Science under siege

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
In Russia today, scientists can earn more driving taxis or selling soap than they can extending the frontiers of knowledge. At a time of crisis, people are looking to astrologers, rather than to theoreticians, for solutions. With no money to keep the laboratories open, or the scientists in the country, decades of research and irreplaceable specimins will be lost. Hunger and poverty after the Soviet collapse have brought the scientific establishment to its knees

THEY HAD potatoes, rice, nuts, cereals and other crops in abundance. But as temperatures plummeted to 40 below zero in Leningrad, Alexander Stchukin, a scientist specialising in groundnuts, slumped over his desk and died. He was soon followed by Dmitry Ivanov, head of the rice collection. That winter, another half dozen scientists were to perish, choosing to starve rather than save themselves by eating their collection of genetically important plants.

The sacrifice took place during the 900-day siege of Leningrad in the bitterly cold winter of 1941-42. Scientists at the city's Institute of Plant Industry were fighting to preserve an historic collection of seeds and vegetable tubers from the combined effects of German bombs, the snow that blew in through shattered windows, the ravenous rats, and the even hungrier citizens roaming the city's streets. Despite having little or no food themselves, none of the scientists dared to touch their valuable store.

Today, Russia's economic chaos might end up destroying what the Nazis could not. Professor Victor Dragavtsev, the institute's current director, contemplates a crisis that seems as insurmountable as the wartime threat to his organisation's seed collection 50 years ago. He cannot afford to pay his scientists enough for them to feed their families. He says he is running out of money, equipment and trained staff to maintain the institute's world-famous seed collection. The issue is of such concern to the international community of plant breeders, who produce new hybrid crops on which the world depends for food, that the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organisation has sent a team of scientists to investigate.

Russian scientists at thousands of other research institutes in the former Soviet Union are being asked to remain at their posts on salaries equivalent to about pounds 5 a month while food prices soar. In some ways the sacrifice is even greater than that made by their colleagues in Leningrad 50 years ago. This time, scientists have to watch their children go hungry without any obvious prospect of relief. For some it has already proved too much. The lucky ones have gone abroad to lucrative research posts in the United States or western Europe. Others find they can earn 10 or even 100 times more by abandoning their test-tubes and atom-smashers. Some drive taxis, some spend hours on the streets buying and selling anything from books to bars of soap, others mend cars or fix television sets.

Food, or rather talk of it, is on everyone's lips. Inflation has hopelessly outpaced salaries, and what little food can be bought for prices approaching the old subsidised levels is of dubious quality. The Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy in Moscow - which designs nuclear reactors, including those installed at Chernobyl - has even bought a farm with 1,500 head of cattle so that it can pay its researchers in milk, vegetables and meat.

Even senior scientists are not immune to the chaos. The Kurchatov's director, Evgeny Velikhov, who as Gorbachev's senior scientific adviser was once the most influential scientist in the old USSR, and is now a vice president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, intends to grow half a ton of potatoes at his country dacha this summer as an insurance policy against food shortages. 'I don't sell potatoes, yet,' he says. 'But I have enough for my family for a full year.' His prediction for Russian science and his country is bleak. 'I hope that somehow we survive, but it is a hope. Therefore we need to prepare for the worst, and the worst is real hunger, which did not happen this winter but looks like a real possibility next winter.'

As Russian science crumbles, the cult of anti-science is in the ascendant. A growing army of charlatans, astrologers and other peddlers of miracles are winning the battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary Russians desperate for answers to the chaos that has enveloped their lives. The writer Tatyana Tolstaya has said that in post-Communist Russia there are more sorcerers than militiamen. Sorcery and superstition are filling the vacuum created by the demise of science. It is as if 300 years of Russian scientific enlightenment is being abandoned in favour of creeds more suited to the Dark Ages.

While the Leningrad scientists were starving to save their beloved seed collection, the scientist who created it was himself dying in one of Stalin's gulags. Nikolai Vavilov, the greatest Russian biologist and outstanding pioneer of plant genetics, had been denounced in 1940 by one of his own students, Trofim Lysenko. Three years later he died in prison. One of the many changes to the Institute of Plant Industry in Leningrad since then is that it is now named after Vavilov, who was rehabilitated in the Sixties. Another is that the institute's home city has been renamed St Petersburg.

