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

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 2, 1995


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.

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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.

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.

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