Saving Russia's Scientists

Big projects mean big bills for the US and no future for needed experts

A Russian nuclear scientist in the remote city of Cheliabinsk commits suicide. A plutonium-powered Mars-bound satellite crashes into the Pacific Ocean. Of what concern is this to the American public? Its tax dollars supported both the individual and the satellite program. The two events highlight the fragility of the Russian scientific establishment for people and institutions alike, and should lead to reevaluation of Russian and Western priorities.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian and American policymakers and scientists have focused on big science - space, nuclear weapons, and military research and development. Why? First, they hope to prevent brain drain of weapons specialists to some hostile country with a destabilizing impact on the international situation. Second, they believe achievements in big science - for example, a successful Mars probe - may improve morale of Russia's populace and scientists. Third, they believe any support for Russian science is better than none at all, for science is an international resource and, so the thinking goes, will contribute to the processes of democratization of Russia.

Unfortunately, the opposite effect has occurred. By devoting the lion's share of attention - and financial resources - to big science, the policymakers have left the majority of researchers in the cold. Many institutes have gone months without paying salaries and cannot afford to pay for research. It is these biology, chemistry, and physics institutes that could serve as a magnet for talented weapons scientists who have tired of toiling in closed weapons cities. It is scientists in institutes and universities throughout the country who form the backbone of Russian fundamental research and hold the promise of its future. And it is scientists who can serve as a source of independent expertise to officials in space and nuclear programs. Most of the latter are Soviet-era holdovers who continue to embrace big-science approaches to Russia's many problems, such as construction of nuclear reactors in the face of growing public opposition.

NASA's troubles cost US

The constant focus on big science also means big bills for the US. For example, NASA's space station will rely on Russian technology for various aspects of the mission. Yet each time Russia's space program fails to deliver a specific component, booster, or program on time, the US government must pay millions of dollars either directly in project support or indirectly in costly delays.

In a time of budgetary shortfalls, the Russian government is keeping only the most capital-intensive programs alive. And if NASA has trouble building hatches for the space shuttle that open as designed, is it any surprise that Russia's underfunded space program has difficulty delivering on its promises? The hundreds of millions of dollars committed for a space station and Mars probes would be better spent on less expensive fundamental research and on overhead to keep institutes open and scientists busy.

Fundamental research now remains critically underfunded. The International Science Foundation, funded by financier George Soros, allocated $135 million in some 8,000 grants to Russian scientists over three years. Mr. Soros understandably began trimming operations to allow other organizations to fill the financial gap. But the US, European Union, and Japan have only belatedly begun helping Russian science. The US Civilian Research and Development Foundation (CRDF) in conjunction with the National Science Foundation, will provide only $10 million this year. Meanwhile International Science and Technology Centers in Kiev and Moscow have garnered nearly $100 million for weapons specialists to prevent brain drain, and they have failed to prevent proliferation of weapons know-how or technologies.

Inappropriate financial help

Where are other funds? By late 1995, $1.3 billion had been provided to deal with the transportation, storage, and destruction of weapons of mass destruction. Cooperative programs between weapons scientists and US and Russian national laboratories totaled about $200 million in 1995. The level of funding given to weapons specialists and their facilities is inappropriate, since most other fundamental researchers, many of whom also possess weapons know-how and thus are also candidates for brain drain, can barely make ends meet.

Since these costly programs have failed to stem the decline of Russian science, it would be wise to try alternatives. An inexpensive one would be to cut funds slightly from weapons specialists and inject substantial funds for basic science into Russian Academy institutes through the CRDF.

Closer contact between weapons specialists and fundamental researchers would accelerate conversion of military technology to civilian applications by providing a home within Russian borders for specialists from the military, nuclear, and space establishments.

Further, many of Russia's problems need the input of specialists from the life sciences. The problems include increasing infant mortality, decreasing life expectancy, AIDS and other epidemics, and environmental crises of global proportions, including poorly stored hazardous (and radioactive) waste.

Big science in Russia had a glorious past. But scientists in many other fields merit support as well, and the returns promise to be more immediate and cost-effective.

* Paul Josephson, a fellow at the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology, in Cambridge, Mass., is writing a book about the Soviet nuclear age.

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