How US non-proliferation funding has shaped post-Soviet science

Credit: Department of Defense/Todd P. Cichenowicz

With the collapse of communism in 1992, the bottom dropped out of the Soviet weapons labs. The US, worried that newly destitute weapons researchers would sell their skills to unsavory regimes, initiated an effort to direct scientists’ wartime skills to more peaceful endeavors. Financial support for former Soviet weapons scientists was written into disarmament programs. Russian researchers who had lived in secret cities were suddenly invited to tour Los Alamos. The Russian space program was soon invited to participate in the International Space Station&emdash;to keep ballistics experts working for the good guys&emdash;and later, microbiologists were paid to work on drugs and basic research to keep them from lucrative work developing bioweapons.

“American assistance was extremely useful in helping Russian scientists and engineers to find ourselves in new fields,” said Boris Ryabov, director of engineering at Sarov, once the USSR’s largest nuclear weapons lab.

Nearly 15 years after the end of the arms race, the focus of these programs has shifted from supporting fundamental research to encouraging former weapons scientists to develop marketable technologies with Western partners&emdash;the goal being the development of a self-sustaining R&D infrastructure.

“Commercialization has become a mantra, and in part, that’s been forced by the US Congress, which wants to see exit strategies. They’re not interested in long-term, welfare-type support for Russian science,” said Laura Holgate, vice president of the Russia program at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI). Private programs like NTI, as well as government-supported initiatives like the International Science & Technology Center (ISTC) and US Department of Energy programs (both funded, in part, through the US’s Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Act of 1991), have worked to disarm the former Soviet Union using a variety of means. ISTC alone has funded tens of thousands of former weapons scientists&emdash;in a given year, the ISTC pays more researchers than work at all the US nuclear weapons laboratories combined.

The focus on commercialization has had major impacts on sectors that have received more funding. Former Soviet weapons scientists have designed much of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner; longer-lasting plasma torches for industrial use; next-generation wind-power and art-restoration technologies; special gyros for oil drilling&emdash;the list goes on. “To see [former weapons scientists] engaged in some of these very exciting, very cutting-edge, very internationally collaborative areas, I think really is a testimony to the long-term impact that these programs have had,” said Anne Harrington, director of the US National Academies Committee on International Security and Arms Control.

But the new emphasis has also resulted in scaled-back funding for basic research. Indeed, the landscape and culture of Russian research and science has shifted&emdash;and, in places, been dismantled&emdash;to make way for Western approaches to R&D. Funding has moved from government institutes to tech startups. Science in former Soviet countries is now much like the rest of the post-Soviet economy: driven for short-term profit, and partnered with support from the West.

“The purpose of these programs was never to save Russian science,” said Harrington. “If other people wanted to do that, that was fine. The purpose of these programs was to keep key people who could provide important or critical information on weapons science from doing that.”

How successful the programs have been at their original goal of nonproliferation is ultimately unknowable, both because so much of the intelligence is classified, and because it’s difficult to prove a negative. “There is no Russian equivalent of A.Q. Kahn as far as anyone knows,” said Holgate. On the other hand, the Russian government has certainly been threatened with sanctions because of suspected (non-nuclear) proliferation.

The golden age of nonproliferation funding for science may be reaching its terminus. “I think that these programs will be greatly winding down [within 10 years],” said Boris Mislavsky, vice president of the National Industry Coalition in Moscow, which helps form American research partnerships in Russia with Department of Energy funds. And whether a national R&D infrastructure can exist for long without basic research is a worrisome question for many.

“Fundamental science continues to replenish the people and the topics that then become, in essence, the underpinnings of an economy,” said Sig Hecker, former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory. “What [my Russian colleagues] are concerned about is that those underpinnings are not being supported.”

“In the end, Russia is going to have to make the decisions on what it’s going to invest in pure science,” said Vic Alessi, president of the quasi-governmental US Industry Coalition, who serves on the board of the ISTC. “The rest of the world can’t do that. At some point, they have to belly up to the bar and [put funds toward] infrastructure and education and creating long term prospects for their country.”

Originally published June 19, 2006


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