Ukrainian KGB Puts Heat on Researchers

Rich oversees Science's international coverage.

In a draconian move, Ukrainian security agents last week accused three marine scientists of crimes against the state: exporting sensitive data and illegally accepting Western currency for research. The unprecedented post-Cold War investigation has stirred an international effort to persuade the Ukrainian government to rein in its version of the KGB. Prosecuting the researchers, say Western observers, could chill scientific collaboration with Ukraine.

Like many talented scientists who have chosen to stay in the former Soviet Union, Sergey Piontkovski and his team at the Institute of Biology of the Southern Seas (IBSS) in Sevastopol, Ukraine, have supplemented their meager state salaries with grants from Western organizations. Piontkovski has been more successful than most, pulling in grants in recent months from the U.K. government's Darwin Initiative; a European Union agency called INTAS; and the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR). According to several Ukrainian scientists, jealous co-workers at the institute may be trying to take Piontkovski down.

Whatever aroused their interest, on 16 October Ukrainian security bureau (SBU) agents raided the homes and offices of Piontkovski and two IBSS colleagues, seizing their scientific papers, computers, money, and passports. "They confiscated everything," says Piontkovski, who when contacted at his home by Science claimed that the SBU was monitoring his telephone calls. If convicted of illegal funds transfers, he says, all three scientists could face steep fines and up to 8 years in prison. One also was accused of passing Soviet-era data to the West. No formal charges have been filed yet.

Work under the grants involves analyzing and digitizing a wealth of data on plankton bioluminescence collected by over 50 Soviet ocean expeditions from 1970 to 1990, as well as voyages undertaken by Ukraine and Russia after the Soviet Union dissolved. The grants call for making the information, a measure of the ocean's total biomass, available to the scientific community on CD-ROM. The data "were not classified in any way," says marine biologist Robert Williams of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the United Kingdom, a co-principal investigator on the ONR and Darwin grants.

To send a signal that the SBU's own steps are being monitored, the European Union's representative in Kiev has taken up the matter with Ukraine's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. If the SBU is preparing a broader campaign against Western-funded scientists, warns Williams, granting agencies may have to keep Ukrainian researchers at arm's length, for "fear of placing them in jeopardy."

Posted in Europe, Scientific Community