Science and Technology Policy

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Leading scientists and policy makers in the Soviet Union rapidly reached an accommodation after the revolution in October 1917. The scientific community was decimated by deaths and emigration that resulted from World War I, revolution, and civil war. Those scientists who remained recognized that the new regime, unlike the tsarist government, intended to support scientific research. They quickly established a number of research institutes and

received gold rubles to buy journal subscriptions, equipment, and reagents abroad. Government officials, for their part, believed that scientific and engineering expertise was critical to the establishment of communism. Hesitantly at first, they offered academic freedom as well as financial and administration support to the scientists. They remained skeptical about the value of fundamental research. Party officials also believed that scientists, most of whom were trained in the tsarist era, required close supervision by loyal communists.

Several different bureaucracies were responsible for the administration and funding of science, and scientists were deft at playing them off against each other to increase their funding. The major ones were the Main Scientific Administration of the Commissariat of Education (Glavnauka ) and the Scientific Technical Department of the Supreme Economic Council (NTO ). Generally speaking, institutes whose focus was basic research fell under the jurisdiction of Glavnauka, while those of an applied profile fell under NTO.

When Josef Stalin rose to power in the late 1920s, fundamental changes in science policy occurred that largely held sway until the collapse of the USSR. The changes reflected crash programs in rapid industrialization and collectivization of agriculture. First, officials intended that scientists emphasize applied research at the expense of basic research. This led to the removal of many of the institutes under the jurisdiction of the Glavnauka to the Commissariat of Heavy Industry and the establishment of a technical division within the Academy of Sciences. Second, the Communist Party began a concerted effort to place personnel loyal to it in research institutes. It forced the relatively independent Soviet Academy of Sciences to create many new positions, or chairs, for permanent members in such new fields as the social sciences, and insisted that party members be voted in during elections.

Third, officials required that scientists produce detailed one-year and five-year plans of research activity. Since the Commissariat of Heavy Industry was relatively flush with funding, scientists found leeway in planning and financial documents to embark on research in several important new directions, for example, nuclear physics and cryogenics in the 1930s. Finally, officials insisted upon strict ideological control over the content of science and effectively established autarchy (international isolation) that persisted until the late 1980s.

Party officials had indicated their intention to control scientists in a series of show trials in 1929 and 1930 where they used forced confessions of engineers to prove "wrecking" of plans. They punished wrecking with long prison terms and in some cases execution. During the Great Terror of the mid-1930s, scientists, no less than other members of society, also faced arrest, interrogation, internment in labor camps (there were several special labor camps for scientists and engineers), and execution. Scientists' professional associations were subjugated to party organizations.

Several fields of science suffered from ideological meddling. In the most notorious case, Trofim Lysenko, a biologist who rejected modern genetics, came to dominate the Soviet biology establishment from the 1940s until the early 1960s. The authorities ordered references to genetics removed from textbooks, and many geneticists lost their jobs.

World War II had a direct and long-term impact on Soviet science policy. First, it ensured continued emphasis on applied research, in particular military technology. Second, with the advent of the atomic bomb project and then rocket technology, it ensured large-scale approaches to research and development. The average size of programs and institutes in the USSR grew to several times larger than similar programs or institutes in other countries. Third, the evacuation of entire institutes and personnel from areas under the siege of German armies led to the dispersal of institutes to the Ural Mountains region and Siberia.

Nikita Khrushchev, who followed Stalin, initiated a series of reforms in Soviet society, abandoning some aspects of Stalinism (although maintaining one-party rule). The reforms had an impact on science policy as well. The most significant impact was the growth of the scientific enterprise. The total number of scientists increased from 162,500 in 1950 to 665,000 in 1965, including an increase in the number of senior and junior specialists from 62,000 to 140,000.

A second aspect of reform was decentralization of the scientific enterprise, in part because of the growth of the nuclear establishment. The most significant sign of decentralization was the construction of Akademgorodok, a city of science built in the early 1960s with twenty-one institutes, library, and university, near Novosibirsk in Siberia. Another aspect of decentralization was the removal of the technical division of the Academy of Sciences and the placement of its institutes under the jurisdiction of industrial ministries.

Under Leonid Brezhnev a number of the Khrushchev-era reforms were abandoned. While there had been such great achievements in science as the first artificial satellite (Sputnik) and successes in nuclear power, Soviet science performed poorly by such measures as scientific citation indices, Nobel prizes, and assimilation of discoveries in production. Rather than experiment with new forms of organization or new directions of research, however, the Brezhnev administration further centralized policy making in major bureaucracies, raised the level of ideological control, and established renewed vigilance toward contact with Western scientists. While the scientific enterprise grew to massive proportionson the eve of its breakup the USSR had one-third of the world's engineers and one-quarter of its physicistsit continued to perform poorly.

Mikhail Gorbachev championed "acceleration" (uskorenie ) of the achievements of research into the production process. Like leaders before him, he believed in the power of science to help solve the social, economic, and other problems facing the country. As part of glasnost and perestroika, Gorbachev's policies encouraged rapid decentralization of science policy and increasingly open discussion of the poor performance of the sector. Scientists reorganized professional societies for the first time since the 1930s. They gained the opportunity to travel abroad to conferences. Only the collapse of the USSR facilitated significant reevaluation of science policy in Russia. At the same time, because of rapid inflation and decline in government revenues, the scientific establishment lost much of its funding and stability for the first time since the 1920s. Salaries were not paid for months at a time, and research monies disappeared. International organizations offered aid programs to discourage emigration. In general, however, the Russian scientific community has been slow to recover from the political and economic shocks of the 1990s.

See also: academy of sciences; lysenko, trofim denisovich; space program


Balzer, Harley. (1989). Soviet Science on the Edge of Reform. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Graham, Loren. (1967). The Soviet Academy of Sciences and the Communist Party, 19271932. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Graham, Loren. (1987). Science, Philosophy, and Human Behavior in the Soviet Union. New York: Columbia University Press.

Joravsky, David. (1970). The Lysenko Affair. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lubrano, Linda, and Solomon, Susan. (1980). The Social Context of Soviet Science. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Parrott, Bruce. (1983). Politics and Technology in the Soviet Union. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Paul R. Josephson

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Science and Technology Policy