The Reagan administration won't renew US-Soviet agreements for cooperation in science and technology. This policy may have its place as one of the sanctions for Soviet pressure on Poland. But it would be a mistake to end scientific contacts on an individual level.
They help build needed mutual understanding among an important group of citizens in the two countries. They also give the US insight into the workings of the Soviet research establishment.
Happily, the administration has not yet suggested officially that such one-on-one contacts be eliminated, although they will be curtailed as the agreements run out. However, pressures are building within the administration to discourage them further. Among other things, it is suggested that this would slow down the flow of US know-how to the Soviets.
It's doubtful that the Soviets would suffer much as far as technological knowledge is concerned. But it is certain that something valuable would be lost, as Roald Hoffmann of Cornell University has told the House Science and Technology Committee.
As an 1981 Nobel Prize winner, he attended a committee hearing that honored the new US laureates earlier this year. On the subject of US-Soviet exchanges, he speaks with special authority. He knows their value from first-hand experience, having taken part in several of them and being fluent in Russian. But he is no advocate of the Soviets, having fled Nazi and Soviet oppression in his native Poland at age 12.
He told the committee that individual contact is an effective way to break through the Iron Curtain. He explained: ''There is no way that they can block the personal side of a visit from coming through. The very presence of an American scientist talking freely about his beautiful experiment, using instruments they don't have, showing them a picture of his laboratory -- that presence by itself makes more friends, convinces more people of what is right here.''
Explaining that ''the Soviet intelligentsia are that segment of their society that is most receptive and responsive to our ideas,'' he said, ''In that closed society ... every small window that is opened on the West brings the light of the world in there, makes friends for us.''
He summed up by saying: ''Scientists have a responsibility, based on the rational and open tradition of their activities, to keep talking to each other, even when the rest of the society is disposed to get angry. It is not that we are better people. Perhaps it is that we have a base of 'small talk, shop talk' - namely, the facts and excitements of science -- by which an angry discourse is turned into polite, friendly conversation.''
He added, ''If we are to achieve a rational and secure plan to put an end to the horrible prospect of nuclear war, we need to keep in touch. Be firm with the Soviets on the level of governmental relations, but let the scientists talk to each other.''
Wise words! The administration should heed them.