A timeline of the U.S. scientific cooperation with the former Soviet Union.
Fig. 1. U.S. scientific cooperation with the former Soviet Union: A timeline.

Science Knows Boundaries: Reflections on Sixty Years of U.S.–Former Soviet Union Scientific Cooperation

Soviet Union cooperation Americas Europe South and Central Asia

The story of scientific cooperation between the United States and the former Soviet Union (FSU) is filled with science but also with human drama. It is a story of prominent scientists from both countries who spoke a common language—the language of science—and who saw a compelling opportunity not only to advance knowledge but also to achieve global peace in a world made terrifying, partly through their own doing. It is a story of governments seeking to create common interests through people-to-people contacts while seeking advantage in the realms of international affairs, security, and economic well-being. It is a story of how these motivations strengthened and empowered each other but also of how they occasionally came into conflict. It is a story of the blush of idealism as well as the disappointments of ideals shaken by harsh encounters with national interest, international conflict, and public (sometimes willful) misunderstanding of the goals and methods of the cooperation.

Like any good story, it is rich in contrasts between myth and reality. One of the most popular ideas about scientific cooperation between the two superpowers was that in the contest for scientific, technological, and military advantage, the “closed society” wins over the “open society.” But is this really true? Was the United States really taken to the cleaners by the Soviet Union through its cooperative science programs, providing invaluable opportunities for our adversaries to steal our secrets while keeping under wraps its own secret institutes? Did we really surrender our most precious technological treasures to the Soviets for the sake of some fuzzy vision of global harmony or in exchange for throwaway concessions meant to hold the Soviets accountable in other realms? The firsthand testimony I was able to gather in interviews with sixty-two scientists, diplomats, and others from both sides does not bear out these suppositions.

Another motif is that “science knows no boundaries.” We often hear this from scientists themselves with regard to their own work and role as actors on the international stage. But is this also really true? Does it follow that because modern science is in agreement on methods and standards of experimentation and proof—that, in this sense, there is a universal language of science—scientists are entitled to consider themselves exempt in some larger way from the constraints of geographic borders encountered by ordinary people? Or that science itself is at its best when there are no boundaries, no borders, no systematic impediments to perfect, unrestrained, frictionless communication? And if science cooperation knows no boundaries, why indeed would they need people like me, a Russian Studies junkie, to manage it?

While in important ways the story of U.S.-FSU science cooperation testifies to the passionate commitment of scientists to unfettered and transparent communication, it also suggests that the very boundaries that divide them—political, cultural, even perhaps linguistic—often enrich science with fresh insights and approaches.

This is also a story of a grand experiment in the realm of international scientific cooperation itself. As a historical phenomenon, government-driven scientific cooperation between the two post–World War II superpowers was a new and untested concept. It represented the very first time that purposeful bilateral scientific cooperation between two major countries became enshrined as public policy doctrine and implemented in practice on a very large scale.

For centuries, scientists had collaborated in the pursuit of knowledge, often traveling extensively and freely to work in each other’s laboratories and to share insights and accomplishments at scientific meetings. In many cases, they became close friends. The U.S.-FSU case, however, was the first time that formal bilateral programs of science cooperation—created by governments as matters of foreign policy—came into being. In this important sense, it was the antecedent of all modern bilateral scientific cooperation. This new form of scientific cooperation was artificial from the outset, though it was virtually the only way that scientists from the two superpower adversaries could work together. Even in quantitative terms—the number of scientists involved, the immense scale of resources invested, the significance and breadth of issues addressed, and the political visibility of these efforts in both countries—it was unprecedented and is unlikely to be repeated.

This was an experiment in many dimensions and in reality a series of experiments, each corresponding to its own time in the course of the twentieth century. Of the larger experiment, we do not yet know the final outcome or even what standards we should use to gauge the outcome. But enough time has passed—sixty years since the experiment’s launch at the height of the Cold War—to look back and say something about what we have learned from it.

A word about evaluation at this point: It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make any conclusive, empirically based judgments about the extent to which the various bilateral cooperative science programs between the United States and the FSU met their goals. The goals themselves were very complex, and even where quantitative analysis might help—for example, of bibliometric statistics—the data are very skimpy due to the Soviets’ habit of not publishing in the international scientific literature.

In part for this reason, the approach I chose to assess the impact of U.S.-FSU scientific cooperation was qualitative, and necessarily more subjective—comparing the articulated goals of the effort, both on the policy and individual level, to the outcomes. In addition, there was the unique opportunity at this moment to capture the experiences of individuals whose engagement ranged from the very beginning of formal bilateral U.S.-FSU cooperative science programs in the late 1950s until their effective end in the late 2010s. Despite the obvious limitations of this approach, we can draw some conclusions at least about what worked and what didn’t work, and why, that may be useful to consider with regard to other programs and projects of international scientific cooperation.

The Morphology of U.S.-FSU Scientific Cooperation

U.S. scientific cooperation with the former Soviet Union went through a series of stages, reflecting changes in the overall bilateral relationship. Each stage had its own characteristic modalities and policy goals. As figure 1 illustrates, these changes took place in a layering fashion, with new programs, actors, and policy goals added on top of older ones.

