Soviet Science In Danger Of a Meltdown
Lack of research funds, low wages drive scientists to other countries and professions
MOSCOW — STANDING next to an experimental nuclear reactor at the prestigious Kurchatov Institute, physicist Yuri Dnestrovsky laments that instead of generating data, the giant metallic device is gathering dust.
"Things aren't too good right now. We're waiting too long to work," says Mr. Dnestrovsky, who in 1981 won the State Prize for science, one of the former Soviet Union's highest civilian honors.
The reactor, known as the T-15, was built in 1989 and was expected to help lead Soviet scientists into a new era of thermonuclear research. Reality hasn't met expectations, however. Although the device has been used for three sets of experiments, it has been idle for most of the last year, housed in an antiquated building on the wooded grounds at the institute.
Put simply, the Kurchatov Institute, perhaps the foremost nuclear research center in Russia as well as the birthplace of thermonuclear fusion research, is broke. No funds are available to buy spare parts for the experimental reactor or obtain liquid nitrogen and liquid helium to operate the device, says Vyacheslav Strelkov, the T-15 department chief.
The Kurchatov Institute is not alone. Prevailing political and economic turmoil in Russia has taken a severe toll on all scientific research. Experimentation has come to a virtual standstill, and many scientists wonder how they will be paid in the future.
Kurchatov Institute officials say their official parent, the Ministry of Atomic Energy, has ceased to function. Funds at the institute are distributed on a month-to-month basis, enough only to pay salaries. "Many people just sit around all day with nothing to do," says Mr. Strelkov.
Conditions at other facilities across the former Soviet Union are worse. For example, the Sukhumi Physical-Technical Institute, located on the Black Sea coast in the Transcaucasian Republic of Georgia, has been caught in the middle of a civil war, bringing particle-beam research at the center to a halt.
"For most of the day the institute is without electricity or water," says Vladimir Sidorov, a physicist at the facility. "The equipment is becoming unusable."
Because of the problems, research centers are starting to lose their most talented specialists. Some are going abroad to pursue their professional interests. Many others are remaining in Russia, but are abandoning science to begin business careers in which they can earn comparatively vast sums of money.
According to Alexander Andreyev, a vice president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, 40 percent of the country's theoretical physicists and 12 percent of all researchers have gone abroad. Despite such staggering losses, the quality of Russian research has not been affected, Mr. Andreyev insists.
"Russian physics is on the same world level as before, and I believe in its brilliant future," Andreyev said in a recent interview with the Izvestia newspaper.
But Mr. Dnestrovsky and others say if the brain drain continues, entire fields of research will be devastated.
"It's destroying some scientific schools," says Dnestrovsky. "What took decades to build up is now taking months to destroy." Desires to come home
Many of the Russian scientists going abroad say they do not intend to stay. They merely want to work a for a few years under ideal conditions, saving up some money, and then return home.
But Dnestrovsky says he doubts that those who have left would ever come back. "They say it's only for a few years, but so far no one is returning," he says, and adds that anyone living abroad for more than three years should remain there. Conditions in Russia are so difficult that returning scientists would find it impossible to readapt, he reasons.
Scientists in the former Soviet Union never have enjoyed a life of plenty. Except in a few fields in military research and development, scientists here always have had to make due with less technologically advanced equipment than their counterparts in the West. But the deteriorating conditions over the last few years have greatly increased dissatisfaction among scientists.
Outside the workplace, many researchers complain about the "daily struggle for survival" caused by the government's crash economic reform program launched Jan. 2. Russian President Boris Yeltsin has announced plans to increase measures to help scientists, but such pledges haven't done much to reassure researchers.
A typical starting salary these days is about 1,000 rubles per month (about $10 at the current exchange rate). Experienced physicists, such as Dnestrovsky, receive upwards of 3,500 rubles (about $35). Those on the bottom end of the pay scale say it is nearly impossible to make ends meet on 1,000 rubles month, given the skyrocketing inflation in Russia. Dedication needed
"Our salaries are low and the price of food is very high," says 22-year-old Anya Shevchenko, who works at a superconductivity research laboratory at Moscow State University. "The only people who remain are those who are completely dedicated to their profession."
Concern is growing in the West that physicists involved in nuclear weapons research and production will be tempted to sell their knowledge to such renegade nations as Libya and Iraq for higher salaries. At present such fears are unfounded, Kurchatov Institute Deputy Director Andrei Gagarinsky told the Monitor. "It's mostly just talk," he says.
"The only way we can attract attention to our problems is by scaring people by telling them our scientists may go to Iraq," Mr. Gagarinsky continues. "Right now the economic situation is not so difficult, but it could become a problem in the future," he says, adding he knows of no incidents of scientists selling their knowledge abroad. Russia does maintain a scientific exchange program with Libya, however. Declining safety
Perhaps a more immediate danger than the proliferation of nuclear knowledge is the threat of declining safety standards at research and power facilities, says Strelkov, the T-15 department chief. The cash crunch could cause operating reactors to cut corners. "Of course the possibility [of an accident] increases," Strelkov says. "It's just like driving with bald tires."
Gagarinsky and members of the scientific establishment feel Russia will be able to weather the current storm. But many researchers are not so optimistic, saying the situation will only get worse.
For one, the shortage of money is already reducing exchanges of information, something that could cause Russian science rapidly to fall behind the West. Many Russian physicists are unable to attend seminars abroad, because the price of an international air ticket is often greater than a month's pay.
Many say there is no way to stop the brain drain anytime soon. The younger generation, they add, is much more anxious to work in the West than the older scientists who comprise the current wave of emigres.
"The material desires of the young give them a much greater impulse to leave," says Ms. Shevchenko of the Moscow State superconductivity lab.