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Moscow Reprograms Its Scientists to Get Results

Times Staff Writer

Soviet science, beset for years by the Communist Party’s ideological restrictions and its own intense politics, will operate on a new, results-oriented program next year that will represent one of the most far-reaching changes yet attempted by President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Under the program, 70% of the government’s research funds, previously shared by the country’s nearly 700 advanced research institutes, will instead be awarded on a competitive basis to projects, research programs and even individuals, Gury I. Marchuk, president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, told a special meeting of the academy Tuesday.

The remaining 30% will be allocated by the research institutes themselves, Marchuk said, but the rule again will be competition among their own “research collectives.”

The change, long sought by younger scientists, is intended to bring into the open and put onto an equitable basis the intense competition here for basic research funds, which have tended to go to those institutes with politically powerful directors.

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Soviet science, as a result, has proceeded for years as much on the basis of loyalty to the Communist Party’s current political line and support for individual party leaders as on the promise of real results.

But Marchuk bluntly told the Soviet scientific establishment that performance, rather than politics, will become the measure for its projects in a fundamental shift in the philosophy of Soviet science.

Applied research projects also will be assigned by government departments and industrial enterprises on the basis of competition, he said, stressing the desire to put more research findings into actual use.

Science Cooperatives Urged

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The government also should permit scientists to form cooperatives--in effect, their own entrepreneurial companies--to undertake specific research assignments, Marchuk said.

In a further effort to rejuvenate the academy’s leadership, five of its eight vice presidents and nine of the 16 members of its governing council will be replaced later this week, he added.

Those elections, to be conducted by secret ballot, will be an important test of the support that Gorbachev and the reformers enjoy among the country’s intelligentsia. About 400 full and corresponding members of the academy are attending the meeting here this week.

The intent of these and related moves, Marchuk explained, is to propel Soviet science into the top ranks of international research and, equally important, to allow it to establish a “true relationship” with those utilizing its discoveries in the Soviet Union.

Despite frequent protestations of its apolitical character to foreign scientists, the broad Soviet science establishment--particularly the prestigious Academy of Sciences--has long been deeply involved in the country’s tumultuous behind-the-scenes domestic politics.

‘Period of Stagnation’

Starting with the Bolsheviks’ takeover of the country in 1917, through the bloody purges of the Stalinist era and into what is now described as “the period of stagnation” under the late Leonid I. Brezhnev, science has been perhaps the ultimate barometer of political freedom.

“When you are told what the results of your research will be, you need not wonder about how free and fair an election will be,” one of the academy members attending the meeting remarked. “Anyone willing to doctor the results of a scientific experiment to support his political position will not scruple over a list of colleagues who are to be purged.”

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A Soviet historian, assessing the current status of Soviet science, wrote Tuesday in the newspaper Socialist Industry that science had fallen into a full-scale crisis in the 1970s under Brezhnev and had not yet been helped by Gorbachev’s overall political, economic and social reforms, known as perestroika .

Although scientists themselves have done much to slow the development of new talent, the principal problem has been the “influx of mediocrities” into leadership positions in the scientific establishment over the years, the author, P. Volobuev, contended.

“Since the 1960s, a great march into science by party, administrative and ministerial officials has been under way, mostly seeking scientific degrees and titles,” Volobuev wrote in anticipation of the special academy meeting. “The majority of these people have not really reinforced the profession qualitatively, but they have created massive competition in science for the available leading positions.”

Only 6 Nobel Laureates

Only six Soviet scientists have won Nobel prizes in the past 40 years, he noted, and only one of those for work done since World War II.

This appraisal, harsh enough, followed a devastating, full-page article Monday in Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper, about young nuclear physicist Valery Legasov. He helped bring the fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant under control in 1986, but committed suicide last April after he was ostracized by fellow scientists who regarded him as an upstart.

“We will not be supervised by a boy,” the article quoted one veteran scientist as saying when Legasov’s proposals for reform of the country’s nuclear energy program were rejected by the Academy of Sciences.

At the outset of the academy meeting Tuesday, the most controversial issues revolved around the retirement of the aged scientists who continue to head many research institutes and proposals to restrict their terms in order to replace them with younger people.

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Although 17 institute directors, 29 deputy directors and more than 250 laboratory chiefs had recently resigned on grounds of advanced age, many more remained entrenched in their posts, according to academy officials.

Marchuk encountered immediate opposition when he proposed limiting the terms of all officials to a maximum of 10 years in the same post and enforcing a mandatory retirement age for all executives. Some veteran scientists contended that a decade was not sufficient to see through a major research program, while others objected in principle to mandatory retirement as arbitrary.


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