CHICAGO — EVGENY SVERDLOV, director of the Institute of Molecular Genetics in Moscow, is a world-class scientist with a world-class institution. He says that, freed of the old, centrally controlled Soviet system, his scientists at last can realize their full intellectual potential.
But his scientists are fleeing to the West and leaving their research teams in Moscow leaderless just as fast as they can make contacts and find appointments. The reason is that Dr. Sverdlov's institute, like the rest of the former Soviet scientific establishment, is broke.
He says that the institute, which the Russian government now funds on a month-by-month basis, has yet to receive its February budget. Its hard-currency account, which used to import essential research supplies and equipment, has been reduced to zero. Since the first of this year, funds to buy scientific journals - the information lifeline of research - have been eliminated. Senior scientists, with stellar reputations, are working and living in poverty.
In short, Sverdlov told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), instead of facing a bright new future, his institute is on the verge of collapse.
This typifies the crisis that now challenges the former Soviet scientific enterprise - one of the most powerful research machines in the world.
The appeals for help Sverdlov and his colleagues are sending have galvanized the American scientific establishment. Richard Getzinger of the AAAS Directorate for International Programs says that both individual scientists and scientific institutions, including the AAAS, are trying to find ways to help scientists in Russia and the other now-independent republics weather the present crisis. Information isolation
Mr. Getzinger told a press conference that the AAAS is receiving a continuing series of messages asking for help with such things as getting scientific journals. He said that, for former Soviet scientists, the old isolation imposed by state controls on personal and institutional freedom has been replaced by a new isolation imposed by severe funding shortages and the breakdown of communications within the former Soviet scientific community and with the rest of the world.
He explained that "what we're doing [at AAAS] is trying to ... understand these things better and see if, as scientists in the United States, there are things that we can do to be of assistance." He added that many individual scientific professional societies also are doing this.
Meanwhile, the AAAS is moving quickly to ensure that essential scientific journals keep on flowing to Russia and the other republics. AAAS is an umbrella organization of which individual scientific societies are members. Mr. Getzinger said that his office is asking member societies, which publish the journals, to continue the subscriptions of former Soviet scientists and their institutions for two years. He added that AAAS will find ways to cover the cost. AAAS also plans to start a newsletter to spread the word on what individual scientific societies do to help scientists in the Commonwealth. Favored approach
Meanwhile, the American scientific establishment is looking for ways to help fund the work of former Soviet scientists in their home institutions.
The favored approach is through joint projects for which both parties share the costs and the fruits of research. As Gerson Sher, senior program manager for international programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF), explained: "The good news is that the old institutional barriers are, indeed, breaking down.... It now is possible to have direct communications with Soviet counterparts.... Because of this, programs that involve competitive grants ... to individuals, such as the National Science Fou ndation cooperative program with the former Soviet Union, are able to operate relatively well. I think that, a few years ago, the common wisdom would have predicted that programs like that would fail." An urgent problem
US Rep. George Brown Jr. (D) of California, chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, wants to institutionalize this kind of competitive grant funding in a foundation jointly endowed by Russia and the United States at a level of at least $200 million.
The program would be modeled after similar successful foundations established with Israel. He said he considers this urgent business and hopes that the enabling legislation will be passed during the current session of Congress.
"I don't want to see a brain drain from the former Soviet Union," Mr. Brown said.
Evgeny Sverdlov says he doesn't want to see such a loss of talent either. He welcomes the prospect of competitive grant funding. He considers it a new concept for former Soviet scientists that could revitalize their work.
He adds that it is good for young scientists to hone their skills abroad. But he says it would be a disaster for science in his country if they did not return. Noting that these scientists are needed to provide his nation with a successful future, he said, "I will step down and relinquish my post to one of them who returns."