Broadly, the first stage, which I call the “Deep Cold War,” spanned the period from the inception of exchanges with the USSR in the late 1950s until 1972. During this time, the predominant form of cooperation was the exchange visit, and the main vehicle was the exchange program between the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. In terms of policy, it was President Dwight D. Eisenhower who set the overall tone with his advocacy of “people to people” contacts in all fields. In the scientific community, the “Spirit of Pugwash,”[1] a sense of the special responsibility of scientists to engage in international cooperation to avoid nuclear conflict, was very powerful.

This was followed by the period of détente, when large-scale, formal intergovernmental agreements and programs became the new fashion. This was an era when, as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger explained to Congress in 1972, scientific cooperation was held out to Russia (as well as to China) as a carrot, or in his own words, “incentives for restraint.”[2] Through eleven separate bilateral agreements covering virtually all areas of civilian research funded by the U.S. government, with high-level joint commissions and committees and elaborate, top-down planning meetings and processes, the scale of resources involved, whether measured in people or money, probably increased by an order of magnitude. Toward the end of this period, under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, some of these agreements and programs blinked on and off as policy makers and diplomats sought to use them to “send messages” of dissatisfaction with Soviet behavior.

We must pause here for a moment to consider the controversial issue of sanctions, or “boycotts,” of scientific cooperation in response to particularly offensive actions by the other government. First, we must acknowledge that individual decisions of conscience about whether or not to engage in any collaborative activity are just that; they may be criticized by other scientists who feel differently, but in terms of organized, government-supported programs, in my view they are unassailable. And second, we must understand that even when governments curtail or terminate formal cooperative programs with any country – much less in the absence of them – scientists can and will find ways to maintain their contacts and continue working together if the science is sufficiently compelling. And indeed, some of the most fruitful scientific collaborations took place outside of any formal programs, even during the darkest of times.

But we must also understand that formal, bilateral, government-sponsored and government-funded cooperative programs have as much symbolic as scientific value. That is why Henry Kissinger was partly right in suggesting that they could serve as instruments of foreign policy, for they did: Their very existence was an expression of a desire to reach out to the other side and promote increased contact and trust. Where he was quite wrong, however, was in asserting that they could actually be “incentives for restraint” in the partner’s foreign or domestic behavior. And the manner in which the intergovernmental programs were used by the Carter and Reagan administrations to respond to bad Soviet behavior was half-hearted, soft-headed, inconsistent, and ineffective.[3]

Does that mean, however, that sanctions in response to bad behavior are always bad? In my opinion, it does not, though it is unpopular with many of my colleagues who, like I, care about “science diplomacy” and have devoted their careers to it. In such cases – as with, for example, the annexation of territory of a sovereign foreign country and proxy or other invasion and forceful seizure of its territory – it may indeed be merited. Elsewhere, in response to the Russian actions against Ukraine, I have advocated complete cessation of all government funding of formal bilateral science cooperation activities with Russia – with the caveat that informal contacts, as noted above, can and will continue.[4] The trouble is, by this time US-Russia relations with Russia had so deteriorated, and the formal programs had so atrophied, that it hardly would have made a difference anyway. Quod erat demonstrandum, I guess.

After the fall of communism in 1991, yet a third wave of change occurred, this one very profound. In the words of a veteran State Department science officer, “All hell broke loose.” Previous doctrines of equality, reciprocity, and mutuality of benefit were supplanted with an entirely new notion—assistance. Whether it was support aimed at stemming a much-feared “brain drain” to other countries, including those hostile to the United States, or at securing nuclear materials and preventing the spread of technologies of mass destruction to bad international actors, or preventing the very best former Soviet scientists from leaving science altogether and providing emergency support to those actors in situ, direct scientific benefit to the United States in many cases became secondary. And a whole array of new actors appeared—private foundations, multinational and nonprofit organizations (e.g., the International Science and Technology Center and the Civilian Research and Development Foundation), the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Department of Defense and the defense nuclear nonproliferation side of the Department of Energy, and more. The role of formal bilateral programs run by civilian research agencies, so visible in the détente period, became relatively minor.

At the same time, a previously secondary modality of cooperation grew very substantially—direct collaboration through merit-based research grants and fellowships. This was not entirely new. At the National Science Foundation, for example, it has always been possible for standard research grants to encompass informal cooperation with non-U.S. scientists, often including support for foreign co-investigators or their students in the U.S. researcher’s lab as well as travel support for the American scientist to their partner’s country. With the Soviet Union, however, in part due to the availability of formal bilateral exchange and cooperative programs, this had been less common than, for example, with Western Europe. But in the early post-Soviet period, when informal arrangements proliferated, it emerged as a common practice. At the same time, the relevance of the elaborate bilateral intergovernmental agreement framework faded. The significance of this development cannot be overstated. It meant that at least in principle, direct cooperation among U.S. and former Soviet scientists, unmediated by formal exchange or bilateral programs, could become a new normal, much as with other parts of the world. However, the vision of a hundred flowers blooming in U.S.-Russian scientific cooperation faded rapidly in light of the overall deterioration of bilateral relations after the 2014 annexation of Crimea and proxy Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The Scientists’ Perspectives

My interviews with sixty-two scientists, diplomats, entrepreneurs, and others from the United States and FSU yielded broad insights. Interviewees talked with me about how they first became involved and about their initial goals, their accomplishments and the problems they encountered, how they evaluate their initial goals in retrospect, and best of all, their favorite stories. As such, the resulting book is a unique historical record as well as a source of critical insights into the programs’ success in meeting participants’ personal expectations, scientific and other. The findings are as diverse as the people and their roles themselves, but a few patterns stand out. Here, I will focus on the testimony of the scientists.

