COLUMN ONE : SOS for Russian Science : A massive research network, long a source of prestige and power, is in danger of disintegration. Laboratory chiefs and the Russian government are looking overseas for help.


In its glory days, the scientific center in this wooded Moscow suburb produced designs for sophisticated microelectronic components of the Soviet lunar vehicle and futuristic weapons that fueled the superpower arms race.

Now its biggest project is laying off half its staff.

The orders from the Soviet military-industrial complex, which poured into Zelenograd for three decades, have all but evaporated because of cuts in defense spending.

In a frantic attempt to save microelectronics in the city built to be the Soviet Silicon Valley, Stanislav A. Garyainov, a senior scientist, is holding competitions that encourage colleagues to stop parroting Western research and instead to forge ahead with wholly new ideas. One winning project envisions developing a miniature factory for manufacturing microchips.

"There are still talented people here who can offer advanced ideas. All they need is the chance to develop them," Garyainov said. "But we desperately need investors."

The massive Soviet research and development network--the world's largest in the number of scientists, engineers and institutions--was for decades a prime measure of prestige for the Kremlin.

Soviet scientists launched the first satellite and first man into space; they designed some of the world's mightiest tanks; they invented the continuous casting of steel. While Soviet science lagged behind the West in many areas, its mathematicians and theoretical physicists are among the best in the world.

Now, countless research projects have come to a halt because of a lack of money and materials. Hundreds of the country's top physicists, biologists, mathematicians and chemists have taken jobs in foreign countries. And those left behind worry about the future of science in an independent Russia.

"This should concern the world community too," said Boris G. Saltykov, Russian deputy prime minister for science, technology and higher education, "because the disintegration of Russian science will cause the breakup of the world's scientific networks."

If research and development institutes here fold, world science seems sure to suffer. In certain fields, Russian scientists are among the best, and in others their research is unique.

"In theoretical physics and mathematics, they are at least on par with world-class science, and there are pockets of excellence in all disciplines," said Gerson Sher, program coordinator for Eastern Europe at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Laboratory chiefs and Russian officials alike are looking abroad for help, and some joint projects with foreign companies and government agencies already have been started. Groups of American scientists, including the American Physics Society and the American Astronomical Society, have awarded grants to Russian colleagues to ensure that potentially ground-breaking experiments are continued.

The fate of science is especially dramatic in Zelenograd because this city was built in the early 1960s to concentrate on one area: the design and manufacture of microchips and microcircuits used in computers and electronic equipment, ranging from cruise missiles to miniature listening devices. The collapse of that industry in Zelenograd could mean "wholesale unemployment and a social explosion" in the community of 120,000, Garyainov said.

During the Cold War, Zelenograd had a captive domestic market because the West and Japan did not sell microelectronics technology to the Kremlin. Now most Russians buy foreign computer equipment, if they can afford it, because Russian technology lags. During most of the Soviet period, the Kremlin concentrated on military uses of microelectronics and not computers for civilian use, partly to control the flow of information in the country.

Garyainov and a group of the country's top scientists desperately want to attract foreign capital. The city has been declared a free economic zone, so foreign investors will be given tax and duty exemptions.

But the process of attracting foreign financing is a mystery to most scientists here. Viliam L. Sanderov has developed a design for microchips used in computers and other electronics equipment that he says will make them less expensive, more compact and more reliable. His process, which requires no welding, employs an aluminum film instead of gold wire.

"We could make a big profit if we just had a little money for production," Sanderov said. "But we have no investor, so we cannot get started. We don't even have enough money to pay for having a patent processed (abroad). So someone could steal our idea."

While the Soviet government paid to have international searches conducted so that Soviet inventions could be patented internationally, this is something that the cash-strapped Russian government cannot afford to do.

Sanderov thinks that National Semiconductor Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif., could be interested in his project because he has followed the company's work in trade journals and knows that it is developing similar technology. But, because he has not been paid for months, he cannot afford to have a letter translated and mailed to the company to discuss the matter.

"We're not used to this," Sanderov said. "We're used to defense funds paying for all our projects and assuring us a comfortable life. Now we have to get adjusted to a whole new world."

As late as 1990, more than 5% of the Soviet national revenue was spent on science; now only about 3% of the Russian national revenue is earmarked for science. And, in the end, a large amount of the money pledged for science may not be allocated.

The 3,500 science institutes in Russia have only felt the initial tremors of what will be a devastating shake-up, Deputy Prime Minister Saltykov said. Until recently, the government has financed all of these institutes fully, but within three years all but a few select institutes, like the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy in Moscow, will have to support themselves.

By year's end the number of research workers, now about 1 million, will have shrunk 20% to 25%, and in 1993 their numbers will be reduced another 15%. Tens of thousands of these specialists will be laid off but others are quitting voluntarily to seek more lucrative work in non-scientific fields. Many are finding jobs in Russia's new private sector.

