Soviet R&D in State of Confusion

Political upheaval jeopardizes technological development needed to improve everyday life

THE Soviet Union's scientific and technological advances are now more important than ever, as the lum- bering giant tries to keep pace with other countries making industrial and agricultural strides.If the end of the cold war and the demise of communism mean Moscow's abandonment of defense priorities, more money and better resources may be available for Soviet civilian research and development (R&D). United States specialists say Soviet scientific and technological progress was in great jeopardy well before the country's current chaos. Before last week's short-lived coup, the Soviet Committee for Science and Technology published a list of 18 programs, ranging from new information technologies and disease control to high-efficiency food production and the exploration of Mars. But nagging questions central to the Soviet economic reform process (perestroika) also apply to research and development in Soviet sciences and technology. Is there political will and funding to carry through such plans? Will the conflict between Moscow center and the republics derail bureaucratic planning? Moscow's priority list has been ambitious. It spans many sectors of Soviet life, and the development of these priorities is uneven. Nikolai Laverov, the committee's chairman, says the Soviet commitment to 18 fields "could greatly contribute to [the] solution of urgent social issues, such as better living standards and working conditions, improved housing and nutrition, combating wide-spread diseases, a fit-for-life environment, improved communications systems...." Ironically, Soviet researchers and developers have been more aggressive and successful in arenas relatively remote from everyday Soviet life - such as the space program - than they have been in applying themselves to simple, far more relevant areas, such as efficient farm production and food distribution. Basic scientific research and development that has a trickle-down effect on the average Soviet citizen is "certainly an area that's really hurting," asserts one US administration official charged with making assessments of Soviet advances in a wide range of nonmilitary fields. "The Soviets have contended that they're cutting back on military projects and that much of the savings will come from converting military factories into civilian production," says Glen Schweitzer, director of Soviet and East European Affairs at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. In fact, the development of nonmilitary sectors won't receive a boost in the foreseeable future, he predicts.

THE US administration official, who asked to remain anonymous, agrees. "There is a general fumbling in the conversion process - even the official Soviet press acknowledges it. Those making decisions don't know what conversion means and how to implement it." Research into the civilian sector "will be hit hard," she says. She points to a decree signed by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev one year ago that cast a cloud over Soviet innovations. The Soviet National Academy of Sciences was made an independent organization, left to rely on private contracts for funding applied research (projects with a set goal in mind). "There are a limited number of those contracts available," she says. The recently established state-funded All Union Fund for Fundamental Research was set up to provide funding for basic research - research for the sake of information. This is where many important discoveries are made and where financing is precarious. Soviets who may expect a bigger budget for their scientific research and development are "very lucky it's not being cut," asserts Mr. Schweitzer. "The ruble budget for science is roughly the same as last year," he says. "No one," he adds, "is talking about an increase." He runs down some of the basic problems in research and development. In the computer field, the Soviets are 10 to 15 years behind in most advanced computers - both in the quality and quantity of production. "Computer electronics is the most highly publicized soft spot in their economy," says Schweitzer. Health services "are very poor, really very grim," he says. "The research is not so bad, but there is a great gap between medical research and the delivery of health-care services for the general population." In agriculture "it's hard to lay food shortages at the doorstep of scientists," he says. Better research and development of distribution - where problems are pervasive - would arrest many of the problems. Given the resurgence of Soviet communist hard-liners, US and other Western governments have put technical assistance on hold. The future of other private initiatives is also uncertain. The Des Moines Chamber of Commerce recently formed a joint venture with VASKhNIL, a federation of more than 200 Soviet science and agricultural agencies. "They're looking for higher tech, especially in the storage and transportation of produce," says Arthur Davis, a lawyer and chamber member who left to explore business opportunities in the Soviet Union two days before the coup. Soviet defaults on payments and deliveries have dampened much of the earlier Western enthusiasm for investing. Hard currency in the Soviet Union, Mr. Davis concedes, has long been a rare find. SCHWEITZER and other observers says that there are few forefront activities of the Soviet research sciences. Soviet scientists are broadly acknowledged for theoretical work - especially the blackboard sciences such as mathematics and physics. Projects performed with distinction are generally labor intensive, where sophisticated equipment is not required. He says that space and atomic energy, and fusion and planetary sciences are notable exceptions to the mediocrity. "Today the Soviet program is in a state of confusion," says Congressional Research Service aerospace specialist Marcia Smith, who has been analyzing Soviet space developments for the past 18 years. Lack of funding is its chief problem. "In general, the Soviets have a low-tech approach in space, an area where the US reigns in technological advancement." But the space program does launch more satellites than all of its international competitors combined, notes Ms. Smith. Like all other areas of science and technology R&D, the space budget will not increase this year, or next, says Smith. The Soviet cutting edge on starting new space programs has been blunted by the country's economic crisis. "New space programs are very uncertain," she says, "such as the advancement of satellites and the probe to Mars." The government is continuing to fund the ongoing, mostly military programs. At the July Moscow Summit, President Bush and Soviet leader Gorbachev signed a cooperative agreement to send a US astronaut to the space-station Mir (the name means "peace") and launch a Soviet astronaut on a US space shuttle. Those developments are very much up in the air.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.