AMERICAN, European, and Soviet scientists, acting privately, have gone where their governments, acting officially, might be unable to tread. They have found an electronic meeting place within an American communications system where they can conduct an ongoing dialogue about climatic change. Normally, such a system would be off limits to the Soviets. It is one of the computer-based networks people use to tap information data banks and communicate using desktop and portable computers. The United States government is skittish about foreign access - especially East-bloc access - to such a system even when it is entirely civilian and open.
Thanks to the good offices of the European Space Agency (ESA), this privately funded venture has managed to allay security concerns. It's a minor communications breakthrough that should benefit the whole world.
For the next year, the scientists involved will be discussing one of the most important of global environmental problems - the prospects for, and possible effects of, a so-called greenhouse climatic warming. This is the warming expected as carbon dioxide, produced by burning fossil fuels, and other heat-trapping gases accumulate in the atmosphere.
A number of national and international programs are already studying such global climate questions. The electronic linkup provides a kind of electronic lounge where experts from three major fuel-burning regions can talk about their work informally. It would be impossible to do this on a face-to-face basis when the participants are scattered across the Northern Hemisphere. This way, two or more of them can converse daily and leave messages on what amounts to a community bulletin board.
They will tackle many aspects of the warming question, including possible effects on agriculture. They can share ideas, speculate, and explore possible solutions to problems they perceive. Any suggestions for action can then be fed back to their governments and into their formal research programs.
Roald Sagdeyev, head of the Institute for Space Research of the Soviet Union, chairs the Soviet panel. Walter Orr Roberts, president emeritus of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, and Russell Schweikert, a former astronaut, chair the American group. ESA ties bring the two groups and some European scientists together.
ESA supplied computers to the Soviets in a way that meets export restrictions. With these, Soviet scientists can go through an ESA communications line to tap into a segment of the electronic mail system of the Telenet network. That's all they can do, Schweikert explains. They don't even know the procedure to log on to the network. So American security needs are satisfied.
It's an ingenious way to make connections from which everyone profits.
A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.