UM, Soviet scientific communities swap ideas

March 22, 1991|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Evening Sun Staff

COLLEGE PARK -- It was some of the best technology the Soviet Union has for sale.

From vacuum cleaners and artificial arms and legs to high-resolution satellite mapping services, robot rovers and a ready-to-fly nuclear power plant for spacecraft, more than 40 products were on display at the University of Maryland.

The exhibition this week was the focus of a two-day symposium that brought leading scientists and policy-makers from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe together with their American counterparts to begin breaking down barriers to trade and technology transfers between the former Cold War enemies.

The session was the first large-scale event of its kind sponsored by the university's year-old East-West Science and Technology Center and the Soviet American Ventures Initiative (SAVI).

The East-West Center's director is Roald Sagdeev, a former science adviser to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. The center's goal, he said, is "to facilitate scientific exchange between the University of Maryland on one side, and the scientific and engineering communities in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe on the other."

Richard H. Herman, dean of College Park's College of Computer, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, said, "We're seeing a time now when Soviet and Eastern Bloc scientists are seeking to come to the United States to advance scientific cooperation. I view it as mutually beneficial cooperation."

The products the Soviets hope to sell to the U.S. represent "without a doubt" world-class technology, Herman said. "The only thing I can't answer is whether it's economically competitive."

The barriers to scientific and technological exchanges have been falling in the past five years, Soviet and American scientists agreed. But there are still many bureaucratic, political and economic tangles.

George A. Keyworth, once a science adviser to President Reagan and now research director at the Hudson Institute, said many barriers could be bridged by the transfer of personal computers, modems and communications equipment to Soviet scientists, enabling them to communicate freely with counterparts in the West.

The cost of the equipment would be "trivial," he said, compared with the scientific and economic stimulus the exchanges would yield to both countries.

Computer links would also help stem the growing exodus of Soviet scientists seeking scientific freedom and opportunity in the West.

The United States' economy has long benefited from the work of such immigrant scientists, and "we do need that precious talent in the U.S.," Keyworth said. "But we need a healthy economy in the U.S.S.R. even more."

Soviet scientific expertise is "one of the important jewels in the Russian crown," he said, and the country's scientists have also been an independent voice, "sometimes a conscience in national affairs."

Warren Phillips, executive director of SAVI, said his organization is busy in Maryland and Moscow, trying to stimulate ventures between the two countries.

"One of the biggest problems people have had is finding a way to feel comfortable about an investment strategy that usually will not bring them immediate dollars in return," he said.

Political uncertainty and economic upheaval in the Soviet Union make U.S. firms queasy about long-term investments in the Soviet Union, Phillips said. So SAVI is devising three-way ventures that can provide U.S. investors with more immediate returns. This is often through barter arrangements that provide payment in saleable products instead of dollars.

The Soviets need help with economic and marketing studies that can produce a plan for converting a Soviet plant to one that can make a product that will sell in the West.

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