Soviet Panel Hits Science Bureaucracy

The Soviet Academy of Sciences got more than it bargained for when in 1985 it created a commission to eliminate much of the red tape that has strangled innovation in the country’s more than 200 research institutes. Word of the cormmission’s existence sparked pleas for help from everyone from truck drivers to petty crooks in coping with the country’s gargantuan bureaucracy. The panel has since revised Its title to the “Commission for the Regulating of the Style and Met

Jan 25, 1988
Greg Stec

The Soviet Academy of Sciences got more than it bargained for when in 1985 it created a commission to eliminate much of the red tape that has strangled innovation in the country’s more than 200 research institutes. Word of the cormmission’s existence sparked pleas for help from everyone from truck drivers to petty crooks in coping with the country’s gargantuan bureaucracy.

The panel has since revised Its title to the “Commission for the Regulating of the Style and Methods of Work of the Management of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R.” But its new name doesn’t alter its monumental task—to battle a bureaucratic structure that has been the bane of the Soviet scientist’s existence since the early days of the communist state. Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost.and perestroika pronouncements have set in motion a series of programs (see accompanying story). Their aim, if nothing is to improve the efficiency of the Soviet scientific establishment by easing restrictions on spending and travel and by encouraging interdisciplinary cooperation.

The commission has tackled a number of practices especially irritating to Soviet researchers. A scientist wanting to go abroad, for example, needed to complete as many as a dozen different forms to justify attendance at a conference or symposium. The commission found that only two of the forms were really necessary.

In a November29 interview with Moscow News, academician Vuri Osipyan, vice chairman of the commission, said that one bureaucratic position, a sort of “Department of Redundancy Department,” had insisted on the forms to justify its existence. Under the new rules for foreign travel, Soviet scientists still must obtain approval from their respective institutions, but the paperwork has been greatly reduced.

Opportunities to publish have been hindered by a rule that requires all scientitfic material to appear first in Soviet journals. This practice means dealing with another layer of bureaucracy, of course, as well as engaging in lengthy political maneuvering to ohtain institutional approval.

The commission has taken the position that international exposure of Soviet scientific advances reflects well on the country, and can improve a researcher’s funding and staffing opportunities. The panel also campaigned successfully for a 10-year limit on the terms of science editors and administrators as a way to prevent the bureaucratic entrenchment that has stifled scientific publishing in the past.

Osipyan told Moscow News, a weekly publication in the forefront of the campaign for glasnost, that one of the practices most galling to Soviet scientists is the distribution of funds in a centrally planned economy. “1 learned that it is possible to spend several million rubles on a certain item quite uncontrollably [if it stays] within a financial estimate,” he said. “But God forbid we should exceed the estimate for another item by a mere three rubles.”

The commission also hopes to encourage more interdisciplinary cooperation between scientific research institutes. “That’s exactly the goal of the interscientific technical complexes,” confirmed Loren Graham, a history of science professor at MIT who has been following Soviet efforts to modernize operating procedures. Graham said the interscientific groups cover 22 high-technology disciplines, including molecular biology, computers, lasers, fiber optics, computeraided design and manufacturing and numerical-control machine tools.

About 400 researchers are involved in an interdisciplinary research team in Kiev called Otklik (Response). The State Committee for Science and Technology and the Academy of Sciences organized the team in the summer of 1986 to encourage research on and implementation of certain microwave therapy techniques. Sergei Sitko, a nuclear physicist, leads the Otklik team of physicists, biologists, mathematicians and physicians.

Sitko claims the group has made stunning progress in the treatment of ulcers and polio. He said in the same Moscow News article that the therapy, which he calls “microwave resonance,” also shows promise for treating illnesses as diverse as diabetes, phantom limb pains and even drug and alcohol abuse. The procedures involve stimulation of the same nerve centers as acupuncture techniques.

Despite a three-year budget of about $10 million, the program is moving in fits and starts. For while OtkIik researchers may have set aside bureaucratic posturing, they still must deal with the country’. financial institutions. The flow of money is erratic, and progress is slower than expected. The academy's reform commision plans to continue expanding its membership, recruiting young scientists and removing non-productive members. Sociologists are especially welcome because some commission members think that investigating the origins and nature of Soviet bureaucracy could hasten the reform process.

MIT's Graham believes that some improvement in Soviet scientific bureaucracy has occurred, but that long-term solutions are not yet in hand. "They're doing many things," he said I do think however that the tasks they have in reforming science and becoming technologically innovative are very difficult.

“These reforms, as impressive as they are, are not likely to change the situation overnight. It’s going to be a long haul for them.”

Greg Stec is the Soviet affairs correspondent
for the United Stations Radio Networks in
New York.


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(The Scientist, Vol:2, #2, p.1, January 25, 1988)
(Copyright © The Scientist, Inc.)

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