Ominous directive? The Russian Academy of Sciences, above, will scrutinize foreign contacts.

Rules Resurrect Cold War-Era Distrust

MOSCOW--Is it a benign measure to prevent Russian scientists from unwittingly revealing state secrets, or a chilling return to Soviet-style authoritarianism? Debate is swirling over a sweeping directive issued last week by the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) that requires its 55,000 researchers to report any international activities and contacts to the academy's governing presidium.

The directive, stamped "for internal use only," calls for "strengthening controls on articles being prepared and the exchange of information with foreign countries." News of the directive was first divulged on Echo Moskvy radio by human rights campaigner Sergey Kovalyov. He reported that the directive requires researchers at the 357 RAS institutes to file reports on all international grant applications, articles sent for publication abroad, travel to international conferences, and the activities of foreign colleagues who visit Russian labs.

It is unclear how institutes will implement the directive, how the presidium plans to use the information, or in what instances foreign activities will be reported to the KGB's successor agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB). The undefined scope of the FSB's involvement worries researchers, especially in the wake of several high-profile cases in which the FSB relied on an ambiguous reading of what constitutes a state secret to accuse Russian researchers and an American technology specialist of spying (Science, 10 March 2000, and ScienceNOW, 13 December 2000).

RAS scientific secretary Nikolai Plate responds that the directive's aim is solely to remind scientists to guard intellectual property. "There are no attempts to restrict the freedom of Russian scientists to contact scientists from other countries," he says.

Most scientists are warily watching how institutes interpret the directive, which is supposed to be implemented this month, and how aggressively it's enforced. "It might be a completely harmless document," Alexandr Berlin, director of the RAS Institute of Chemical Physics in Moscow, says hopefully. Then again, he notes, "it might be something much more serious."

Related site

The Russian Academy of Sciences (in Russian)

Posted in Europe