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Science, Technology and Superpowers

Cooperation in Science and Technology: An Evaluation of the U.S.-Soviet Agreement. Catherine P. AiIes and Arthur E. Pardee Jr. Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 1986. 368 pp. $28.50. After-the-fact appraisal of the 1972-82 intergovernmental agreement on scientific and technical exchanges between the superpowers turns out to present the old question of whether the glass was half full or half empty relative to what was hoped for. SRI International analyst Catherine Ailes and consultant Arthur Pardee Jr

By | April 20, 1987

Cooperation in Science and Technology: An Evaluation of the U.S.-Soviet Agreement. Catherine P. AiIes and Arthur E. Pardee Jr. Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 1986. 368 pp. $28.50.


After-the-fact appraisal of the 1972-82 intergovernmental agreement on scientific and technical exchanges between the superpowers turns out to present the old question of whether the glass was half full or half empty relative to what was hoped for. SRI International analyst Catherine Ailes and consultant Arthur Pardee Jr., nonetheless, have provided a most useful and balanced postmortem on the entire episode, which should prove instructive to any future architects of politico-scientific institution-building aimed at hedging strategic tensions.

Within the umbrella agreement signed by the two powers in 1972, 11 working group programs were launched by the Americans and the Soviets as joint efforts. Steering responsibilities were shared between the White House Office of Science and Technology and the U.S.S.R. State Committee on Science and Technology, through a Joint Commission. So far, so good. But auspicious beginnings announced at summit meetings and keyed to political objectives with science employed as an instrument of convenience are at the mercy of the foul-up factor, in this case the unsteady equilibrium of overall political relations.

Of the 11 working parties, a few hit the ground running and accomplished respectable results. Several others slipped and slid through the muddy terrain with little to show by the time the curtain dropped, and a few late-starters were cut off at the pass when the basic agreement met sudden death in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and its subsequent pressure upon Poland.

It is one thing to operate scientific exchanges in stormy weather through non-governmental organizations such as national academies of science, and quite another to structure them on a reward-and-punishment basis between central governments. Here was an agreement pushed by the United States in the face of obvious skepticism on the part of the Soviets and played as a political card by the Kissinger White House. The assumption, apparently, was that scientific communities are the same everywhere and that they would couple happily on the stroke of a pen. Disregarded or brushed aside were the societal differences between open and closed systems, the inevitable collisions between pluralistic and rigidly-disciplined regimes, and incongruent expectations.

The American motive was to gain openings into the Soviet intellectual and administrative structure, but the Soviet motive was to appropriate U.S. scientific and technical assets for the benefit of its industrial and economic progress. Counsels of reciprocity and equivalency, uttered repeatedly in meetings of the Joint Commission, look very strange indeed in hindsight.

Though a participant in the goings-on is reluctant to admit it, the closing balance sheet was somewhat in favor of the fallout of benefits to the Soviet side. This might not have been too high a price to have paid had the agreement been of any significant help in prying open the Soviet society to Western ideas and, above all, reducing intergovernmental animosities.

But as Ailes and Pardee correctly point out, the slim merits of the exchanges were no match for presidential displeasure, congressional heat, and the mass exodus of American participants in the face of Soviet human-rights insults and heavy-handed political power plays. The agreement, at the hands of President Carter and President Reagan, ended up as a device for expressing moral anathema when other available sanctions were few in number or efficacy.

The value of this book is in its objective and detailed scrutiny not only of the collateral circumstances surrounding the execution and expiration of the umbrella agreement but even more of the experiences, good and not-so-good, of the 11 joint working programs. The casts of characters, the missions, the methodologies, the successes and failures of each joint team are described systematically. The obstacles on both the Soviet and American sides are painfully identified. Net assessments are given in each case. It is very good work indeed.

As the noise level of U.S.-Soviet invective appears to subside, the quest for openings is sure to resume and science wifi be hailed once more as an agent of reconciliation. High stakes—higher than in the 1970s—now are invested in science and technology. A level playing field is even more improbable. A close reading and reflection on Ailes and Pardee may avert revisiting the mistakes so well-chronicled in this timely retrospective.

Carey recently retired after serving for 12 years as executive director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, DC 20005. From 1976 to 1982 he was U.S. chairman of the working group on science policy, one of the 11 groups set up under the joint US-U.S.S.R. agreement.

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