Businessweek Archives

`The Soviet Brain Drain Is The U.S. Brain Gain'

Science & Technology


At age 36, physicist Roald Z. Sagdeev became the youngest per son to be named a full member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, a top scientific accolade. Five years later, he became head of the prestigious Institute of Space Research in Moscow. There, he launched planetary missions and managed a staff of 4,000 of the country's rising scientific stars.

In 1990, as the superpowers mended fences, he married Susan E. Eisenhower, granddaughter of the former U. S. President. "For me," he jokes, "it was not just the end of the cold war, it was the beginning of global warming." Now, the 58-year-old Sagdeev is using his brainpower in the U. S. Although he remains a Soviet citizen with strong links to his former institute, Sagdeev has a permanent position as a distinguished professor of physics at the University of Maryland, where he conducts research in chaos theory. "Soviet science," he laments, "is a kind of endangered species."

As the Soviet economy disintegrates, many of the country's best and brightest are heading for the U. S., Israel, and other countries in what could amount to the largest brain drain since World War II. The Soviets predict that a half-million people, many of them Jews, will emigrate each year. On Oct. 7, Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged the loss of "so many talented, skilled, and enterprising citizens." And when a free-emigration law takes effect in 1993, the number easily could rise. "Soviets joke that this is not an emigration, this is an evacuation," says Andrei Kortunov, head of the foreign policy department of Moscow's Institute of USA & Canada Studies.

PLUGGING GAPS. But the talent pool is no longer limited to Jewish emigres. As the Soviets ease travel restrictions, hundreds of top-flight Russian specialists, who remain Soviet citizens, are coming to the U. S. on long- and short-term fellowships and work contracts to fill jobs everywhere from Cambridge, Mass., to Silicon Valley. While most visiting scholars return home after their contracts are up, many try their best to stay by hopping from one job to the next.

Already, Soviets experts are helping recharge physics and mathematics departments at colleges across the country. Israil M. Gelfand, one of the

world's top mathematicians, for example, is now at Rutgers University, helping to broaden the field of mathematics by finding new ways to link it to other disciplines. And virtually the entire faculty at the University of Minnesota's Theoretical Physics Institute is from the Soviet Union.

Key research centers such as the National Institutes of Health are tapping Soviet talent. During a three-month stay at NIH, which has long sought foreign scientists, Oleg Svirdov helped develop new techniques for measuring thyroid hormones in the blood. At Stanford, a Soviet biologist helped solve a Florida AIDS mystery. And Pacific Bell plans to bring five Soviet scientists to the U. S. next year on two-year contracts to work on new systems and software, says Director of Strategic Information Systems H. Eric Firdman, who emigrated in 1981.

NEGLECTED. Some emigres have launched high-tech enterprises of their own (page 100). Many are flocking to the computer software industry. The Soviet creator of Tetris, the addictive video game, is on a three-year contract with Bullet-Proof Software in Redmond, Wash. "The Soviet brain drain is the U. S. brain gain," says Stephen Rosen, who runs a program at Workmen's Circle in New York to get Soviet scientists into the U. S. marketplace.

To be sure, only a fraction of the emigres are landing in key positions. The winners are the most prominent theoretical physicists, advanced biologists, mathematicians, and chemists. It is much harder for Soviets who have lesser scientific credentials er who have advanced degrees in such fields as higher education, medicine, and economics. "In most cases, it's only the really exquisite brains that are being sought after," says Barney O'Meara, executive vice-president of Kiser Research Inc., a company that tries to interest U. S. companies in Soviet innovations. As for the rest, laments Johns Hopkins University physicist and Soviet emigre Alexander E. Kaplan, "they become programmers, accountants, or cabbies--and potentially highly productive researchers are lost to science or industry, usually forever."

One reason is that U. S. universities are already brimming with talent, in part because of brain drains in recent years from such countries as China, India, and Britain. Although the Soviets are now flowing in, they face stiff competition at a time when U. S. universities are fiscally strapped.

But the inevitable difficulty of finding a job in the U. S. is not likely to prevent more Soviets from leaving home. For decades, the communists funneled money from state coffers into scientific institutes to produce such "socialist" feats as Sputnik and manned space stations. Now, Soviet leaders are simply grappling with how to feed the population this winter. With funds growing scarce for anything but the basics, the country's top scientific talent is feeling the budgetary pain acutely. "For science, there is no money, no jobs, no respect from the public," says Sagdeev.

As hard-currency reserves dwindle, it often takes Soviet scientists years to get an essential piece of imported equipment. And they can forget about Western scientific journals. "I spent my time to get food, clothes, and other necessities," says 45-year-old Daniil Usikov, head of computer software at the Institute of Space Research and now a visiting professor at the University of Maryland. "My productivity in America is 10 times more than in the Soviet Union."

His salary is 100 times greater. As chief of a department back home, Usikov received a monthly wage of 600 rubles. Although he received some socialist-style benefits, his pay was still a mere $20 at the tourist exchange rate. In the U. S., he gets $2,000 a month. If he can save one month's income, that translates into eight years' salary back home. "Every university in the country has had an upsurge in the number of Soviet scientists writing to ask for positions," says Steven E. Koonin, a California Institute of Technology physicist. "They are clamoring to come to the U. S."

A HANDFUL. Just how big an impact the Soviet experts will have is still a source of debate. It's unlikely the Soviets will ever pour into the U. S. in huge numbers, especially because the State Dept. puts a yearly limit--that now averages 50,000--on the number of Soviet refugees it will accept. But because even a relative handful of first-class minds can have a major impact in science and technology, their contribution could be disproportionate to their numbers over the course of the coming decade.