At the beginning of April, Victor Dragavtsev was paying his senior researchers about 1,000 roubles a month, equivalent to about pounds 5 and half the salary of a Moscow trolley-bus driver. In a desperate attempt to keep up with inflation, he has had to increase this several times in almost as many weeks. Even so, he has already lost nearly 10 per cent of his scientific workforce and does not expect many of his employees to stay when inflation hits 300 per cent, which he predicts will happen later this year. The famous collection of seeds, a store of invaluable genetic material, is stagnating, he says. The institute used to organise half a dozen expeditions to different countries each year to add new plants to their collection. Now, travelling anywhere that involves spending hard currency is out of the question. Vavilov's 'gene bank' - the biggest and oldest in the world - houses about 380,000 plant specimens. About 7 per cent of these are extinct in the wild and cannot be found anywhere else.

The seeds have to be kept in elaborate cold stores - some at 4C, some at minus 10C and minus 20C, and others at extra cold temperatures of about minus 175C. In addition, to keep the seeds viable over many years, they have to be brought out now and again and grown under carefully controlled conditions for them to produce fresh seeds which can then go back into cold store. Dragavtsev has appealed to the international community for help in keeping the cold stores operational. Meanwhile, the Vavilov Institute, like the Kurchatov, is concentrating on growing its own food to feed its scientists. As an agricultural research centre, it is fortunate to have its own farms and has exploited the opportunity by sending food back to St Petersburg using its own transport system, as the state distribution network is too unreliable. By paying his workforce in food parcels, Dragavtsev hopes many will stay at their posts. Like most other senior scientists in the new Russia, he believes there cannot be any improvement in the food supply until Russian land is privatised, a policy resisted by the parliamentary deputies from the rural regions, where old Communist fiefdoms are at risk.

Apart from food distribution, food production is hopelessly inefficient. It takes, says Dragavtsev, about 1,500 litres of oil to drive the machinery and make the fertilisers that produce the food eaten by the average Russian in a year. In the US it takes 1,200 litres. 'But we produce about 20 times less.'

BY 1989, when Eastern Bloc Communism was starting to come apart at the seams, the Soviet Union was employing 1.5 million researchers - about a quarter of the world's scientists - in more than 5,000 institutions. In the transition to a market economy from a political system that frequently used science to support its ideology, scientists such as Professor Alexander Zelenin, deputy director of the Engelhardt Institute of Molecular Biology, have detected a change in attitude.

'The real problem is loss of prestige,' he says. 'After the war, even our government ministers were trying to induce their children to become scientists. Up to five years ago, the salary of the president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences was the highest official salary in the country.' Now, he says, science is less respected and certainly less-well paid. 'I know one graduate in biochemistry who has been tempted to go to McDonald's to test meat.' One of his secretaries has resigned to work for a commercial joint venture on a salary higher than his. Of the 300 or so technicians and scientists at the institute, about 35 are working abroad, and many have gone for good.

Zelenin, however, remains sanguine about the need to see some Russian science go by the wayside. 'Some weak fields of Russian science were supported artificially and should be allowed to die,' he says. 'It is a very important question to choose the labs that should be supported and those that should not.'

One area of traditional strength - mathematics - is suffering desperately, according to a report on science in the former Soviet Union by the Royal Society in London. It says that a third of the 140 staff of the world-famous Steklov Institute of Mathematics in Moscow are now working abroad. Although their posts are being kept open for them in the hope that they will return, the Royal Society says that 'recent unconfirmed reports . . . suggest that this facility may be in some jeopardy'.

One of the Steklov's most famous sons is Ludwig Faddeev, who is based at its branch in St Petersburg. In 1966, at the age of 32, he formulated a method of dealing with difficult mathematical problems by the creation of elements known as 'Faddeev-Popov ghosts' - Popov was his student at the time. In essence, he explains, it was a way of finding a solution to an otherwise intractable problem by creating something out of nothing - a ghost. 'The word 'ghost' was used as a symbol of something that doesn't exist,' he explains with a chuckle, 'to take into account an object we introduce for convenience and which disappears from the final answer.'