For the most part, they initially became engaged not through the formal programs, but in the usual way for scientists worldwide: They had met someone at an international scientific conference and pursued the contact from there. Others read about their future partners’ work in the literature, and some just went out of curiosity. They then searched for the available vehicles to continue and develop their contacts. In the Soviet period, the individually oriented interacademy exchange program, sheltered by formal treaties and elaborate agreements in a package including financial support, was probably the most frequent channel for more intensive contacts. However, some individuals, particularly those who were already well funded, were able to make personal arrangements if they had established especially trusted relationships with their Soviet counterparts. Even so, this would not have been possible, or at least would have been far more risky, had there not existed “umbrella” intergovernmental agreements providing special visa and other arrangements for scientific cooperation.

The scientists’ initial motivations were more varied. Some were driven almost exclusively by the science, others—especially in the post-Soviet period—by concerns relating to global security. In almost all cases, however, they shared a mixture of curiosity, a desire to promote mutual understanding and world peace, and perhaps even interest in a free trip and a break from their academic duties. Apart from the scientists, again in the post-Soviet period, a handful of entrepreneurs sought unique technologies and talent, primarily in the interest of creating wealth. And then there were a few, including program managers like me, who simply needed a job in their field, typically Russian Studies.

The achievements tended to vary greatly by individual and by field. My favorite story is about how a Russian experimentalist played a key role in the successful detection, years later, of gravitational waves—crucially facilitated by a $5,000 discretionary supplemental grant from the National Science Foundation. In areas heavy on mathematical modeling, such as nonlinear dynamics, the depth of Soviet (primarily Russian) scientists’ training and expertise was unequaled. In materials research, Ukrainian and Russian expertise on superhard coatings and powder metallurgy was of keen interest to U.S. researchers—including the military—and entrepreneurs alike, and advanced Russian work on nanomaterials helped fuel successful business ventures. The field sciences were a special case, because while Soviet scientists’ methods were more or less conventional, original research demanded the availability of unique sites and collections. A paleoclimate investigation of a meteor-impact lake in northeastern Siberia yielded revelatory evidence of ancient warming cycles, giving us insight into the dynamics of current global warming patterns.

Finally, no account of the accomplishments of U.S.-FSU science cooperation can fail to mention the efforts on both sides to address the dangers of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), primarily nuclear but also biological. Here, though original scientific research was involved, the main role of scientific contacts was to build mutual confidence and trust at the personal level, allowing scientists and diplomats to advocate successfully, and to work effectively, for practical measures to secure dangerous materials and even destroy physical facilities, such as the Stepnogorsk biological weapons test site in Kazakhstan.

One interesting sidelight in this respect is the issue of brain drain of former Soviet WMD scientists and engineers. In the first years after the collapse of Soviet communism, Western leaders were obsessed with the specter of nuclear and biological weapons experts selling their talents to hostile powers. According to the testimony I received from senior American scientists and diplomats with firsthand knowledge, this calamity never materialized, with the exception of one known case whose impact is moot. It turned out, not surprisingly, that Soviet weapons scientists were overwhelmingly patriotic and responsible people, and perhaps equally important, they understood that security could have the most severe consequences not only for themselves but also for others, including their own families. To paraphrase former Los Alamos National Laboratory director Siegfried Hecker, of the four key dangers—loose nukes, loose people, loose materials, and loose exports—the second of these, loose people, was the least concern.[5]

That said, problems also abounded. They existed on both sides, to be sure. These included systemic obstacles such as bureaucratism and inflexibility, logistical problems, as well as more idiosyncratic differences between the Soviet and U.S. science and technology research systems in general. My former Soviet interlocutors, as well as Russian émigré scientists, were strikingly candid in sharing with me stories about anti-Semitism in Russian science (in particular) and discrimination against ethnic and national minority scientists in the larger Soviet Union. On both sides, of course, intelligence gathering and secrecy were always in the background and sometimes even in the foreground, including some amusing stories. One topic, surprisingly, that came up only rarely was blatant corruption, and that was in the post-Soviet period.

So What?

The testimony of the sixty-two interviewees, while quite valuable and often entertaining, was ultimately intended to serve as the primary resource for a qualitative, critical assessment of the broad outcomes of U.S.-FSU scientific cooperation. Thus, I drew liberally on the interviews, as well as on my own forty-year experience, to seek answers to the questions that had always intrigued me but that lack of time or resources always prevented me from answering: What was the balance of benefits—scientifically and in other ways? And what did we learn?

Mutuality of Benefit

The issue of mutuality of benefit—a key assumption of any kind of cooperation, and a critical one in the U.S.-Soviet relationship—was highly contentious and needs to be looked at from a variety of perspectives.

