4 APRIL 1947, Page 8


By TREVOR I. WILLIAMS WE know that in proportion to her size Russia is spending more on scientific research than any other country in the world. Foreign scientists who have visited Russia speak very highly indeed of the facilities in those laboratories which they have been allowed to inspect, though it is doubtful whether this high standard pertains in more remote institutions. In this material aspect, indeed, many British and American scientists have been frankly envious of their Russian colleagues. As a memorial to the contribution made by her scientists during the late war, the Russian Government is building at a cost of many millions of pounds a truly magnificent new building as a central scientific institute. With the Royal Society, the Chemical Society and other scientific bodies lodged in quarters in Burlington House which they outgrew many years ago, this is an example which our own Government might do well to follow.

There is no reason to doubt that the high standard of equipment in Russia's main institutions is matched by the learning and skill of the individual scientists who work in them. In Tsarist days Russian scientists made many great discoveries. The names of such men as Lomonosov,• Mendeleeff, Pavlov, and Metchnikov are justly famous throughout the world. After the revolution many established soientists continued their researches and began the work of training the great numberseof scientists which the new regime demanded. During the period of expansion there was naturally little time for research, but within a few years great new institutes had been founded at Sverdlovsk, Tomsk, Kharkov, Dniepropetrovsk and Samarkand. In these such men as Joffe, Frenkel, Mandelstamm, Semenov and 4Rehbinder began researches which have made their names famous among scientists of all countries. The Russians have certainly pro- gressed greatly in applying science to the problems of peace and war. When allowance is made for the disorganisation caused by the revolution and the very small number of trained scientists originally available, their known scientific and technological achieve- ments compel respect. Their surveys of the types of soil found in different parts of Russia, for example, are acknowledged to be un- paralleled in any other country.

On these lines one can convincingly argue that Russia is scientific- ally a first-class power. There is, however, a totally different side to the picture. Alongside research which the whole scientific world acknowledges as brilliant there flourishes, with liberal State support, work of a very dubious kind. In this respect particular attention has been focused on the controversy between the geneticists Lysenko and Vavilov. Lysenko, with strong political backing, is championing a theory of inheritance which responsible scientists all over the world have declared fundamentally wrong. It has been alleged that in lecturing to distinguished foreign scientists who were being enter- tained by the Russian Government, he demonstrated his theories with plants and fruit which were accidentally discovered to be nothing but wax models. Vavilov, who was doing excellent work along accepted lines, was unpopular politically. It is reported that in consequence of his failure to accept views which he was convinced were false he was arrested and executed in 1943. Another example of this kind was the so-called Bogomoletz serum, said to cure all manner of diseases and to double man's expectation of life, which was proclaimed to the world as a great scientific discovery. All the reports which left Russia, however, showed that the work was built on the most doubtful suppositions, and specimens of the serum sent here for trial have failed to justify the claims made. Interest lapsed when Bogornoletz died at a very ordinary age. It is true that every country in the world has scientists who produce erroneous results, but among the great nations Russia stands alone in giving them official approval and financial support, not only when their work initially appears dubious but even long after they have been dis- credited abroad.

The Russians forbid private meetings between their own scientism and foreigners. In Britain, France and America foreign scientists can, except in the case of work of exceptional national importance, visit laboratories and discuss their problems without any restrictions other than those of ordinary social convention. In Russia such a thing is unknown. As a special concession the foreign scientists who some, months ago visited Russia for the Academy of ..Science celebrations were for a short time allowed something like this free- dom in connection with laboratories in and near Moscow and Lenin- grad. A scientist who attempted to make such a call on the day after the visitors departed was, however, very quickly made aware that this concession was for the duration of the visit only. There are many stories of British and other scientists visiting Russia, who, in order to have a frank talk with individual Russian scientists working in the same field of research as themselves, have had to make a secret rendezvous out in the country. Such visits as foreign scientists have been allowed to make have been almost exclusively in Western Russia. How many laboratories exist far back inside Russia and the kind of work done in them is not known_ There is a current rumour that Peter Kapitza, the leading Russian physicist who, on a visit to Russia, was prevented from returning to the laboratory in which he was working at Cambridge, has been sent to the interior for a political misdemeanour. A more likely explana- tion, in view of the strong support he is. known to have been receiving from the Russian Government for many years, is that, if he has gone to that part of Russia at all, he is undertak:ng work which is to remain a close secret.

In the public mind scientific research today is unhappily often identified with the construction of atomic- bombs. Recent events have indicated that the Russians have had access to information which ought to have remained secret, and the Canadian spy trial showed beyond doubt that they were prepared to stop at very little to gain information. With the addition or anything that they may have gained in this way to the very considerable amount that has been disclosed in official British and American publications, there is little doubt that, with her known resources, Russia can make atomic bombs within a few years if she is determined to do so. It would be folly indeed to base our policy with regard to atomic energy on any other assumption. If sucth a scheme is contemplated Kapitza would be the most likely man to direct it and central Russia the most likely site for experimental and industrial work. It must, of course, be remembered that Russia has just as great and legitimate an interest in atomic energy as any other nation has.

A fundamental difference between Russian science and that of the rest of the world is that in Russia science is regarded as strictly utilitarian. It is under rigorous State control, and attention is con- centrated on work which seems likely to give a practical return. As an element of culture science is regarded as quite unimportant. In other countries it has long been believed that the first task of science is to study the fundamental problems of nature and that practical applications of such knowledge will emerge in due course. It is true that in Britain, America and elsewhere there are many scientist's, including some who have done distinguished research, who endorse the Russian view, but even if the philosophical aspects of utilitarian State control of science are ignored, there is no convincing evidence of its superior practical results. Though the general level of Russian science is clearly quite high, there seem during the past twenty years to have been none of those truly great developments, such as Planck's Quantum Theory or Rurherford's theories of atomic structure, which have been milestones in the history of science ir other countries. There are on the other hand those curious anomalies to which allusion has been made previously.

For better or for worse the nations are becoming increasingly dependent upon science, and a knowledge of the research being done in Russia would do far more than satisfy academic inquisitiveness. At present estimation of the quality of this research is often, and perhaps unavoidably, coloured by like or dislike of Russia's political system, but in the common interest Russia would be well advised to follow the example of the rest of the world and abandon her present policy of secrecy. There is overwhelming evidence that the greater past of all scientific work can be freely published without any threat to national security. Our present imperfect knowledge suggests that, while a gomplete picture of Russian science might not be quite so highly coloured as her more ardent admirers would have us believe, it would on the whole be a picture of general competence and achievement. Avfinal argument for such a disclosure is that Russia has freely learnt from the rest of the world and even the most generous giver hopes ultimately for some return