Soviet R&D in State of Confusion Political Upheaval Jeopardizes Technological Development Needed to Improve Everyday Life

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THE Soviet Union's scientific and technological advances are now more important than ever, as the lum- bering giant tries to keep pace with other countries making industrial and agricultural strides.

If the end of the cold war and the demise of communism mean Moscow's abandonment of defense priorities, more money and better resources may be available for Soviet civilian research and development (R&D).

United States specialists say Soviet scientific and technological progress was in great jeopardy well before the country's current chaos.

Before last week's short-lived coup, the Soviet Committee for Science and Technology published a list of 18 programs, ranging from new information technologies and disease control to high-efficiency food production and the exploration of Mars.

But nagging questions central to the Soviet economic reform process (perestroika) also apply to research and development in Soviet sciences and technology. Is there political will and funding to carry through such plans? Will the conflict between Moscow center and the republics derail bureaucratic planning?

Moscow's priority list has been ambitious. It spans many sectors of Soviet life, and the development of these priorities is uneven. Nikolai Laverov, the committee's chairman, says the Soviet commitment to 18 fields "could greatly contribute to (the) solution of urgent social issues, such as better living standards and working conditions, improved housing and nutrition, combating wide-spread diseases, a fit-for-life environment, improved communications systems...."

Ironically, Soviet researchers and developers have been more aggressive and successful in arenas relatively remote from everyday Soviet life - such as the space program - than they have been in applying themselves to simple, far more relevant areas, such as efficient farm production and food distribution.

Basic scientific research and development that has a trickle-down effect on the average Soviet citizen is "certainly an area that's really hurting," asserts one US administration official charged with making assessments of Soviet advances in a wide range of nonmilitary fields.

"The Soviets have contended that they're cutting back on military projects and that much of the savings will come from converting military factories into civilian production," says Glen Schweitzer, director of Soviet and East European Affairs at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. In fact, the development of nonmilitary sectors won't receive a boost in the foreseeable future, he predicts.

THE US administration official, who asked to remain anonymous, agrees. "There is a general fumbling in the conversion process - even the official Soviet press acknowledges it. Those making decisions don't know what conversion means and how to implement it." Research into the civilian sector "will be hit hard," she says. She points to a decree signed by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev one year ago that cast a cloud over Soviet innovations.

The Soviet National Academy of Sciences was made an independent organization, left to rely on private contracts for funding applied research (projects with a set goal in mind). "There are a limited number of those contracts available," she says. The recently established state-funded All Union Fund for Fundamental Research was set up to provide funding for basic research - research for the sake of information. This is where many important discoveries are made and where financing is precarious. …