The differing priorities and political climates of the two countries inevitably made ensuring mutuality of benefit a challenge. Indeed, one of the primary reasons for the formality of and central focus on diplomatic agreements was so that each side could demonstrate commensurate rewards from the relationship. In the United States, in particular, mutuality of benefit tended to become a political football in times of discord, and these came often. This derived from a common and—in my view and that of others closer to the ground—simplistic perception that the Soviet Union was gaining more from the relationship than the United States. In truth, however, the balance of benefits was more complex. To a great degree, one’s assessment of this balance depended on the yardstick one chose to apply.

For those actors and observers sitting in the national security agencies or in Congress, mutuality of benefit often seemed pretty clear: in science and technology, the argument went, they were the winners because they were otherwise “behind” us, while in scholarly exchanges in the humanities, we were the main beneficiaries because their historical and political records were generally closed, whereas ours were open. What was worse, on the negative side of the balance sheet, was the correct understanding that the source and beneficiary of most advanced Soviet scientific research was the military.

Undoubtedly, there were such cases. There were probably many others that resulted from careful Soviet reading of the open U.S. scientific literature, particularly of university basic research that may or may not have been funded by the Defense Department but was in the general domain, from informal conversations at scientific conferences, or from espionage. Undoubtedly, too, it went in the opposite direction. It was also generally known that the U.S. intelligence agencies sought to debrief returning American exchange scientists after their visits in the USSR. While some refused to comply for reasons of principle, this was an important source of information that others felt the government had a legitimate reason to collect.

If the question about mutuality of benefit was which side gained more scientifically, in terms of the advancement of knowledge, then the answer was more nuanced and might have hinged on the specific field in question. Thus, a 1977 National Academy of Sciences panel chaired by MIT academic Carl Kaysen[6] had concluded that exchanges in theoretical physics and mathematics, where it judged Soviet work to be at least equal if not superior to that in the United States, benefited the United States more, while in areas that depended more on advanced experimental instrumentation, the Soviets probably had the advantage because they lacked access to such equipment. To be sure, there was a strong imbalance in genetics and related fields because of the long-term damage done to Soviet science by Lysenkoism. On the other hand, in the field sciences, such as earth and atmospheric science, botany, and zoology, the balance was probably at least equal because it gave both countries’ researchers access to unique geographic locales.

In addition, the nature and structure of scientific research in the Soviet Union and the United States—and indeed in advanced industrial countries in general—was fundamentally different, despite the common observation that the “language of science” and its methods are universal. Some elements of the Soviet system allowed its scientists to excel beyond their peers in the West.  For example, the strong Russian tradition of “schools” of science based on the German model; a distinctly Russian tradition of science education, focusing on mathematics and theoretical physics from an early age; the top-down funding of Soviet science that—and this is also not well understood in the West—in some ways actually gave Soviet researchers a freer hand to explore basic research issues than their Western counterparts dependent on project-based funding; and finally, an emphasis on theory and computational mathematics necessitated by the absence of modern scientific instrumentation and computation. Many a knowledgeable Western scientist visiting a reasonably good Soviet scientific laboratory would remark on the Soviets’ ingenuity in using what they had, with devices of their own making, to conduct sophisticated experiments.

In areas other than mathematics and theoretical physics, the evidence was far less clear that Soviet science was on par with standards in the West, including in the United States. Thus, in gross terms, one may say there was an imbalance. But such a sweeping statement would ignore unique approaches, achievements, institutes, and individuals from the Soviet Union who were genuine attractors for American scientists, especially in the field sciences—earth, atmospheric, and oceanic sciences; botany and zoology; environmental science; and related fields. As in most matters, only case-by-case analysis can tease out such judgments.

Stepping back a few more paces to look at the overall systems of science, one perceives a different balance of benefits yet again. This is because, in short, the Soviet Union was a closed society, while the United States was relatively very open. The shot heard round the world fired by Sputnik in October 1957 was a clear warning that the West ignored progress in Soviet science and technology at its own peril. Developments in U.S. and world science beyond the borders of the Iron Curtain could be followed through the open, published scientific literature, although with difficulty, since the Soviet “security organs” often kept even foreign scientific journals under lock and key. Western scientists, however, had no access to developments in Soviet (and Eastern European) science without contact with the people carrying it out, and preferably by actually going and spending time there. What they found often surprised them and led to long-lasting and productive scientific collaborations. For all the effort that Western actors rightly put into building barriers to undesirable “technology transfer” through export controls and other means, nothing they did could come close to the Soviet regime’s obsession with secrecy and security. And well they shouldn’t have, because the two social systems were rooted in fundamentally opposite models and values.

Was this to the West’s or the Soviets’ advantage? This was a debate carried out not only in public but also within the U.S. intelligence community itself. It can be supposed that intelligence agencies in both countries obtained much valuable information, and no doubt much worthless information, from both visitors and hosts after visits had taken place. My guess is actually that the balance of worthless information fell more heavily on the Soviet side, since much of it was likely a rehash of what was available in the open scientific literature but previously unknown in the Soviet Union because even foreign scientific journals were kept under wraps.

