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Suggested Citation: "Emigration of Scientists and Engineers." National Research Council. An Assessment of the International Science and Technology Center: Redirecting Expertise in Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Former Soviet Union. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 1996.


Emigration of Scientists and Engineers

Under the former Soviet system, the country's science sector was inflated beyond the economy's capacity to sustain it. Yet the country's leadership expanded the science sector—encouraged by a bureaucracy that rewarded growth for growth's sake, a system that did not know or consider the true costs of maintaining its science and engineering institutes, and the high prestige attached to science and technology in general.

Downsizing of the Soviet science sector through emigration, attrition, and shifts of personnel to the commercial sector began in the late 1980s, before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has estimated that in 1991 Russia's 4,000 institutes employed close to 1 million scientists and engineers.1 By 1994, the number was reduced to 650,000 to 750,000. In a separate estimate, the Russian Centre for Science Research and Statistics reported that total employment in R&D institutes in the FSU fell by 40 percent between 1989 and 1993; the employment of R&D specialists alone fell by 44 percent during the same period.2 According to the centre, of the total downsizing, emigration from Russia of workers in the science and scientific services sector was slightly over 2,000 per year from 1990 through 1993.3 This total includes employees with all levels of education. The number with advanced degrees was much smaller. Separate data on emigrants with advanced degrees in science are not available, but some idea can be gathered from the centre's statement that, of a total of 35,000 emigrants from all sectors in the second half of 1992, only 67 had candidate degrees and only 7 had doctoral degrees.4

By 1995 several Russian economists were estimating that scientific personnel had decreased by more than 50 percent since the mid-1980s5 The committee's discussions with institute directors and researchers support this estimate. The director of the Institute for Applied Microbiology, Nickolai N. Urakov, claimed that the current level of 1,350 employees at his institute is 50 percent of the 1991 level. The Research Institute for Pulse Technology, currently with a staff of 1,200 to 1,300, is also at 50 percent of its 1991 level. The deputy general director of the Institute of Chemical Physics in Chernogolovka, George B. Manelis, reported that his institute's staff is now approximately 1,800, down from 2,500 several years ago. And the P. N. Lebedev Physics Institute is down from its 1990 level of 3,500 to 2,500 employees today. Less downsizing has occurred at Arzamas16, where the staff has gone from about 25,000 to 20,000 since the 1980s.

These reductions, large as they are, are not yet sufficient to bring the Russian science sector to a manageable and sustainable size. The uncertain economic future of the region makes it impossible to predict just how far the downsizing should go (there is always the question of quality versus quantity). The OECD estimates the number of researchers and technicians that Russia presently can afford by taking into consideration Russia's per capita income (adjusted for purchasing power parity) and comparing its R&D sector to other countries at comparable levels of wealth. The results suggest that Russia' s economy would be able to sustain 350,000 to 400,000 researchers (or full-time equivalents).6 Whether this figure is accurate is less important than the notion that significant further reductions will be required to correspond with a level that the economy can support.


OECD, Science, Technology and Innovation Policies: Federation of Russia, vol. 1, OECD, Paris, 1994, p. 17.


Centre for Science Research and Statistics, Science and Technology in Russia 1994, Moscow, 1995, p. 61.


Centre for Science Research and Statistics, Emigration of Scientists: Problems, Real Estimations, Moscow, 1994, p. 32.


Ibid., p. 45.


Quoted in Dorothy S. Zinberg, “The Missing Link? Nuclear Proliferation and the International Mobility of Russian Nuclear Experts,” Research Paper No 35, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, Geneva, 1995.


The figures used by the OECD are based on “head count” rather than full-time equivalents (FTEs) and are thus somewhat larger. While FTE figures are unknown, the estimates nonetheless provide an indication of the size of cuts likely to occur over the next few years (OECD, op cit., p. 17).

Suggested Citation: "Emigration of Scientists and Engineers." National Research Council. An Assessment of the International Science and Technology Center: Redirecting Expertise in Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Former Soviet Union. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 1996.

Thus, continued “internal migration” in the FSU of noncritical personnel from the science sector to other newly emerging sectors is not only to be expected but should be welcomed by institute directors, many of whom, for various reasons, have not been able to downsize their staffs. In part, this relates to the traditional responsibility of an institute director for the welfare of his employees. Similarly, the Russian Government has been unable, or unwilling, to reduce institute staffs to a level that could be reasonably supported.

