Where will Russia’s scientists go now?

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has signed a decree which could end of one of the most successful of the programs that helped Russia cope with the legacy of the Cold War arms race. This is the International Science and Technology Center in Moscow, which was formed by Western countries in 1992 to assist scientists, engineers ...

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565608_100818_medved2.jpg

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has signed a decree which could end of one of the most successful of the programs that helped Russia cope with the legacy of the Cold War arms race.

This is the International Science and Technology Center in Moscow, which was formed by Western countries in 1992 to assist scientists, engineers and others redirect their talents from weapons work to civilian projects.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has signed a decree which could end of one of the most successful of the programs that helped Russia cope with the legacy of the Cold War arms race.

This is the International Science and Technology Center in Moscow, which was formed by Western countries in 1992 to assist scientists, engineers and others redirect their talents from weapons work to civilian projects.

On August 11, Medvedev signed a decree to pull Russia out of the program. Without Russia’s participation as a partner and host — it was a founding member– the ISTC may not survive. Medvedev’s decree will take effect in six months, according to a report by the RIA-Novosti news agency.

The ISTC was originally founded by agreement between the European Union, Japan, Russian Federation, and United States. Since then, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakstan and the Kyrgyz Republic joined. Other countries which became members include Norway, South Korea, Tajikistan and Canada.

No reason was given for Medvedev’s decision. The ISTC said it was studying the decree.
The Russians may correctly point out the ISTC was started when the outlook was bleak for scientists in 1992. The program began after then-U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III made a visit in February of that year to Chelyabinsk-70, one of the two nuclear weapons laboratories.

It was just months after the Soviet Union’s collapse, and weapons scientists were desperate for western cooperation. They didn’t want handouts; they wanted collaboration. Their economic predicament was dire. Russia may argue that nearly two decades later, it can afford to pay its own scientists without western grants, and there is some truth to this.

At the same time, I worry that Medvedev’s decree could disrupt what has been an important bridge between Russia and the other countries. Many of the laboratories and design bureaus which had developed Cold War weaponry were left adrift and vulnerable when the Soviet Union collapsed. The scientists had accumulated valuable knowledge that could not easily be converted into civilian work. The ISTC made grants to redirect them to other projects, including cooperation with Western scientists and organizations. It was a bulwark against proliferation of weapons know-how and technology. The program had expanded in recent years to the laboratories that were part of the old Soviet biological weapons program.

It is no secret that Iran and North Korean were both shopping for weapons-related technology in Russia in those difficult days after the Soviet collapse. The grants from the ISTC were not large, and not all the Soviet scientists and engineers were helped, but those that did get grants told quite inspiring stories of finding use for their talents. One of my favorite stories, which I recount in The Dead Hand, was the experience of Victor Vyshinsky, a specialist in fluid dynamics who worked at the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute in Moscow, a world renowned facility that carried out wind-tunnel tests on cruise missiles. Vyshinsky, head of a department at the institute, had been eager to make it in the new Russian economy. He searched for commercial applications for his team. They knew how to test a cruise missile in a wind tunnel, so they came up with an idea to use wind tunnels to dry timber. But they could not sell it. Then they proposed to use their mathematical models to predict the course of overflowing rivers. Again, a dead end. Vyshinsky turned to the ISTC, and his group of experts put together a proposal to study vortex wakes caused by airplanes at civilian airports, a project with widespread application that the science center supported.

“I wanted to remain in Russia,” Vyshinsky told me. But he knew others were tempted to leave, or to sell their knowledge to the highest bidder. He was aware of contracts with Iran inside his own institute.

“The only thing that keeps you from doing things like that are scruples,” he said. “If someone takes it into their head to sell something, I don’t think there will be a problem.”

Let’s hope that if Russia is turning out the lights on the ISTC that the former scientists of the Cold War continue to find fulfilling work on civilian projects, and get paid for it. Russia is a country of immense human capital and those minds are a terrible thing to waste.

David E. Hoffman covered foreign affairs, national politics, economics, and served as an editor at the Washington Post for 27 years.

He was a White House correspondent during the Reagan years and the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and covered the State Department when James A. Baker III was secretary. He was bureau chief in Jerusalem at the time of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and served six years as Moscow bureau chief, covering the tumultuous Yeltsin era. On returning to Washington in 2001, he became foreign editor and then, in 2005, assistant managing editor for foreign news. Twitter: @thedeadhandbook

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