SCIENTISTS in the former Soviet Union have seen their elite status fall to a level of personal and professional poverty. They are eager for research work wherever they can find it. Moreover, while their pay in rubles may be several times the prevailing local wage, it's subsistence level by American or Euro- pean standards when those rubles are translated into hard currency.
Governments and industry are waking up to a unique opportunity. Sun Microsystems Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., for example, has hired the services of an advanced computer-design team at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Precision Mechanics and Computer Technology. Sun gets this talent at salaries reportedly amounting to a few hundred dollars a year per person. The United States Department of Energy has a one-year contract for fusion research with the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy in M oscow. It gains the services of 116 high-quality scientists and technicians for $90,000 total.
This is certainly a bargain for the Western sponsors. But that is too limited a perspective.
The National Academy of Sciences in the US is urging Washington to help preserve science in the former Soviet Union as an essential resource in the economic and social development of the republics. Beyond this, the former Soviet scientific establishment is a high-quality global resource. Humanity needs all the scientific help it can get in facing its challenges.
The scientific establishment in Russia and the other republics should not be allowed to deteriorate from lack of support or to dissipate through emigration. As the academy points out, that establishment needs support on its home ground. Contracts for specific projects from Western industry or governments help. But a broader support base is needed. Astronomers as well as computer designers are worth saving.
The academy recommends spending $50 million or more over the next six months. Half of the money could go toward Secretary of State James Baker's proposed International Science and Technology Center for military scientists. The rest would support civilian research.
That could be a valuable stop-gap measure. But longer-term help is needed. Congress and the Bush administration should seriously consider the foundation proposed by Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D) of California, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. This would be a bilateral agency jointly funded by Russia and the United States to a level of $260 million. It would support basic research in Russia through competitive grants over the next 10 years.
The Bush administration could also help by relaxing cold-war barriers that restrict cooperation and trade between the US and the commonwealth republics. It still inhibits open sharing in "sensitive" fields such as computer science and design. It also blocks purchase of space hardware and some other technology in the name of not supporting former Soviet industries with military potential. This is no help to struggling economies in the republics. It also deprives the US of much valuable technology that now
is available at bargain prices.