While continued downsizing is in the interest of the Russian science sector, the reductions that have occurred have not necessarily preserved the most competent people. Aggregate data on internal migration and downsizing do not reveal the scientific status of those leaving; in other words, are the best scientists and engineers leaving? Are the younger scientists and engineers leaving? Or has the downsizing been random?

A report from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) suggests that “the first to leave are leading researchers, experienced, well-educated specialists.”7 The committee's discussions at the Institute of Applied Microbiology support that view. Similarly, a researcher at the Central Aerohydrodynamics Institute commented that the older researchers, who also hold positions at learning institutes, have tended to stay, while the younger and the very competent middle-aged researchers were leaving.

The aggregate data also fail to show the extent to which scientists have actually left the country, as opposed to leaving science for other careers. Official statistics regarding the number of scientists who have emigrated to other countries “are very limited at present, ” according to Russia's Centre for Science Research and Statistics. Data indicating sensationally large numbers of emigrating scientists appear in various publications, but “the origin of these data is a mystery.”8 Moreover, many scientists have gone abroad under temporary arrangements that enable them to stay at the forefront of research. Of the 1,200 scientists employed at the Ioffe Institute, for example, approximately 100 are working abroad at any given moment. How many will return is uncertain.

The committee heard from several directors and researchers that a significant number of their best people had left for nontechnical commercial jobs in Russia. This internal migration, which has involved disproportionate numbers of younger scientists, who are more mobile than older scientists and who may have more opportunities in nonscientific careers, has been more deleterious to the Russian science community than emigration abroad. As a result, the institute's staffs are aging. Several institute directors commented that the average age of their scientific staffs is now over 50.

Thus, available data and the committee's many discussions confirm that significant downsizing—both internal migration and emigration—is and has been occurring in the FSU. But what of the scientists and engineers who are or have been conducting research in weapons of mass destruction? Nuclear weapons scientists, once the elite of Soviet science, have not been spared from the financial crisis. Budgets for the once all-powerful nuclear weapons laboratories, such as Arzamas-16 and the Kurchatov Institute, have been dramatically reduced. However, the downsizing at Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Atomic Energy institutes has not been as severe as at other institutes (e.g., at institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences), but the level of frustration, and even desperation, among staff members is increasing and should remain a cause for international concern.

In May 1996 the Russian press reported that a Russian scientist was arrested on charges of producing and smuggling abroad radioactive materials that could be used for nuclear weapons production9 The suspect, who had worked at Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, produced 1 kilogram of a radioactive substance in his laboratory and shipped it abroad. This case, and several others in which people have been arrested, are stark reminders of the ongoing threat of proliferation.

Estimates vary on the number of Soviet scientists, engineers, and technicians who were involved in research on weapons of mass destruction. In Russia alone, 10,000 to 20,000 scientists, engineers, and technicians formed the core of research on chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Beyond that, 40,000 to 50,000 individuals have knowledge and experience that could be of interest to rogue states10

These professionals are the target of the ISTC's activities. In all of their visits and discussions, committee members sought to gain a clearer understanding of whether the ISTC has been able to reach the relevant scientists and engineers and what impact the center's efforts are having.

Subsequent chapters present the committee's findings and conclusions.


IIASA, Military R&D Institutes in the Context of Demilitarization in Russia, WP-94-002, IIASA, Laxenburg, 1996, p. 9.


Centre for Science Research and Statistics, Emigration of Scientists: Problems, Real Estimations, Moscow, 1994, p. 29.


The Boston Globe, May 8, 1996, p.10 (as reported by ITAR TASS, May 7).


Estirnates used by the ISTC, according to Glenn Schweitzer, then executive director.

Next: The ISTC After Two Years »
An Assessment of the International Science and Technology Center: Redirecting Expertise in Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Former Soviet Union Get This Book
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This report reviews the ISTC's objectives and plans, discussed its activities with U.S. and FSU officials, and met with FSU grant recipients and institute directors. The committee concludes that during its first two years the ISTC was successful and effective in meeting its primary objective, which, in turn, has contributed to the larger goal of diminishing the risk of weapons proliferation. Moreover, the opportunities provided to FSU scientists and engineers do indeed offer meaningful nonweapons-related work, which helps address the demoralization that may otherwise contribute to scientists' being lured into work for unfriendly governments. The committee believes the ISTC has also been successful in addressing its secondary objectives namely, the solution of national and international technical problems; the support of basic and applied research and technology development for peaceful purposes; and, to a lesser degree, reinforcement of the transition of the FSU to a market-driven economy.

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