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U.S. Disinvites Soviets From Ocean Research

WASHINGTON—The Reagan administration has barred the Soviet Union from participating in an international scientific program to which the Soviets had already accepted an invitation. The decision was made by President Reagan late last month on national security grounds, after the Defense Department objected to the Soviets' participation in the project, which will analyze the composition of the ocean floor. The Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) is supported by the United States, the United Kingdom,

By | May 18, 1987

WASHINGTON—The Reagan administration has barred the Soviet Union from participating in an international scientific program to which the Soviets had already accepted an invitation. The decision was made by President Reagan late last month on national security grounds, after the Defense Department objected to the Soviets' participation in the project, which will analyze the composition of the ocean floor.

The Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) is supported by the United States, the United Kingdom, West Germany, France, Canada, Japan and the European Science Foundation, a consortium of 12 smaller countries. The National Science Foundation contributes about $19 million annually, while the six other participants provide $2.5 million each.

The U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences was invited in 1985 to join the newly constituted program as a full partner. At the time various U.S. agencies—including NSF and the departments of State, Commerce and Defense—had approved the proposal. The Soviets accepted and were to come on board earlier this year.

In February, however, just days before a U.S. delegation was to travel to Moscow for an official signing ceremony, Pentagon officials asked that the invitation be reconsidered. They were concerned that the Soviets would acquire national security-sensitive technology by being aboard the drill ship. The issue was bounced to the National Security Council for interagency review and, after several weeks, Reagan quietly nixed the offer—much to the chagrin of other officials and participants.

The Pentagon's concern is that the ship carries two VAX 11/750 computers. These units serve as the central processor for 50 microcomputers on board. But the technology is one of the products to be kept from the Soviet bloc, according to a list drawn up by the 16 Western nations that belong to the Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM).

"We were concerned about the Soviets' gaining access to a combination of sophisticated technologies and techniques which would allow them to operate with great accuracy" in ocean drilling, said Col. Robert W. Turner, director of the Pentagon's Office of Technology Cooperation and Security. Added a White House official: "The president determined that we should not cooperate [with the Soviets] in this particular field at this time. We are going to block them from participating. We'll withdraw their invitation."

Loss of Data, Funds

Donald E. Heinrichs, chief of NSF's Oceanographic Centers and Facilities section, said the White House move will "make a lot of people and a number of international countries unhappy." One problem is that the drilling program's research budget is based upon a $2.5 million Soviet contribution. Beyond finances, he said, "the Soviets would have brought in their data bases of geological data" relating to the Western Pacific and Arctic regions— areas where scientists plan to take the drilling ship in the next few years.

"On balance, we lose. We'll miss the exchange of ideas," Heinrichs said. "Obviously, if we wanted to drill in the Soviet zones or territorial seas in the future, it's out."

The ODP is an outgrowth of the Deep Sea Drilling Program operated for 15 years by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. DSDP scientists, using the Glomar Challenger, confirmed the theory that the Earth's crust is composed of huge, mobile tectonic plates.

The ship makes six trips a year with a crew of 25 scientists, said Karen Riedel, a spokeswoman for the program, which is based at Texas A&M University. Also on board are a technical crew of 25 engineers and technicians and a drill crew of 68.

"We offered to place controls on access" to the computers to keep Soviet scientists away from them, Heinrichs said. Only nine pieces of equipment aboard are controlled commodities, he said, adding that Commerce Department officials have said "several of these items would be dropped" from the COCOM list. "Our assessment was that there were real concerns, but not as serious as DOD thought."

The Pentagon's Turner said the problem was not only with the computers but also with drilling know-how. "It runs counter to scientific endeavors to put the kinds of controls you would need" on the computers, he said. "Plus, the way you use the equipment and technologies at those [drilling] depths is of national security concern for the U.S.'.

Tony Mayer, of the United Kingdom's Natural Environment Research Council, said "it was a great surprise to everybody when the NSC put a block" on Soviet participation. "We welcomed the Soviet scientists in the program and our executive committee resolution [offering membership] is still extended," Mayer said. "What they could have gained in oil drill technology we could have gained from them in deep drilling technology."

"Obviously, it would have been beneficial to have Soviet participation."

Agres is assistant managing editor of The Washington Times and a veteran science writer.

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