This debate, between those who would go to all extents to protect “our secrets” and those who would advocate opportunities to get access to “their secrets” through cooperative science programs, represented a fundamental tension within the U.S. government until at least 1991, if not beyond. My strong impression, as a civilian science manager in an agency that instructed us to keep at arm’s length from these discussions, was that the “dark forces” arrayed against scientific cooperation were dominant in the FBI, some of the military research branches, and, depending on the administration, those parts of the Commerce and State Departments responsible for export and munitions controls. On the other side—generally, but with significant variation—was the intelligence community, that part of the State Department responsible for diplomacy, and various civilian mission agencies. It might seem counterintuitive that the intelligence community could be the ally of relatively unfettered scientific cooperation, but it proved to be a valuable, though again at arm’s length, confluence of objectives—from which, I believe, the nation benefited.

Returning to the Cold War period itself, as implied earlier, the general public’s perception of the balance of benefits was likely that the United States gained more in the cultural and scholarly exchanges while the Soviets and their heirs gained more in science and technology. Scholars and artists, the reasoning went, could help open up the closed Soviet system, while Soviet scientists and engineers in fields other than those where they clearly excelled were struggling to “catch up” with the West by means of copying, reverse engineering, and outright theft. Though both generalizations have merit, they are by no means accurate in every detail, especially in the science and technology sphere, as the 1977 National Academy of Sciences’ Kaysen Panel report observed. In addition, the Kaysen report pointed to the political and cultural benefits of the exchanges as being less tangible.

In the public sphere, the balance of benefits issue was a major political football. Members of Congress did not have such nuanced views about who was getting the most from scientific cooperation, and their constituents had an even less clear picture. The general wisdom that the Soviets were the crafty and devious winners, and we the naive and clueless losers, held much irony. If a Soviet or Russian historian were to write a parallel history of U.S.-Soviet science cooperation during this and succeeding periods, she would surely depict the mirror image of this same debate. No country has a monopoly on either pride or paranoia.

So what’s the answer? Who won? The conventional answer, as already mentioned, is that while the balance in scientific and technical cooperation favored the Soviets, this deficit was outweighed by the benefits of cultural and scholarly exchanges, as well as the general exposure of Soviet citizens to life and values in America. I shared that view for several years. However, I eventually came to a somewhat different conclusion—that the generally perceived deficit in scientific and technical cooperation, while perhaps not erased, much less reversed, was narrower than thought. Even more broadly, I would venture the following general proposition: that when an open society interacts with a closed society, the open society wins.

Cooperation vs. Assistance; or, What Went Wrong?

Another key issue, after 1991, was a tension between cooperation and assistance. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the entire calculus of balance of benefits was turned on its head. From a mighty, aggressive global threat and strategic (and moral) rival, the former Soviet Union almost overnight became a region whose political collapse and economic weakness gave rise to arguably more serious threats—brain drain in the civilian and even military research arenas, combined with fears about loose nukes and unsecured fissile nuclear material.

Assistance took many forms in the science sphere, and those forms themselves evolved over time. The first two embodiments were emergency support. George Soros’s short-lived International Science Foundation (ISF) distributed small sums of money on a competitive merit basis to a very large number of FSU scientists, totaling cumulatively over $100 million. The stated goal was simply to allow the best ones to continue working in science, as opposed to abandoning science for other pursuits, from guarding warehouses to banking. The International Science and Technology Center (ISTC) made large grants to teams of scientists in the closed cities[7] and institutes. The explicit mission here was to “redirect” their work into civilian-oriented research, and all understood that the most important short-term goal was to provide them with enough income that they would not be tempted to sell their services to rogue states or terrorist groups. In the case of the ISF, and probably for the ISTC as well, a significant portion of the larger grants was used to replace or upgrade obsolete or dysfunctional research instrumentation; a figure I frequently heard in the ISF’s Long-Term Grants Program was that about 50 percent of the funds went to that purpose. Over the following years, that benchmark held steady for other grant programs, such as the U.S. Civilian Research and Development Foundation (later, CRDF Global).

During the first few years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, support from such programs accounted for a sizable portion of the entire domestic research budget in these countries. According to the scholars Loren Graham and Irina Dezhina, the support provided by the ISF alone in 1994 and 1995 in Russia amounted to approximately 13 percent of national expenditures on basic science; over the entire period from 1993 to 2008, they estimate that “just three organizations—the ISF, the ISTC, and INTAS [International Association for Cooperation with Scientists from the Former Soviet Union]—have put well over a billion U.S. dollars into Russian science and technology.”[8] Surely, the ISF’s contributions to the research expenditures of other countries in the region was even higher. Comparable figures for the ISTC’s impact are not available, to my knowledge, because military research budgets were not published. But it cannot be doubted that during this period, a very substantial portion of scientific research in the FSU, perhaps in the range of one-quarter to one-third, was funded by foreign sources.

After these early crisis years had passed, it became clear that direct assistance was not sustainable either politically or scientifically and that there had to be some tangible benefit the United States. Continued unilateral support to former Soviet scientists could not be a formula for sustainable funding of these programs, especially with the phaseout in 1995 of private funding from Soros. The philanthropist believed that the funding of science was primarily a government responsibility, and indeed, it was governments on both sides that needed to be persuaded that cooperative programs had some tangible mutual benefit.

