Innovation behind the Iron Curtain: the problems and promise of Soviet R&D

By almost any estimate, the Soviet Union is a Siberia-size scientific power. It maintains the largest scientific establishment in the world. It has outpaced the United States in R&D spending (as measured by a share of GNP) for several decades. Moscow probably bristles with more top-notch mathematicians than any other city in the world.

But numbers are no measure of know-how: Whether it be Nobel Prizes, scientific breakthroughs, or turning ideas into products, US researchers generally outstrip their Soviet counterparts.

Why the discrepancy?

Many of the barriers to innovation and scientific productivity behind the Iron Curtain - a fossilized bureacracy and poor equipment - are well known. But Soviet-watchers over the past two decades have only begun to understand some of the strengths and shortcomings of Russian science and technology.

Two recent studies, based on information gleaned from Soviet scientists and engineers who have emigrated to the West, are filling in some details. By themselves, the reports - one a survey of some 200 emigres conducted out of Harvard University and the other a Ford Foundation-sponsored project based on a series of seminars with Soviet and US scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - don't necessarily yield any startling new information. But they do offer some insights into Soviet science from an unusual viewpoint - participants themselves - at a time when technological innovation is becoming central to economic growth and military might.

Some of the emigres think Soviet education is superior to that in the US at the elementary and high school levels. In a few areas, particularly math and physics, that may hold true at the university level as well. In general, the Soviets are considered strong in theoretical research areas that require few tools other than books and chalk. In applied areas, or where sophisticated instruments and close ties with industry are involved, they lag behind.

More recently, however, emigres and Western experts point to a general decline in Soviet technical education. This is attributed to the freezing out of some minorities (particularly Jews) from the system, the increased politicization of scientific research, and a general decline in academic standards.

Enhancing Soviet science and technology is the stress on continuity of research. Unlike in the US, Russian scientists don't always have to look over their shoulders to see if money will be there for a long-term project. Once set up, Soviet research institutions and projects aren't likely to be shut down. ''It is easier to discover a new chemical element than to close down a chemical laboratory in the Soviet Union,'' says Harley Balzer, a Georgetown University historian who co-directed the emigre survey, with backing from the National Council for Soviet and East European Studies in Washington.

US researchers, on the other hand, often pursue areas that are ''hot'' and may be financial winners. There are pros and cons to both approaches: The Soviets' ''mission oriented'' path can lead to the necessary incremental advances needed in a field. But the freewheeling US style is more conducive to innovation.

The Soviets also have a penchant for pinpointing certain high-priority areas and funneling large quantities of rubles and researchers into them. One other Soviet strength: a reverence for science. Scientists are virtually held up as cultural heroes. Full members of the Academy of Sciences are among the most prestigious members of society. In the US, by contrast, a degree of skepticism - or worse - usually exists about scientists' actions and motives.

There are plenty of impediments to innovation in the Soviet Union, though. These, according to emigres, stem from several things:

* Lack of incentives. The often-cited one here is economic. There is little financial incentive for researchers to turn ideas into widgets, only bureaucratic push. Little thought is given to potential industrial applications of scientific work. Hence weighty reports, instead of handy products, often result.

* Poor communication. Soviet scientists are often isolated from Western scientific developments. Russian journals are slow to pick up Western discoveries. Some reports are censored. Communication problems extend to within the country, too: A Soviet scientist toiling in one area may not be aware of a countryman doing similar work elsewhere.

* Dearth of supplies. This includes a lack of sophisticated equipment and scientific instruments - as well as shortages of simple supplies like nuts, bolts, and photographic plates. Trivial though this may seem, Dr. Loren Graham, an MIT expert on Soviet science who was involved with both studies, termed the supply and distribution problem one of ''the most significant drawbacks in Soviet science and technology'' in a recent paper.

* ''Spiritual exhaustion.'' During the Marxist-industrialization days of the 1930s, science and technology flourished. But, says Dr. Mark Kuchment, a Soviet emigre and co-director of both studies, there is nothing to stir such enthusiasm now. ''They (Soviet scientists) still take high pride in their professional abilities, and there is an enormous drive to excel,'' he said in an interview in his office at Harvard. ''But there is no idealism or revolutionary fervor.''

None of this is to say that the Soviet Union should be underestimated as a technological power. Soviets have proved to have the ability to catch up in the past, particularly in weapons systems. They are focusing heavily on such areas as superconductivity, fusion research, and biotechnology (including its use in weapons systems). They are also pushing computers. But here, according to Dr. Graham, the US continues to have at least one leg up: Computer use seems to flourish best in a culture of entrepreneurship, free information flow, and private ownership. The Soviets, for obvious political reasons, cannot permit unrestrainted development of such a powerful information tool.

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