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Grass-Roots Approach To U.S.-Soviet Joint Science Will Sprout Slowly

WASHINGTON—Despite applause from both sides, Soviet and U.S. scientists may be slow to take advantage of two new agreements for joint research. The agreements call on scientists to set up their own collaborations and to find their own funding. Many Soviet scientists are not used to doing this, officials from the National Science Foundation learned during a recent tour of Soviet institutes. “They seem to have some reservations about how this kind of system would work and how it

Oct 16, 1989
Elizabeth Pennisi

WASHINGTON—Despite applause from both sides, Soviet and U.S. scientists may be slow to take advantage of two new agreements for joint research. The agreements call on scientists to set up their own collaborations and to find their own funding. Many Soviet scientists are not used to doing this, officials from the National Science Foundation learned during a recent tour of Soviet institutes.

“They seem to have some reservations about how this kind of system would work and how it would be of benefit to scientific research in their field,” says Gershon Sher, senior program manager in NSF’s division of international programs.

The two agreements, signed May 6, give U.S. and Soviet scientists a chance to submit joint proposals to their respective funding agencies (The Scientist, June 12, 1989, page 2). One agreement, between NSF and the Soviet Academy of Sciences, covers eight disciplines, including mathematics and science policy. The second, between the U.S. Geological Survey and the Soviet Ministry of Geology, covers 19 topics spanning the geological, atmospheric, and earth sciences. This month marks the start of the program, and NSF officials are eagerly awaiting the first proposals from U.S. scientists to conduct joint research with their Soviet colleagues.

“The Soviets are enthusiastic,” says Mary Clutter, NSF assistant director for biological, behavioral, and social sciences, who accompanied Sher and NSF Director Erich Bloch on a 10-day trip to the Soviet Union in June. During the trip, they visited several Soviet scientists to discuss the agreements and to gauge the Soviet response.

NSF officials are concerned that the crisis in the Soviet economy may hamper collaboration. But there are other potential problems as well. Applicants must compete, with their peers in each country for grants to pay for salaries, research costs, and travel expenses. And it maybe difficult for U.S. scientists to find long- term accomodations in overcrowded Soviet cities. The fact that neither-country has set aside special funds for these joint projects is another potential drawback.

Although Soviet geoscientists are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about promoting the program, according to NSF officials, other researchers are not as sure they could take advantage of this diplay of scientific glasnost. Scientists at the Institute of Solid State Physics in Chernogolovka, for example, were hesitant: They were still not allowed to have foreign guests stay overnight, they noted, and existing accommodations were poor.

While many U.S. scientists collaborate routinely with colleagues around the world, having U.S. partners is still unusual for Soviet scientists. “They’re enthusiastic about it, but it was clear that many of the people did not have colleagues in the U.S. and weren’t really acquainted with science in the U.S.,” says Clutter. At the Komarov Botanical Institute in Leningrad, for example, the director seemed unsure about how scientist-to-scientist contacts would develop, given the traditional topdown planning in Soviet science. When officials at the Institute of Limnology in Leningrad, which studies the water quality of Soviet lakes, asked for help in locating U.S. colleagues, Bloch demurred. The NSF director suggested instead that Soviet researchers obtain names from the scientific literature. But Soviet scientific libraries lack the hard currency needed to buy many foreign journals, the researchers responded.

The stipulation that the appropriate agency in each country review specific proposals is another potential obstacle. The Soviets have just begun a competitive grants system like that operated in the U.S., and most Soviet scientists have little experience in applying for funding. “This is a new programmatic mechanism from their standpoint,” says Sher, “and there is going to be a kind of transition period. Some conceptual breakthroughs may have to be made.” The Soviets are likely to use ad hoc peer review committees to evaluate the proposals, he says, but it will be up to each scientist’s home institution to find the money to fund them.

U.S. scientists may run into trouble as well. “The program manager is going to have to make a decision about the relative importance of this proposal as opposed to 30 or 40 other research proposals,” says Sher about the process that NSF will follow in awarding funds. Because having Soviet collaborators can add as much as $35,000 to the cost of a typical project grant that includes only U.S. scientists, Sher notes, “we’re taking a bit of a gamble” in asking U.S. scientists to participate.

Despite the possible impediments, NSF is confident about the long-term prospects’ for collaboration with the Soviets. Similar agreements with 35 other countries have already shown that this approach can work, Sher notes, and NSF is planning to hold some 20 workshops in various fields to bring together potential collaborators.

Joseph Birman, distinguished professor of physics at City College in New York, hopes to co-host one such workshop. He has been exchanging ideas with Soviet colleagues for more than-two decades and views the agreement as a small but positive step. But .he would like the collaborations to be more flexible. He-cited a problem that his Soviet colleague faced when he tried to organize the workshop without sending a written request to the Soviet Academy of Sciences. It took a few transatlantic phone calls to straighten out the problem.

“Yes, it is new for the Soviets, and, yes, it will take some getting used to,” says Sher. “But if we were to pick the best kind of climate in which we would try to implement this kind of program, we would want what we have now.

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