Speak up for persecuted Soviet scientists

A growing number of Soviet scientists faced with the alternatives of inner torment or emigration to a place that allows them to ''behold the truth'' openly have courageously chosen the latter. This choice has made and continues to make them targets of vile persecution.

Soviet scientific and governmental authorities, in a particularly pernicious form of retribution, are now systematically revoking academic degrees of scientists who apply to emigrate, in addition to depriving them of employment.

In 1976 new regulations were enacted regarding VAK (All-Soviet Attestation Committee), a bureaucratic entity responsible for approving all advanced degrees. The revision requires close scrutiny of the candidate's political attitude. The Soviets now are applying this stipulation retroactively to those seeking emigration.

The vulgarity of this procedure is explicitly revealed by the actions of so-called ''scientific councils'' of the various institutes and university faculties.

Recently the Committee of Concerned Scientists received the stenographic transcript of a Jan. 20, 1982, meeting of the scientific council of the Geology Faculty at Moscow State University. The hearing concerned Vladimir G. Melamed, a geophysicist who has worked at that university for approximately 30 years. Prof. A. V. Kalinin presented Dr. Melamed's case to the other council members as follows:

''According to the law, emigration is permitted for family reunification. In this regard Melamed informed the departments which provide exit visas. However, no law prohibits public organizations from judging Melamed's activities.

''We already knew him for a long time. We chose him to fulfill several functions. For many years we have seen that he took a moral stand; to us he was a notable figure. His behavior now causes us much distress.

''Academic titles in the USSR are not only conferred on grounds of scientific criteria. There are also other important factors. We consider the function of an academic title to be more important than in the capitalistic world.

''It gives not only the right to a function but also a salary. If Melamed would remain a doctor, he would continue to do those things of which he no longer has a right. His behavior should not be seen as a normal act. It clearly is an antipatriotic act for which he should be punished. . . . His titles should be taken away from him.''

Currently, there are at least 65 scientists who have lost or are in the process of losing their academic degrees. Although the international scientific community has been aware of this for nearly a year, it has not reacted with sufficient vigor against this new horror.

Perhaps a concrete example will force the already overburdened public conscience to take greater notice.

Valery N. Soyfer (doctor of biology), a plant geneticist by training, was director of the Institute of Applied Molecular Biology and Genetics and chief of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology. Dr. Soyfer was a productive geneticist with well over 100 scientific publications. In 1979 he sought emigration from the Soviet Union and it was denied on the basis of ''state secrets.'' Subsequently he was dismissed from his scientific position and denied other employment as a research sci-entist.

To Dr. Soyfer the doors of scientific institutions, laboratories, libraries, seminars, conferences and symposia, editorial offices and publishing houses are shut.

As the year 1981 ended Dr. Soyfer found himself in the position of having his academic degrees revoked by the Soviet authorities. The consequences for Dr. Soyfer and his family are evident.

In a recent letter to the magazine Nature, Dr. Soyfer and nine of his colleagues in similar positions wrote, ''We are in a situation where we can count only on the support and solidarity of our colleagues abroad, on their help and sympathy.''

But can they really? And if so, to what extent?

We Western scientists need to make the Soviets acutely aware that we know what they are doing, that we condemn it, and that we have serious doubts about the veracity of Soviet scholarship in light of their attacks on human and academic freedom.

Silence is the Soviets' best ally, as it was the Nazis'. How else can they rule the generation?

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