In the case of the defense-oriented nonproliferation programs, it was certainly enough at first to say that the benefit to the United States—and the world—was global security. U.S. mission agencies were faced with the challenge of proving a negative—that paying former WMD scientists to engage in civilian-oriented research was preventing bad things from happening. They used other metrics too, such as the number of WMD scientists involved in the programs, the number of closed institutes and laboratories, the number of sustainable civilian jobs created, and even in some cases the wealth created in both countries from the project-related commercial ventures that ensued.

Programs that got under way after the initial crisis period, such as CRDF, sought to build in mutuality of benefit from the outset. CRDF’s competitive grant programs funded joint research projects between U.S. and FSU scientists and even between U.S. entrepreneurs and FSU scientists. Mutuality of benefit had to be demonstrated in the proposal and documented in project reports. From the standpoint of funding, the flow of benefits was not quite as balanced, because most funds flowed to the FSU side, in terms of individual financial support, travel costs, and, very importantly, research equipment and instrumentation. U.S. participants were awarded funds for project-related travel, but their other costs, including salary, had to come from different sources, such as ongoing standard research grants from agencies such as the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health.

After the immediate economic crisis passed, however, the need to deal with starving, desperate scientists gave way to longer-term questions: Should we help rebuild and upgrade the scientific infrastructure of Russia and the other countries of the FSU? In what ways would that endeavor be in the U.S. national interest? Was the joint advancement of knowledge a key criterion, and if not, what was?

In 1992, presaging the massive assistance programs of the next decade, a NAS report to D. Allan Bromley, science advisor to President George H.W. Bush held a clue to thinking on this last question: A healthy science community, it contended, was essential to ensuring the future of democracy and a market economy in the FSU.[9] But there is not universal agreement on this point; in the Soviet case, a strong and disturbing argument centers on whether science and democracy really go hand in hand.[10] Nor is it clear that the entire project of transforming post-Soviet Russia and other countries to Western, market-style democracies, no matter how well intentioned, was a very good idea to begin with; in this, I agree with the scholar Stephen F. Cohen that this effort was not only a failure but that it backfired disastrously.[11]

An interesting case in this regard was a special and very well-funded program of CRDF, Basic Research and Higher Education in Russia (BRHE). The program’s goal was to strengthen scientific research in Russian universities, which, with the exception of those in the two capital cities, had essentially become pedagogical institutions, while the resources and best scientists went to the Academy of Sciences. More broadly, the idea was to introduce the concept of the modern research university into Russia by competitively supporting dozens of “research and education centers” throughout Russia. Though BRHE had heavy U.S. participation in terms of oversight and implementation, the sole beneficiaries of the funds were Russians and Russian higher educational institutions. The program was actually very successful: It achieved nearly equal shared funding from the Russian side, a sure sign that we were doing something right, and its basic goal of strengthening research in universities was adopted with a vengeance by the Russian government and is today at the core of its science and education policy.

Yet today, if you ask Russian government officials about the origin of its “national research universities” policy, you are likely to hear fierce denials that the Americans, in particular, had anything to do with it. To the contrary, the interest of American foundations in assisting Russian universities has been characterized as gross interference in Russia’s internal affairs. The U.S.-based foundations themselves left Russia long ago as a result of Russian government harassment and pressure, and even CRDF Global closed its doors in Russia in 2018. As for the much more extensive nonproliferation programs—the ISTC and the Department of Energy’s Global Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention—they had ended their work in 2014 and 2015, respectively, more or less concurrent with, but not as a result of, the Russian aggression in Ukraine. As early as 2011, the Russian government had informed the ISTC of its intent to wind up its work by 2015. In all the nonproliferation programs, access to sensitive Russian research facilities such as Sarov and Snezhinsk—the post-Soviet names of two of the most well-known “secret cities”—became increasingly difficult, and the Russian side became increasingly uncooperative.

Two underlying problems brought about the demise of these programs. One was in the mindset of the Russians, who under President Vladimir Putin had been reasserting their role as a coequal global power in various ways since his ascension in 2000. The image of Russia and Russian science as recipients of charity became offensive very quickly, more quickly than most U.S. policy makers appreciated. Likewise, on the U.S. side, the mindset and institutional structures of the assistance mode, out of inertia if nothing else, lived on far too long. Glenn Schweitzer, the first executive director of the ISTC, writes that his efforts as early as 2009 to reformat the Center to engage Russia as a senior, equal partner in the institution’s governance and to focus on truly cooperative activities designed by both sides were largely in vain.[12] Even Sens. Sam Nunn (D-GA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN), the framers of the U.S. Defense Department–run Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, came to understand that the assistance mode was no longer appropriate, but apparently much too late, urging in January 2015 the kind of reboot that Schweitzer advocated years earlier. By that time, nothing was left to reboot.

Had an opportunity really existed to change course and adopt governing concepts for the nonproliferation programs more appropriate for peer-to-peer cooperation rather than one-sided assistance? I believe the answer is a resounding yes; other models and experiences had been in place for some time, such as the CRDF’s cooperative research programs. Tragically, however, the nonproliferation programs became so preoccupied with reacting to congressional criticism that they devoted all their policy energy in those final years to answering legislators’ questions and tweaking their programs in response. They did this rather than undertake a systematic restructuring that would have required congressional trust and commitment that was simply not there.