Faddeev says that maths has always been strong in Russia, long before 1917. But during the Soviet years there was a special reason why theoretical science attracted so many gifted students. 'Quite a few young people became mathematicians or theoretical physicists because they felt that there they couldn't be influenced by ideology. It was a sort of internal exile. Party officials couldn't influence us because they didn't understand what we did.'

Another reason could be the country's dire lack of computers, which may have forced mathematicians to take analysis further and to think in abstract rather than applied terms. Faddeev compares his daily exercising of the mind to the physical routines of a ballet dancer or pianist. 'I call it charging the subconscious. You think about a problem and maybe, in the night even, a solution may come.' He has successfully cajoled the Soviet bureaucracy into setting up an international mathematical centre, the Euler Institute, named after an 18th- century Swiss scientist who first established the mathematics tradition in St Petersburg. The city council has donated a recently renovated palace, formerly used by top Party officials, and Faddeev hopes to invite groups of foreign scientists there for short research visits in return for modest payments in hard currency - a sort of holiday camp for mathematicians to solve problems in an informal setting.

The idea was conceived early in the Gorbachev era as an attempt to normalise relationships between Soviet and Western scientists. But now it has taken on the role of helping to preserve international contacts at a time when Russian scientists find it virtually impossible to fund themselves to travel abroad.

An attempt at preventing a new isolationism developing in Russian science is being made by the two sons of Peter Kapitza, the famous Russian scientist who spent 13 years at Cambridge studying under Ernest Rutherford, the great British physicist. Stalin eventually ordered Kapitza back to Moscow in 1934 to work on the Soviet nuclear weapons project and refused to let him out again. His sons, Sergei and Andrei, were both born in Cambridge during the Twenties and early Thirties, and although they returned to Russia when small boys, their English retains the remnants of a distinctly Oxbridge accent. Andrei has spent much of his life as a geographer, exploring remote regions of the world, from the South Pole to the equatorial forests of Africa, and is now exploring ways of raising the pounds 2m he needs to establish a Kapitza Fund. He says it will be a permanent foundation to pay for future generations of Russian researchers spending up to a year working with British researchers in Cambridge.

The plan is for them to stay at the Cambridge house his father built 60 years ago, which he bequeathed to the Soviet Academy of Sciences (now the Russian Academy) on the understanding that it would be used to promote Anglo-Soviet scientific co-operation. Andrei Kapitza has been in talks with John Major's chief scientific adviser, Bill Stewart, to discuss a contribution from the British Government. The project is languishing through lack of money, but Kapitza remains optimistic.

Andrei has evidently inherited some of the non-conformity of his father, who took extraordinary liberties with Stalin and his henchman, Lavrenti Beria, the KGB chief executed in 1953 after Stalin's death. Stalin had put Beria in charge of the Soviet atom-bomb programme and Peter Kapitza was ordered to work under him, although Beria knew precious little about nuclear physics or any other scientific subject. The relationship became so strained that Beria once came round to Kapitza's house and presented him with a gun, to suggest he go and shoot himself perhaps - nobody knows. A couple of weeks later, Kapitza lost his job as director of the Institute of Physical Problems and was compelled to remain at his dacha outside Moscow, where he built a laboratory, experimented in microwaves and one day, with an enormous crash of broken windows, created ball lightning, the first mortal to do so.

Andrei Kapitza now keeps Beria's gun at his Moscow flat as a memento of the time when his father nearly became yet another Soviet scientist to be transformed into a non-person. In the same locked cupboard he keeps another small gun which can fire pellets of tear-gas. He carries it when visiting certain districts of Moscow where violence is now commonplace.

His flat comes with the academic post he holds, and sits high up in one of the neo-gothic towers of Moscow State University, where he was once dean of the world's largest geography faculty. Today the post is held by a younger man, Nikolai Kasimov, whose office commands a marvellous view of the Moscow smog from its vantage point on top of the Lenin Hills to the south of the city centre. On one of the walls is a huge relief map of the former Soviet Union, to which he occasionally refers when discussing some of the enormous ecological problems facing the area after more than 70 years of industrial and agricultural pollution. Kapitza and Kasimov are concerned about one particularly pernicious problem that has arisen from the Soviet space programme. Scientists have recently been made aware of the ecological mess caused by tens of thousands of gallons of unspent rocket fuel falling over wide tracts of wilderness as the first and second stages of Soviet rockets fell to earth east of the country's two cosmodromes. State secrecy, they say, has until recently made it impossible for scientists to document just how bad the problem was. In the northern cosmodrome at Plesetsk, the situation is exacerbated by the extreme cold, which prevents the hydrocarbon fuel from breaking down naturally.