Take biologist Eugene G. Shpaer. In 1988, he and his family arrived in the U. S. as refugees. Now, as a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University, Shpaer used his expertise in computer applications of molecular biology to help verify that a Florida dentist had infected five of his patients with AIDS. "By the nature of his training and interests, he has added a new dimension to our research," says James I. Mullins, chairman of Stanford's department of microbiology and immunology.

Although Shpaer is trying to make a name for himself here, others brought big names with them. Aside from Sagdeev, there's 78-year-old Gelfand, who has garnered many math awards. Like Sagdeev, he's a full member of the Academy of Sciences, and he maintains strong ties to his home base at Moscow State University. After he spent a year at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rutgers offered him a five-year contract.

Gelfand sees many pitfalls in the U. S. educational system, with its emphasis on narrow specialties. "Everything is disjointed, separated," he says. "My aim is to attach." Already, he has helped create a new lab that combines his interests in math and cell biology. He laments that there aren't enough young Americans becoming mathematicians--and he's busy singling out Rutgers' most-promising to cultivate as his proteges. He's also starting a math correspondence school for high schoolers.

WINNING MIX. At the University of Minnesota's Theoretical Physics Institute, Director Larry McLerran began recruiting top Soviet scientists two years ago to what's jokingly called "Moscow on the Mississippi." Now, five of its six full-time professors are Soviets. It's not just the faculty who have been drawn to Minnesota. "For the past 10 years, there have been a large number of Chinese graduate students, but this year we'll have more Soviets," says Marvin L. Marshak, the physics and astronomy chairman. Now that they're free to travel, Soviet scientists are very eager to collaborate with their U. S. counterparts. At MIT's lab for nuclear science, for example, many Soviet researchers from the Serpukhov Laboratory in Moscow are helping develop a radiation-hardened particle detector for the Energy Dept.'s Superconducting Supercollider project. The Soviets brought with them a winning mix: a supply of very expensive liquid xenon and their expertise. This state-of-the-art program "would not have happened without the Russians involved," says Arthur K. Kerman, head of the MIT lab. In all, 73 of the 1,000 visiting scholars at MIT are Soviet, and the school has hired nine other Soviets for permanent positions. At Princeton University, there's physicist Alexander Polyakov, whom "any first-class physics department would like to have," says physics Chairman A. J. Stewart Smith. Yale University's math department boasts Gregory Margulis, a specialist in geometry and number theory, as a full professor. And after a thorough search, the University of Washington recently hired emigre Boris Spivak, a solid-state physics expert.

The U. S. computer industry is also reaping benefits from the influx of Soviets. In Berkeley, Calif., Chris Doner, president of Access Softek, recently hired three emigres for full-time jobs and took on five part-timers, including one in Moscow, to help develop software to work with Microsoft Corp.'s Windows. He found the talent after he placed an ad in a local newspaper--and some 40% of those responding were emigres. "The real opportunity to-day is not selling things to the Russians but making use of their talent," he says.

'IQ IMPROVERS.' When it comes to software development for video games, it's hard to rival 36-year-old Alexey Pajitnov, creator of Tetris. A game in which geometric shapes must be aligned into solid rows, Tetris is packaged with each of the 9 million handheld Nintendo Game Boys sold in the U. S. Pajitnov came up with the idea while working on artificial intelligence at the Computer Center of the USSR Academy of Sciences in Moscow. He is now working at Bullet-Proof Software in Redmond, Wash., on a three-year visa, with an option to stay for another three years. "This is profitable for me and for the U. S.," he says.

Using a dated IBM 286 computer, Pajitnov has developed a sequel to Tetris, called Hatris. Bullet-Proof founder and Director Henk Rogers says Soviets tend to steer clear of repetitious shoot-'em-up games and prefer "IQ improvers."

Some Russian emigres who came to the U. S. before 1985 are now forming their own software companies--and turning to Russian newcomers to fill crucial spots. At Software Emancipation Technology in Boston, for example, founder Vladimir P. Geisberg boasts that 7 of his 11 employees are Soviets, including 3 recent arrivals. A mathematician who emigrated in 1980, Geisberg is attracted to the Soviets' "superior" computer-language skills, as he aims to develop software that will speed the development of computer packages.

Putting all the pluses for the U. S. aside, there are concerns that the outflow of Russians will cripple the Soviet Union at a critical moment. But Sagdeev and others argue that hiring emigres and finding posts, however temporary, for those who might otherwise languish back home, may be the best way to salvage Soviet science. "Science," Sagdeev says, "is an international treasure." Many of the Russians may eventually follow in the footsteps of other foreign nationals who came to the U. S. for education and work, only to return home later with higher standards and skills.

Whatever it means for the shattered Soviet Union, a growing number of experts argue that the U. S. should try harder to absorb the Soviet intellectuals. Clearly, the U. S. could make better use of the talent that is already here. Of the 50,000 Soviet refugees allowed into the U. S. last year, about 800 were PhD-level scientists, and about 8,000 more were engineers. Many of them are underemployed.

The U. S. should create grants to help integrate Soviet emigre scientists into the work force, says Hopkins' Kaplan, who emigrated in 1979. Ultimately,

he argues, that will give "American science and industry an extra push to become more vigorous and competitive in this rapidly changing world." But even without the extra push, the Russians are beginning to make their mark in America.Joyce Barnathan in College Park, Md., with John Carey in Washington, Alice Cuneo in San Francisco, Patricia Kranz in Moscow, James E. Ellis in Minneapolis, and bureau reports

Burger King's Young Buns

(enter your email)
(enter up to 5 email addresses, separated by commas)

Max 250 characters

blog comments powered by Disqus