Perhaps no program model or concept could have saved these and other programs. The nationalistic fervor, assertiveness, and xenophobia that epitomize the Putin era may well have ended up hostile to any such effort. But in the end, unilateral efforts based on the assistance model, even the best-designed and best-intended ones, also turned out to be convenient fodder for those seeking evidence to convince the Russian public that these fears were somehow based in reality.

How Well Did the Programs Achieve Their Objectives?

The earliest and most consistent goal over sixty years of U.S.-FSU scientific cooperation was that of people-to-people diplomacy articulated by President Eisenhower. My discussants concurred that the outcome of this goal was a resounding success. It was the personal ties and relationships that were the most enduring—the understanding, reinforced by professional respect, that the partners abroad were real people, human beings just like everyone else. This is the basis of all mutual understanding; without it, civilization cannot survive.

The second most-successful outcome, I would have to say, was emergency assistance to top former Soviet scientists in the immediate aftermath of the fall of communism in 1991. Not only did these various programs—the ISF, the Science Centers, CRDF, and others—enable many scientists to simply remain in science, but they also provided lasting tools to help them find support in other ways. The introduction of merit review, and the grant-writing skills learned through these programs, allowed many scientists in the post-Soviet period to compete successfully for financial support through various programs, especially those of the European Union.

Next would come, also in the post-Soviet period, work to prevent the proliferation of materials and technologies related to WMD. The mutual confidence developed through joint efforts on purely scientific projects enabled scientists to work effectively on securing and removing tons of nuclear weapons material, destroying biological weapons facilities, and applying their skills to peaceful, civilian research. It is not clear, however, how lasting the redirection of scientists to civilian research turned out to be, as Russian government funding for defense research has escalated under President Vladimir Putin, and his government has clamped down on outside access to the closed institutes, a critical component of the nonproliferation programs. Yet the securing of loose nuclear materials was a lasting achievement of global significance, and humanity is deeply indebted to those who brought it about, including the Russian and American scientists whose basic research collaborations built the trust to make it possible.

What about the advancement of knowledge itself? It is obvious from the success stories narrated firsthand in my book that these and many other participants achieved significant breakthroughs in scientific knowledge, such as in gravitational physics, paleoclimatology, mathematics, nonlinear dynamics, and other fields. This conclusion, however, is tempered by two factors. First, the absence of reliable long-term scientometric data based on publication in the international literature precludes reliable grounding for any real evidence-based analysis; and second, the conduct of a great deal of outstanding scientific joint research outside the formal bilateral programs, and the often-disproportionate money spent on protocol events in them, somewhat dilutes the significance of those programs’ scientific impact.

Lower on the list, but not insignificant, were outcomes in the very broad area of institutional change, to the extent that this was an explicit goal. As noted already, the introduction of merit review of investigator-initiated, project-based proposals was largely a success with lasting impact, albeit with “variations” to adapt it to local practices. The BRHE’s impact on Russian policy regarding increased support to scientific research in universities, with a focus on reuniting research and education, was a particularly impressive outcome, although one loudly disavowed nowadays by Putin loyalists.

The foreign policy impact of bilateral U.S.-FSU cooperative science programs is quite dubious, in my view. There is no evidence of which I am aware that the programs’ existence, or even their periodic suspension or termination, had the slightest impact on Soviet and Russian foreign policy behavior in the big picture—for example, with regard to Afghanistan, Poland, or Ukraine. Henry Kissinger’s solemn justification of these programs as “incentives for restraint” was thus, in my view at least, completely without merit. In addition, the habit of U.S. diplomats to use the formal, intergovernmental bilateral science programs as levers to “send messages” to the Soviets and Russians was, in my view, ineffective and meaningless. At the same time, there is reason to believe that negotiations regarding continuation of the private interacademy program in the late 1980s did result in the end of the Soviet government’s persecution of physicist Andrei Sakharov. This, however, was not really a foreign policy goal or achievement, but a moral victory on the part of the international scientific community.

Finally, at the very bottom of the list belongs the goal of promoting democracy through instruction and assistance. This was, as my commentary has already indicated, an utter failure. Any such aspirations were purely an American myth. To be sure, the science programs did not concern themselves directly with core democracy issues such as rule of law, elections, political parties, separation of powers, the judiciary, and the like. And they did introduce some rule-based innovations in science administration, such as competitive merit review. Yet the overall thrust of the U.S.-government-sponsored programs of the 1990s and early 2000s was predicated on the notion, as Cohen argues, that we could remake Russia and other post-Soviet countries in our image. This fallacious pursuit, together with the unjustifiable persistence of the noblesse oblige mindset of providing assistance as opposed to peer cooperation—which did permeate the science sphere as well—created deep resentment and ultimately rejection by the Russian government.

Lessons Learned

Ultimately, what is more important than how we evaluate the past is how we benefit from that experience in the future. It will be very difficult to replicate the precise conditions that surrounded U.S.-Soviet and post-Soviet scientific cooperation over the sixty-year period covered here. There are simply not that many countries in the world with an extremely high level of scientific achievement, an enormous community of scientists and engineers, a highly authoritarian political system obsessed with secrecy, and one of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals. Moreover, where there is free movement of people back and forth and elastic resources, formal programs for international scientific cooperation are often not needed at all.