A similar problem is leading towards another ecological tragedy in Norilsk, Russia's northernmost city, located well within the Arctic circle and home to a few hundred thousand people. It is the centre of a mineral mining operation that spews out 2.5 million tons of pollutants each year - a million tons more than Moscow, a city of about 10 million people. Kapitza says that some scientists have known about such ecological time-bombs for many years - 'but we couldn't write or talk about it'. Now, he says, scientists are needed to help with the clean-up, providing there are any Russian scientists left to carry out the job.

Russian pollution poses novel problems. Unlike factories in the West, for instance, Soviet manufacturers do not normally clear dust particles from their atmospheric emissions, and as a result parts of the country have a problem with rain that is alkaline rather than acidic. Whereas acid rain harms lakes and streams, this alkaline rain damages the soil, Kapitza says.

Yet even though there will be a great need for skilled scientists to help tackle the mess caused by decades of decay, Kasimov's department is experiencing a decline in the numbers applying for undergraduate courses for the first time since the war. There are fewer applicants from non-Russian republics, but he says there is also a feeling that science can no longer provide a good living. This year, for the first time, science graduates are no longer guaranteed a job on finishing their course. And they have little prospect of finding one.

WEAPONS scientists are in a better position to find work now that the US, Japan and the European Community have agreed in principle to spend up to dollars 75m ( pounds 40m) setting up an international research centre in Moscow with the aim of stopping the nuclear brain drain to non- nuclear states. The rest of Russian science, meanwhile, is being left to the ravages of market forces - something that scientific advisers to George Bush say should not be allowed to happen. 'Science and technology, together with capital and free social institutions, propel a modern economy,' they told the US President earlier this year. 'The situation is clearly a security issue for the United States. The United States has already invested huge resources in the 'containment' of communism, and a comparatively small investment now could be very effective in stabilising the former Soviet Union's scientific establishment.'

Funding joint research projects with a free exchange of people and ideas - along the lines proposed by Faddeev and Kapitza - is something that all sides agree is the best way of preserving Soviet research. Giving funds directly to scientists to pay for research, and bypassing the corrupt Soviet bureaucracy that still permeates Russian society, is viewed as the most effective way of rescuing the best research. 'Time is of the essence,' say the American science advisers.

By the end of the summer, few scientists will be able to justify carrying out any research at all. On top of salaries that cannot feed a family, the scientists who are still working in their labs have to cope with shortages of the most basic materials, such as cotton wool, aluminium foil, masking tape and cling film. Researchers at the Ukrainian Physico-Technical Institute in Kharkov are reported to be idling away the hours because there is no power for the linear accelerator, a huge multi-million dollar machine. Alexander Zelenin describes machines costing half a million dollars lying idle in his institute for lack of reagents costing less than 50 cents.

Scientists working in the towns built during the Fifties and Sixties as dedicated research centres - such as Zelenograd, 45 kilometres from Moscow - face particular hardship. 'Several of these townships revolve exclusively round research establishments,' says the Royal Society's report, 'which makes the position of scientific workers threatened by the collapse of central funding more precarious by the lack of suitable alternative employment . . .'

'WE HAVE only two entrepreneurial classes in the Russian-Soviet society,' Evgeny Velikhov says. 'One is the black-marketeers, and the other is the scientists.'

The scientists' international perspective, rare among citizens of the Soviet Union, could be a crucial factor in stimulating an enterprise culture. The trouble is that in order for scientists to feed themselves and their families they are being forced to adopt the lifestyle and tactics of the black-marketeer. The alternative is hunger. Like their Leningrad colleagues who starved to death 50 years ago, Russia's scientists today are being forced to contemplate the first item of advice given to their country's cosmonauts should they land in inhospitable terrain: almost everything living is edible.

Additional research and interpreting by Inessa Connor

(Photographs omitted)

Comments