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Going Against the Flow: A Sabbatical in Russia

By Wallace Manheimer

From February through September 1995, I was on a sabbatical in Russia as a visiting professor of physics at Moscow State University in the group on microwave electronics and space power systems, under Professor Vladimir Vanke. Naturally, it was an amazing experience for me and my wife who joined me; an experience of a lifetime.

The people I met there were tremendously friendly and hospitable. In preparation for the trip, I read quite a few books on Russia and studied Russian language. Also I studied the language rather intensively when I was there. Scientific conversations were about half in Russian and half in English. Other conversations I had with people there were almost entirely in Russian. However the conversations in Russian were not normal speed conversations; almost without exception, the Russian people I spoke to were willing to speak down to my level and tolerate lots of mistakes on my part. Russian is a difficult language with complicated grammar and long words, however trying to communicate in it is a tremendous amount of fun.

For scientists in Russia, to get by today is a tremendous struggle. Salaries of full professors at Moscow State are typically less than $100 per month. By contrast, receptionists and typists in western businesses there typically earn two or three times that. For a scientist to survive, he has to find other ways to supplement his salary. Sometimes these other ways involve science (i.e. tutoring or contract research), sometimes they do not. There are many scientists there who economically are really kiosk operators, taxi drivers, factory workers, window washers, etc.

Naturally it is easy to have a great respect for these people who do their scientific work despite tremendous obstacles. The Russian scientific establishment during Cold War times was too big and unsustainable. However, they are going from one extreme to another. The threat to Russian science is also a threat to world science, I believe. If Vanke is only worth a few hundred dollars per month, we are not worth any more, and most of us cannot live in the United States on that. Somehow Russian science has to, and I believe will, get its act together. Russia has had a strong, independent scientific tradition since the time of Peter the Great.

Even in communist times, the scientific establishment was more independent of party control than other elements of Russian society. However this does not mean that the scientific establishment was in any sense independent. As innumerable people pointed out to me when I was there, it was the scientist party members, or those favored by the party, who got easy publication of their work, trips to the west, etc. Also in internal power struggles in labs and universities, the winner was frequently determined by who had the better party credentials.

Often leading scientists joined the party just to enhance their scientific stature. Roald Sagdeev points this out in his book The Making of a Soviet Scientist. However it is important to realize that there were many Russian scientists, some just as capable as he, who did not join the party even though they had the opportunity to do so. They always suffered professionally because of their decision. It was interesting that when we spoke to these people, invariably they found a way to work it into the conversation that they were not party members. They seemed to take a great deal of pride in it, and justifiably so, I think. As we broaden our contacts with Russian scientists, it is important to realize that the best ones may well have been ones we heard very little of during Cold War times.

One interesting thing about Russian science, as told to me by a lab director there, is that in communist times, there was more freedom in physics, at least professionally, than there was in the society at large. Therefore physics had a relatively easy time attracting the brightest people, since often these people were the ones who also valued freedom. However now that Russia is a democracy, and freedom of speech, press and religion are respected (this was obvious to me as a visitor there), physics does not have the same appeal. Bright people can have more freedom than they used to in any profession.

Several people told us how science is funded there. For instance at the Institute for Applied Physics at Nizhny Novgorod there are four levels. First of all there is everyone's basic pay, which is so little as to be almost meaningless. Second there is internal competition for funds for science projects, which can add some to the salaries of the winners. Third there is the Soros foundation which supports some work there. This money is distributed to the winners of competitive proposals. Finally there is what the lab can sell commercially to the rest of the world. For instance this lab, in collaboration with Russian industry sells gyrotrons to various worldwide magnetic fusion projects. They are also working now on such commercial projects as millimeter wave ceramic sintering and very short pulse radars. There are close relations between the university and the major auto manufacturers there. These industries add support to the university, probably to get first crack at hiring the best graduates and also to involve the university in its problems. The major contacts between the industries and universities are done at high level. It seemed to me that this could be a reasonable model for supporting American universities also.

Finally, there has been much talk in the west about doing what we can to help Russian science. I would like to suggest one additional thing which would not only help Russia, but help ourselves also. There are many large international scientific projects world wide. One possibility would be to locate some future ones in Russia. The project would gain from the relatively low price of the Russian scientific and technological infrastructure, and Russian science and technology would be much more integrated into that of the rest of the world.

Thus, my sabbatical was a tremendous experience, and I strongly recommend it to other scientists who might be interested.

Wallace Manheimer is Senior Scientist in the Plasma Physics Division of the Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, DC 20375.


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