Saltykov said the cutbacks will not hurt new scientific research because many so-called scientific specialists spent their time at work drinking tea, talking to friends and taking care of personal matters. Under the Soviet system, they were not fired no matter how little they achieved.

"Ten or 20 percent work and the rest are ballast," he said. "There was lots of unnecessary science going on. The quality was very low. We simply cannot afford to support this anymore."

Some of Russia's scientists will fight for the meager state grants available and persevere, conducting their research despite dilapidated laboratories, shortages of money and materials and poverty wages.

But many, for economic and academic reasons, will go abroad. Between 700 and 800 of the more than 60,000 scientists and other specialists associated with the Russian Academy of Science, a research foundation with 300-plus institutes, are already working in foreign countries.

The relatively small percentage is deceptive. The very best "have already gone or are leaving," Saltykov said.

Yevgeny Tulchinsky and his wife, Marina Kriajevska, both biologists, went abroad. But after a year of working in a lab at the University of Rochester in New York state, they turned down an offer to extend their stay because they missed Russia. Soon after they returned, however, Tulchinsky realized he could not advance his cancer research at home at the Institute of Genetic Biology, which had deteriorated in the year of their absence.

"I can't continue my work here," he said. "I could work more than 10 times faster in America. Whatever reagent (a substance used to detect or measure or convert another substance) I needed, I ordered it and got it right away. Here if we do not have the (chemical or enzyme) we need in stock, it can delay an experiment indefinitely."

When offered jobs in Denmark, Tulchinsky and his wife both felt they had no choice but to take them, despite protests from their 12-year-old daughter and their own reluctance to leave Moscow.

"We are so sad to leave our country again," Kriajevska said. "It's so much better for us to live here. It's a more interesting, more natural life for us."

Tulchinsky has only signed a five-year contract, but he does not expect conditions in Russia to improve enough in that time. "I realize that after five years it will be very difficult to return again," he said.

Russia's nationalist press repeatedly points to the brain-drain as proof that Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's team is destroying their great homeland. But Yeltsin's men say that the flight of scientists is an unavoidable consequence of indispensable reforms.

"I don't want to dramatize the problem of brain-drain," Saltykov said. "We can't stop it. It will end when scientists can work and live better here than abroad. It's better for a scientist to go to Columbia University than to go into business (here in Russia), because at least he is still doing something for world science."

But Andrei A. Gonchar, vice president of the Academy of Science, said Russia has a responsibility to try to keep its scientists at home. "The departure of a talented scientist in his mid-career, even for a year, is a great loss."

He also bemoaned the fact that thousands of scientists and students of science are choosing jobs in Russia's fledgling private business sector. "If we lose our talented youth to business, this will make its mark on the future of Russian science."

The Russian government, Gonchar stressed, must find a way to keep financing science. "A great country cannot exist without great science," he said.

The United States, Japan and the European Community, worried that Russia's best weapons scientists might be lured by big pay to build weapons for the world's dictators, have pledged $75 million for an International Science and Technology Center outside Moscow, which will finance peaceful scientific projects. Scientists who once made Soviet biological and chemical weapons, for instance, may be induced to redirect their efforts to developing pharmaceuticals.

"We have found the Russians to be nothing but cooperative and eager to get this started," said a Moscow-based Western diplomat. "What is most interesting is the enthusiasm from the Russian side, including in those areas that were really super-secret before."

Some foreign governments and companies--aware of the tremendous potential of Russian specialists in areas like fusion, aviation and space travel--already are trying to tap Russian know-how by recruiting whole labs of Russian scientists to work for them in Russia--at bargain prices.

AT&T; Bell Laboratories has signed a one-year contract with another prestigious research center, the General Physics Institute of the Russian Academy of Science. Under the agreement, 100 Russian scientists and technicians will conduct research on fiber optics, hair-thin strands of glass used in communications systems, in their own laboratories.

Boeing Co. plans to open its own research center in the Moscow area to put Russian aeronautics know-how to work improving Boeing jets.

"We know the (Russians) do great math and great aerodynamics," said Benjamin A. Cosgrove, senior vice president of Seattle-based Boeing Commercial Airplane Group. "We want them here in their own environment so they are comfortable and can work at their best for us."

Russian engineers, for example, use lighter metals for landing gear that, if used on Boeing jets, could make them more fuel-efficient. They also have access to sophisticated wind tunnels; wind-tunnel time is in short supply worldwide.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Energy Department hired 116 scientists at the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy to conduct fusion research for the modest sum of $90,000 for one year at their vast institute on the outskirts of Moscow.

Still, for an institute with a professional staff of almost 10,000, the current level of foreign investment is scarcely enough.

"This is just a beginning," said Andrei Y. Gagarinsky, Kurchatov's director of international projects.

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