Spy Conviction Strains Science Collaborations

Rich oversees Science's international coverage.

Cambridge, U.K.--The conviction of a U.S. businessman on spy charges in Russia may add to growing tensions in scientific collaborations between the two countries, according to officials on both sides. In Russia, pressure is coming from the increasingly assertive Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the Soviet KGB. In the United States, security breaches at the national laboratories and throughout the intelligence community have led to restrictions on visiting scientists from a handful of countries, including Russia, that are deemed "sensitive."

The heightened concerns have put a crimp in U.S. efforts to reduce the threat of proliferation of Russia's weapons of mass destruction. Several programs link U.S. scientists with Russians at dozens of once top-secret defense research centers, but hurdles put up by both sides have interfered with the work. "Many of the programs that [Defense Department researchers] are involved in are stopped," says one U.S. government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Scientific exchanges have also been affected. The State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, for example, imposed a 2-month clearance of all Russian participants--twice as long as it took last year--for an October workshop on dangerous pathogens held at the Sandia National Laboratories' Cooperative Monitoring Center in Albuquerque. The new policy "has led to the cancellation of many foreign visitors," says one official.

U.S. scientists visiting Russia, meanwhile, face more delays in entering institutes or areas closed to the public. They are also experiencing more incidents in which the FSB or border guards have confiscated high-tech equipment such as GPS receivers.

The 20-year sentence meted out to Edmond Pope, imprisoned for 8 months after being accused of buying secret information on a high-speed torpedo that Western experts say has been sold openly to other countries, has added to the strains. Pope, who is in poor health, was expected to receive a presidential pardon and be released from prison later this week. Nevertheless, says Paul Josephson, a Russian historian at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, the verdict "suggests a revitalized FSB and a danger to all researchers."

Related sites

Russia's International Science and Technology Center

The DOE's Office of Nonproliferation and National Security

Posted in Scientific Community