Brain Drain Saps Former Soviet Union of Scientists

Proposed congressional budget cuts hint at tough times ahead for American scientists who compete for an ever-shrinking pot of federal dollars to fund their projects. Several visiting scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks have already seen the crumbling of national support for science in their home country, and it’s not a pretty sight.

They’re from the former Soviet Union, a society that puts more value on bus drivers than scientists. Scientists at the U.S.S.R Academy of Sciences in Moscow “may earn 750 rubles a month, while a trolleybus driver in Moscow may earn 1,200-1,400 rubles a month,” wrote Leonid V. Ksanfomality, former laboratory chief at the Academy’s Space Research Institute, in 1991. “Both academic and applied sciences now are pushed aside entirely in a society in upheaval, where science and technology seem less relevant than buying bread and meat.”

The change in priorities that followed the democratization of the former Soviet Union chased away many scientists, who took with them their knowledge to solve health, environmental and other problems now plaguing the country. Like many top researchers, Geophysical Institute Research Associate of Atmospheric Sciences Victor Filyushkin was part of the brain drain of scientists who sought better opportunity in another country.

Filyushkin, a whiz in math and physics as a teenager, enrolled at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology at age 17. After earning his masters and doctorate degree and working at the Central Aerological Observatory in Moscow, his research was impressive enough to earn him an invitation to work as a visiting scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, in 1990. From there he went on to the University of Oklahoma, where he helped develop a computer model showing how clouds can affect climate change. This work led him to the Geophysical Institute, where he is supported by funds from the U.S. Department of Energy to study climate change in the Arctic. Filyushkin said scientific research in the United States differs from that in the former Soviet Union in quality; especially computers; and the competitiveness required to secure funding.

“The competition is very tough,” he said. “You know how this country runs—it’s a market system. If you don’t have something to offer, you won’t stay around.”

In the pre-breakup Soviet Union, scientists were assured funds from the government once they worked their way up to a senior position. Research money came primarily from the government, with a large chunk from the military. After the cold war ended in 1989, research funding from the military “practically disappeared,” said Leonid Yurganov, an atmospheric scientist now working temporarily at the Geophysical Institute.

Yurganov, of St. Petersburg, formerly worked in the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in St. Petersburg. His research on carbon monoxide levels in the air is funded in part by the International Science Foundation, a $100 million endowment set up by New York billionaire George Soros to pump some life into Soviet science.

When Yurganov’s present grant runs out in August, he’ll write a proposal to get another one. His options are limited back home, where he recently had to moonlight to make ends meet. When he was in St. Petersburg last November, he translated Russian to English for other scientists instead of doing research full-time.

“It’s a depression; a stagnation in the industry,” Yurganov said of science in his homeland. Brain drain symptoms may already be appearing in the former Soviet Union, a country facing serious air, water and soil pollution. Hopefully, those in the U.S. Congress will take note of what can happen when the best and brightest are forced to look elsewhere because of withering national support.