A HIGH-POWERED military purchasing team sent from Iran to Kazakstan three years ago in search of job-hungry nuclear physicists, as well as weapon-grade uranium, has provoked an imaginative experiment in science policy which is rapidly gaining ground in the former Soviet Union. It deserves support.
The Iranians, offering $5,000 a month to top people earning less than $70, sought to exploit the disintegration of the scientific establishment that followed the implosion of Soviet power. Western intelligence services believe that Iran is still in the market for scientists and technicians with experiences in nuclear and biological weapons and long-range ballistic rocketry.
The first spectacular response of the West was the secret airlift last year of 500 kilograms of enriched uranium (enough to fuel 25 atom bombs) from an inadequately guarded facility in Kazakstan to the United States. The present United Nations-sponsored program, adopted so far by Kazakstan and six other former Soviet republics, is to turn science at their ailing research and training institutions into a revenue-generating, self-financing, and eventually profitable activity.
The scheme, involving the deployment of military high-technology for civilian use, was presented to a recent conference in Geneva on international investment. It amounts to nothing less than fundamental policy reform, well beyond the meager aid given so far by the West to cash-starved institutions trying to keep their scientists at home.
The scheme has been launched by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). It aims at commercializing the republics' considerable scientific resources in international markets through strategic alliances forged between universities and interested transnational corporations. The revenues can then be used to support further scientific and technological development.
A spokesman for UNCTAD explains that the scientific laboratories of the former Soviet republics contain the results of several decades of research and development. These laboratories - which were part of the Soviet military-industrial complex - had received billions of dollars in research funds from Moscow.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, science in the republics lost its single major client, its funding, its markets, and its intellectual-property protection, while maintenance costs of the laboratories increased. Facing falling salaries, many scientists and technicians are seeking more rewarding work in other areas.
The seven republics so far involved in the program hope to reverse the trend by turning science into one of their most valuable economic assets. They are being helped by UNCTAD, which is providing special training for administrators at the research institutions. The program includes training for institute managers and officials in marketing, strategic planning, organizational design, negotiation, and cost accounting. Advice is also given on such pressing needs as legislative review, intellectual-property protection, and identification of potential partners from abroad.
The republics involved in the program are Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan, as well as Kazakstan.
THE program is perhaps the most advanced in Lithuania, where it also enjoys support of the UN Development Program. It began there with a detailed assessment of the human and technological resources of a small number of the most promising research and development institutions. Another study concerns revisions of the Lithuanian system of laws regulating the transfer of technology and patent and trademark procedures. A third investigation will explore the legal and regulatory framework that governs scientific research and development institutions.
The UNCTAD plan is based on some concrete achievements already attained by scientific institutes in former communist-dominated Europe. The Soviets' 10 closed ''science cities'' originally devoted to military research and development are now open to collaboration with civilian industry both foreign and domestic. In energy-deficient Ukraine, home of the shattered Chernobyl nuclear power station, scientists trained to design weapon systems are working on wind generators.
Their Czech colleagues are developing techniques for modernizing or demolishing the military structures left behind by Soviet forces, which still litter many areas of Central and Eastern Europe. For example, a disused Soviet military airport in the environmentally ruined Ceska Lipa region north of Prague, near the German and Polish borders, is being turned into the heart of a modern free-trade zone that is already attracting the keen interest of foreign corporations.
The Czechs also intend to build an environmentally friendly and energy-efficient infrastructure in a district degraded by many years of destructive uranium mining practices and continuous occupation by the Soviet Army. This project could provide a model for securing a healthy and economically productive environment in similarly afflicted regions.
The UNCTAD scheme should prove adaptable to the needs and conditions of much of post-communist Eastern Europe, where highly qualified and underpaid scientists are increasingly prepared to seek work abroad. One-fifth of Russia's total emigration, for example, consists of qualified engineers, researchers, and teachers. The West - and especially the US, Germany, and Israel - has benefited tremendously from this brain drain.
Yet the biggest single Western financial contribution to the rescue of post-Soviet science so far has been a modest $100 million investment by the private Soros Foundation.
There are two very sound reasons why the West would do well to back the UNCTAD initiative with serious funding, as well as moral support: First, the program may establish the foundations of civilian research and development essential for future stability and wealth in the former Soviet Union, promoting good relations and trade. Second, it could keep highly qualified and potentially dangerous weapons scientists out of the reach of fanatical enemies of the West.