A Lifeline for Soviet Science


March 10, 1992|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON. — Altruism, collegiality and self-interest converge in the growing efforts in the West to stave off the disintegration of the scientific enterprise of the ex-Soviet Union. The task, however, is formidable beyond the resources and daring that the Bush administration appears willing to commit. And the private sector lacks the means to do what it would like to do.

The internationality of science naturally inspires assistance to colleagues in trouble, as was the case when research institutions in the United States and Britain provided haven for thousands of scientists fleeing Hitler. The goal today is not to receive refugee scientists from the failed Soviet empire but to induce them not to become refugees.

Attention was initially focused on missile and bomb specialists for fear that rogue nations aspiring to the nuclear club would lure them away with big salaries. The pay wouldn't have to be too big to be compelling, given the economic devastation of the former U.S.S.R., where even scientific superstars are now reported to receive the equivalent of $10 to $20 a month.

The Bush administration responded to the threat with funds for some 2,000 ex-Soviet weapons researchers to dismantle nuclear warheads, thus keeping them out of mischief and lessening the missile risk to the U.S. And an American computer firm, Sun Microsystems, has hired a top Russian computer designer to set up a lab in Moscow with a staff of 50. But a couple of thousand people is a mere drop in the pool of scientists and engineers in the fallen empire.

Favored from the start of the Communist regime, science and technology developed into a vast enterprise, though with educational standards and working conditions so uneven that comparisons with the West are untrustworthy. Nonetheless, the overall numbers are huge -- some 4.5 million at all levels of training in all fields of science in 1986, according to official Soviet figures. That figure itself means little, except that it is large enough to accommodate many, many times the few thousand fortunate enough to link up with the West.

Beyond providing assistance for that limited number, the American response has so far been a mixture of leftover Cold War myopia and talking, planning and hand-wringing.

Desperate for money, elite space and military research centers in the Russian Federation have tried to take their high-tech wares to the American marketplace, particularly in quest of space collaboration. The Russian salesmen found a lot of interest in their advanced technology, particularly a nuclear system for producing electricity in space. But the Pentagon has blocked any deals on the grounds that we shouldn't help sustain technological capabilities that were formerly aimed at us and might be again.

The alternative view is that not only would the goods be useful for America's needs, but American security would be enhanced by enmeshing Russia's top scientists and engineers in close collaboration with our researchers. Better that, than having them go off hungry in quest of other deals.

Meanwhile, within the academic community, American scientists are looking for ways to help their colleagues in the ex-Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Representatives of scores of scientific organizations met recently at the National Academy of Sciences to discuss possible moves. Plans are being made to collect scientific journals and ship them over -- extremely helpful because of the lack of hard currency for subscriptions.

But the basic problem facing science in those troubled lands is that modern research is expensive, even if salaries are puny by Western standards. The antiquity of equipment in Soviet laboratories was always a shocker for Western visitors -- and the situation hasn't improved since the collapse.

With all the desperate needs that have accumulated in the new republics and in Eastern Europe, science cannot claim a priority for Western help. However, science is a fragile enterprise, difficult to build up and easily eroded. In the present circumstances, the old enterprises are dwindling away.

For all its failings, the old Soviet research establishment possessed strengths that could be of great value for restoring the floundering economies. More than a little help from Western friends would be required, but it would be well worth it.

Daniel S. Greenberg publishes the newsletter Science & Government Report.

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