Saving Russia's Scientists Big Projects Mean Big Bills for the US and No Future for Needed Experts

Article excerpt

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? …


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