Will Russian Scientists Go Rogue? A Survey on the Threat and the Impact of Western Assistance

Nancy Popson

"The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to a deep, sustained crisis in Russian science," said Deborah Yarsike Ball, National Security Analyst, Proliferation and Terrorism Prevention Program, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and former Title VIII-Supported Short-Term Scholar, Kennan Institute, at a 16 December 2004 lecture at the Kennan Institute on the possibility of Russian scientists collaborating with "rogue states." This crisis, she explained, led to significant concern over the conditions in the weapons-of-mass-destruction complex and the possibility that scientists previously engaged in such activity would relocate to states interested in weapons development.

The lecture focused on the results of a survey of over 600 Russian scientists in the fields of physics, biology, and chemistry at twenty scientific institutes across the Russian Federation. The project was conducted in conjunction with Theodore Gerber, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and was funded by the State Department's International Science and Technology Center (ISTC) program to evaluate the impact of its programs to support science in Russia. An article based on this research will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Foreign Affairs.

Ball explained that because the Ministry of Atomic Energy (MinAtom) would not allow her researchers access to institutes within its jurisdiction, the survey targeted scientists working in areas that could relate to weapons research outside of the MinAtom programs. Ball noted that, to her knowledge, the survey was the first study to systematically compare participants in U.S. nonproliferation programs with nonparticipants. Fifty percent of the respondents had received Western grants, 12 percent had applied for grants but been denied, and 38 percent had never applied for Western grants.

Ball pointed to three main findings from the survey. First, the survey indicated that a small but significant minority (21 percent) of scientists in the Russian Federation are likely to consider relocating to states such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, or North Korea where they could work in their fields, which could involve projects related to weapons of mass destruction. Older scientists and women were less likely in general to "go rogue," as were those who lived in Moscow or its vicinity. Scientists who had been engaged in weapons-related research were neither more nor less likely to consider immigrating to a "rogue state."

On the question of whether assistance programs help to prevent scientists from "going rogue," Ball stated that the survey results show that "the programs work." Scientists who received Western grants were less likely to consider "going rogue." Twenty-five percent of respondents who had never received a Western grant or had applied for but been denied a grant indicated a willingness to move to Iran, Iraq, Syria, or North Korea to work, compared to only 12 percent of grant recipients. The survey results also showed that Russian scientists receiving a Western grant were less likely to "go rogue" than those who received only Russian grants.

Other questions in the survey gauged the scientists' sense of responsibility for their research. Ball explained that, overall, the Russian scientists feel a strong moral responsibility about how their research is ultimately used as well as a sense of national duty (that Russian national interests were more important than their own personal interests). She noted, "While most scientists are responsible, a small but significant minority still indicate a willingness to ‘go rogue.'" A majority of respondents favorably viewed controls over the rights of weapons researchers to work abroad.

Finally, Ball discussed the study's findings concerning the ability of Russian scientists to adapt to the changes in their field since the fall of the Soviet Union. She noted that between 1991 and 1994, there was a 75 percent drop in state funding for science. Throughout the 1990s Russian science suffered from both external and internal "brain drain" as thousands of Russian scientists and technicians either emigrated abroad or moved on to new careers in Russia outside the field of science. Russian science was forced to accomodate a new system of organization and management, much as the Russian economy had been.

That wrenching change was reflected in survey results, as the respondents described the new realities that affect their daily activities: the greater role of grants, a severe decline in state funding, more competition, a bias for applied over fundamental research, and a stronger connection to the international scientific community. In general, they were positive about the role of grants and new interactions with international colleagues. They were more negative about the emphasis on applied science, the loss of state financing, and the crisis they see in the lack of young people entering the field. The survey also showed that Western grants help improve the scientists' adaptation to non-weapons-related work. A full 61 percent of respondents said that "Western grants and contracts have encouraged Russian scientists to do more work that has non-military applications."

Ball concluded by underscoring the importance of Western non-proliferation programs in reducing the likelihood of Russian brain drain to countries of concern. Such programs, according to Ball, should continue to be adequately funded.

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