However, as long as humans seek to advance knowledge and solve global problems, and as long as geopolitical divisions and confrontations persist, there will always be a desire and a need for scientists to reach out beyond national borders and work with other scientists. In that spirit, here are eleven theses in which I have sought to encapsulate the experience covered in the book from which this essay is derived:[13]

1. What is most important about international scientific collaboration is not that it is international but that it is collaboration.

2. Science not only knows borders but also is enriched by them. Borders of culture, language, geography, nations, political systems, and disciplines can be nuisances and opportunities alike. It all depends on what you do with them.

3. In terms of the advancement of knowledge, international scientific collaboration is more effective when its financial support is based on scientific merit rather than international impact.

4. The value of specially organized and funded programs to promote international scientific cooperation lies not in the amount of money they provide, but in the opportunities they create to engage in cross-border collaboration that may not be available through traditional means of support.

5. The most effective and most enduring programs of international scientific cooperation are those that are jointly conceived, designed, governed, funded, and implemented.

6. Programs to provide assistance to foreign scientific communities can be extremely effective in the short term if they are jointly conceived, designed, governed, funded, and implemented and if they have broad institutional reach. However, indefinite perpetuation of the assistance rationale can create resentment and hostility in the host country, causing those programs to fail, and even damage the bilateral relationship.

7. The role of private foundations and nongovernmental organizations in promoting international scientific cooperation cannot be overstated. These organizations can be nimbler and more effective than government agencies in identifying and framing opportunities and approaches in countries and global regions where political and other conditions are not ideal for free and open scientific communication and logistical support.

8. The private, for-profit sector can be a major actor in international scientific cooperation, if facilitating programs are sufficiently creative and well-conceived. When private companies generate financial profit by creating value and solving problems in the global knowledge economy, they can be allies in international scientific cooperation.

9. “The political significance of international science and technology agreements ends the moment they are signed.”[14] This is to say that the activities that take place under such agreements must be demonstrably meritorious in terms of their science, and if so, they are likely to continue even beyond the agreement’s lifetime. Conversely, if the responsible mission agencies do not provide the resources to implement them in support of their mission, the agreement will fail to achieve any real purpose.

10. When governments pursue formal bilateral international scientific cooperative programs as an instrument of foreign policy, these governments must be prepared to use that instrument as a “stick” when extreme circumstances warrant it; otherwise, the programs’ meaning as foreign policy instruments is lost and they will stand to lose public support. However, the overuse of such programs to “send messages” in less extreme circumstances is highly ineffective and can do more harm than good to the participating scientists in the offending country.

11. The point is not only to understand the world but also to change it.[15]

Gerson S. Sher is a retired foundation executive and civil servant who has devoted his career to the intersection of scientific cooperation, international affairs and global security, primarily with the countries of the former Soviet Union.  He is retired from the National Science Foundation, where he served for twenty years as Program Coordinator for USSR and Eastern Europe

[*] This essay is an adaptation of Gerson S. Sher, From Pugwash to Putin: A Critical History of U.S.-Soviet Scientific Cooperation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019).

[1] In 1957, responding to an urgent appeal two years earlier from Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein, scientists from many countries (including the United States and the Soviet Union) who had developed nuclear weapons met in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, where they called for measures and further discussion on “nuclear energy hazards in war and peace, problems relating to international control of nuclear energy, and the responsibility of scientists and international collaboration” (Physics Today54:6 [June 1, 2001], p, 50).

[2] As quoted in Catherine F. Ailes and Arthur E. Pardee, Jr., Cooperation in Science and Technology: An Evaluation of the U.S.-Soviet Agreement (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1986), p. 11.

[3] See Gerson S. Sher, From Pugwash to Putin: A Critical History of US-Soviet Scientific Cooperation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019), pp. 31-40.

[4] Gerson S. Sher, “Science Diplomacy and Beyond,” Science 345:6197 (August 8, 2014), p. 631.

[5] See Sher 2019, p. 166.

[6] Review of U.S.-USSR Interacademy Exchanges and Relations (Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, 1977).

[7] Secret institutes engaged in weapons research and engineering.

[8] Loren R. Graham and Irina D. Dezhina, Science in the New Russia: Crisis, Aid, Reform (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), p. 89.

[9] Reorientation of the Research Potential of the Former Soviet Union: A Report to the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1992), p. 1.

[10] See Loren R. Graham, What Have We Learned about Science and Technology from the Russian Experience? (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998).

[11] See Stephen F. Cohen, Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia (New York: Norton, 2000).

[12] Glenn E. Schweitzer, Russia’s Nuclear Firebirds: Harmony and Change at the International Science and Technology Center (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2013), p. 66.

[13] I have taken the liberty of modeling these eleven conclusions somewhat presumptuously on one of my favorite writings, Karl Marx’s seminal early eleven “Theses on Feuerbach.” See Robert C. Tucker (ed.), The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: Norton, 1972), p. 109.

[14] A maxim attributed to Herman Pollack, the first director of the State Department’s bureau of scientific and technological affairs, as related to me orally by Arthur E. Pardee, Jr.

[15] A gloss on Marx’s eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” In Tucker (ed.) 1972, p. 109.


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