memorial service for U.S. banker David Rockefeller, and even to visit his daughter, a U.S. citizen.

In addition to his position at Peking University, he is now director of the Chinese Institute for Brain Research in Beijing. NSF invited him to a workshop in Washington, D.C., on 23 and 24 July that aims to develop a Global Inventory of Brain Initiatives to facilitate international coordination.

Rao says he had an interview at the U.S. embassy on Monday, during which he was asked to provide an updated CV and travel schedule. He says he has not made flight reservations because his recent experiences leave him doubtful about getting a visa. He says he is puzzled about the visa denials and cannot think of anything he might have done to get blacklisted. He did appear on Chinese TV criticizing U.S. President Donald Trump after the 2016 election, but his first visa rejection predated the election. He says he was once told that the decision was made in Washington, D.C., but was given no further details.

The U.S. government began applying tougher restrictions on some Chinese graduate students last month, but the new policy does not apply to senior scientists and does not include the neurosciences.

The U.S. embassy in Beijing does not comment on individual visa cases, a spokesperson wrote in an email to ScienceInsider. "I certainly hope that the U.S. will not go down in history as the country which arbitrarily blocks international cooperation in the natural sciences," Rao wrote in his email plea to embassy officials.