Russia's Giants In Science Try To Stand Tall Despite Cuts

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

DEEP in a silver-birch forest by the Volga River, a cavernous hangar-like building stands silent. The particle accelerator at Russia's premier nuclear-research facility has temporarily run out of cash.

Behind the neoclassical facade of a research institute 100 miles away in Moscow, meanwhile, molecular biologist Regina Turetskaya is celebrating in her cramped, cluttered laboratory. Her groundbreaking work in genetics has just snared another Western grant. The continuation of her project is ensured.

A laser-thin line separates Russia's scientists from extinction, as they scramble to finance their work in what once was the world's largest scientific community. Researchers are ''balancing on a knife edge,'' says Pavel Arseniev, who distributes grants from Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros to scientists in the former Soviet Union.

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The radical downsizing of the Russian scientific establishment, however, has not been an unmitigated disaster, according to foreign observers and Russian scientists.

''They had too many scientists anyway,'' says Oles Lomacky, director of the Moscow-based International Science and Technology Center (ISTC), which channels foreign funds to former Soviet weapons researchers. ''After this winnowing process, perhaps the ones who survive will at least attract Western attention.''

But how long the survivors can keep their balance is a critical question. Emergency aid from the West is beginning to taper off, and the Russian government is still cautious about funding any but the most urgent expenditures. There are no signs yet that Russia's new private entrepreneurs are ready to invest in scientific research and development.

''Russia has a unique scientific, mathematical, and technical culture,'' says professor Christopher Llewellyn Smith, director of the Geneva-based European Nuclear Research Center. ''If Russian scientific culture were to die, it would be like losing a language.''

The once-mighty edifice of Soviet science has been hit harder than perhaps any other profession by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Science was the Soviets' glory, the subject of endless - and often justified - boasting: the world's first satellite, the world's first nuclear reactor, the first man in space. One-quarter of the planet's scientists lived in the Soviet Union, propagandists used to trumpet.

Two-thirds of them took their money, directly or indirectly, from the almost bottomless defense budget. With that money, researchers did pretty much what they were interested in - remarkably unconstrained by requirements to write reports on their experiments.

No big brother

''When I worked as a scientist, salaries increased with seniority and academic qualifications. They weren't linked to the practical success of research,'' says Gennady Kozlov, who is now deputy minister of science and trying to encourage a more result-oriented attitude among researchers.

And salaries were good. Mr. Arseniev's father, for example, was head of a research laboratory. He earned almost as much as a government minister and enjoyed the prestige to match.

But as the Soviet Union crumbled, the scientific establishment went with it. Some 55 percent of scientific researchers have left the field over the past six years, according to government figures.

Stripped of lavish funding from the Soviet military budget, most of those who have stayed at their lab benches are struggling to get by on salaries that average $75 a month. And as often as not, concedes Dr. Kozlov, they have no work to do. ''In a lot of cases, government funding is enough just to pay small salaries, but not enough to carry out experiments,'' he laments.

Across the country, and in all branches of science, research institutes have shut down for extended involuntary vacations, been forced to close for failing to pay their utility bills, or found themselves obliged to curtail their work.

At Dubna, for example, one of the world's leading subatomic research facilities, scientists have enough money to run their particle accelerator for only 1,000 hours a year, four times less than they used to do.

In those laboratories that do function, ''what strikes me when I visit them is the out-of-date equipment,'' says Mr. Lomacky of ISTC. ''The whole infrastructure is so antiquated, it's pitiful.''

Early Western fears that frustrated scientists from the former Soviet Union might seek better pay and conditions by moving en masse to weapons projects in North Korea, Iran, or Libya appear to have been unfounded.

Shuttle science

While about 2,000 researchers have moved permanently to the West, according to official estimates, many more do ''shuttle science'' - working in foreign labs for two to four months of the year to earn money or do experiments they can't afford to conduct at home.

Many scientists have simply looked for different jobs. Of the 10 geophysics students who graduated with Arseniev in 1992, for example, only one is still doing science in Russia.

Young people are picking up on that trend. Where once there would be five applicants for each place in the prestigious physics department of Moscow State University, today there are only 1.2 applications per place.

To boost morale among Russia's forgotten researchers, Mr. Soros, the benefactor, offered $500 one-time grants in 1992 to 28,000 scientists in the former Soviet Union who could prove their work was of international standards.

Since then, Soros's International Science Foundation has provided nearly 3,000 long-term grants to Russian research teams, and other international organizations have followed suit.

The ISTC, funded by the United States, Japan, and the European Union, has given money to over 9,500 former weapons scientists to encourage them to work on civilian projects, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute based in Chevy Chase, Maryland, last month unveiled a $15 million program to help biomedical scientists in Russia and Eastern Europe.

These funds, says Dr. Turetskaya, who has won grants from Soros's foundation and the Howard Hughes Institute, ''are survival funds - I wouldn't say that they are helping Russian science to recover.''

Even if it does eventually recover, nobody expects the Russian scientific community ever to regain the size it once had. But slimming down is by no means a bad thing, according to Russian scientists and foreign observers. ''We had millions of scientists in biology, but very few institutes were working to even average international standards,'' says Turetskaya.

''Ten years ago you would see lots of people everywhere in the scientific institutes'' adds Kozlov, the deputy science minister. ''Today a lot of the rooms are empty, but in others some very good work is going on. The picture used to be homogeneous. Now there are islands of high activity.''

The Russian government is encouraging those islands by funding them with competitive grants, offered on the basis of proposals that are reviewed by the scientists' peers. And the system seems to be working.

''The standards at the top end of Russian physics are as high as ever,'' says Lorenzo Foa, an Italian scientist working with Russian colleagues on the new European supercollider in Switzerland.

Some researchers resent having to spend time learning the newfangled skill of writing grant proposals, rather than doing science. And many scientists are wary of pressure to show that their work is of potential commercial value. ''A lot of the money is going to entrepreneurs who are good at signing up contract opportunities in the West,'' says Mr. Lomacky.

Weapons to weedkillers

ISTC grants have helped biological warfare chemists develop new herbicides, and have paid missile-delivery experts to design novel airline-safety systems.

Those opportunities are few and far between in Russia itself, however, where the new capitalists are more focused on making quick profits than long-term investments. Few enterprises have surplus funds in the first place.

The government would like to encourage a more product-oriented approach among researchers, and to spend its scarce resources on practical projects rather than on fundamental science.

But even Kozlov, a proponent of this approach, agrees with Turetskaya when she says that ''it wouldn't make any difference, because the people who might use [researchers'] results don't have the money to pay for them.''

Neither does the government: the Science Ministry is battling to defend its 2 percent share of next year's budget against cuts.

This makes Russian scientists even more dependent on the West. But Soros's $100 million is almost all gone, ''and he has always said that he cannot go on giving $100 million every two years,'' Arseniev points out. ''His goal was to make Western governments support Russian science more''.

In that, Soros has failed: No one is on the horizon to take his place in the funding stakes. Kozlov does not disguise his government's concern for the future.

''Charitable funds are available today,'' he says. ''But tomorrow they may dry up. And then what?''

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