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Redeploying Scientific Talent From the East

UPHEAVAL and change in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have pushed a large group of scientists and technologists into occupational flux. A one-time opportunity exists to redirect this pool of trained manpower toward research agendas set by global environmental concerns and third-world development. Unless quick and creative steps are taken to recruit these skilled people and direct them into areas of need, a historic opportunity might be missed and a generation of highly trained manpower may be wasted.

It is reported by the head of human resources at the Israeli Ministry of Science and Technology that of every 100,000 immigrants to Israel from the Soviet Union, 42,000 are professionals. About 2,000 of these are scientists, 1,500 of whom are in natural and exact sciences and the remainder in the social sciences. Soviet Jews are reportedly arriving at the rate of 6,000-10,000 a month.

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In addition, large groups of East European scientists and engineers are being dislocated because old make-work projects are drying up, and many government-run research institutes lack the funds to keep operating at full staff. They are required either to cut back or, in some instances, to close down.

Some estimate that more than 109,000 Poles are working in research and development, of whom only 10 percent are employed by the Polish Academy of Sciences. Most analysts inside and outside of Poland believe that the Polish research enterprise will be put under severe pressure in the months and years ahead. As the Polish economy is restructured, significant unemployment among scientists is anticipated.

Similar patterns of dislocation and unemployment among scientists can be anticipated in other East European countries. East Germany is expected to face barriers as it attempts to integrate its scientific establishments into West Germany's research needs. Clearly, duplication of effort, homogenization of research agendas, and any slow-down in the economy could lead to underemployment or unemployment.

From the international perspective, the shift of Soviet scientists to Israel and the dislocation of East European scientists are relatively easy to ignore. The wasted lives and talents of these skilled professionals can easily become a minor footnote in the broader picture of revolutionary events and their economic and social fallout. Similarly, the avalanche of talent arriving at Israel's doorstep can be seen either as an opportunity or a problem.

But to ignore this wealth of displaced talent would be an international tragedy. This Soviet and East European talent should be tapped to meet the scientific and technical research shortages in developing countries where trained scientists are in short supply.

Israeli or East European scientists who are unemployed could be contracted either to join research endeavors in a third-world country or help staff existing or planned international research centers, such as the International Center for Theoretical Physics at Trieste (ICTP).

Abdus Salam, ICTP's Pakistani founder, has for some years envisaged setting up ``centers of excellence'' all over the developing world in research fields ranging from disaster prediction to biotechnology. Such centers, while meeting the needs of scientists from less developed countries, clearly could utilize the skills of East European and Soviet scientists, too.

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We live in a world where the scientific needs of underdeveloped societies are inadequately addressed. We also live in a world where scientific talent is unequally distributed. At this point in history, the bilateral and multilateral funding agencies of the international community have a unique opportunity to foster the imaginative redeployment of a large pool of trained scientists.

The World Bank, UNESCO, the European Economic Community, US AID, and such foundations as Ford and Rockefeller have a great opportunity to help internationalize this scientific talent and apply it to such serious problems as environmental degradation. It would be sad indeed if the historical opportunity were squandered and scientists from the USSR and East Europe ended up driving taxis or standing in unemployment lines.