Rockets into Ploughshares

MOSCOW: The first law of scientific research - that it costs big money - is as immutable as the laws of gravity. So no surprise that Russian science fell into a black hole due to economic upheaval in the decade following communism's collapse. Economic freedoms that transformed Russia for good and ill brought despair to laboratories and research institutes as budgets were slashed and bright young scientists fled abroad while others (most famously the mathematician turned oligarch Boris Berezovsky) moved into banking and other businesses.

This internal and external brain drain will impact Russia's economy for decades to come. It is also an unintentional gift from Russia to the West. The scale of this transfer of intellect may be unsurpassed in human history, and is greater than the flight of scientists from Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Take the institution which I headed for thirty-five years, the physics department of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Techniques (MIPT), comparable to America's acclaimed Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During the last ten years 1500 graduates from our Institute left for the US. According to a common means of assessment, educating a scientific specialist at a high level costs approximately $1million dollars. Thus, one Russian institute alone subsidized America with scientists with a nominal value of $1.5billion!

Of course, the seeds of the collapse of Russian science were sown in the Soviet era, when three-quarters of scientific research was financed by the military. Without that Cold War imperative, science became an easy target for Kremlin budget cutters. But more than the bloated branches of military science were slashed. Over the past decade expenditures on total scientific research were reduced to less than 5% of their former value. Oceanographic and geological research, traditionally strong in Russia, have virtually ceased to exist.