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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soros Science Program Faces Funding Difficulties

Two years ago the American financier George Soros offered an extraordinary Christmas present to the former Soviet Union: $100 million to support the work of scientists left penniless after communism's collapse.

By nearly all accounts the program has been a resounding success, furnishing a safety net for about 50,000 top researchers and for the first time using merit, rather than political connections, as the basis for awarding grants for basic science in the former Soviet states. In Moscow, where three-fifths of the grant recipients live, it sometimes seems as if much of the city's academic and intellectual elite is at work thanks to Soros.

Now, with the Soros money dwindling and Russia's economic crisis again sapping funds to support scientific research, a bureaucratic battle in Washington has imperiled the future of the International Science Foundation, as the Soros program is known.

Western and Russian officials have stressed the importance of sustaining basic research in the countries that once formed the Soviet Union; the alternatives, they suggest, include the risk of impoverished Russian scientists selling their services to terrorists or renegade states like Iraq or North Korea.

Soros made it clear from the start that one of the goals of the grant was to set an example for Western governments and financial institutions.

So far about two-thirds of the original $100 million has been disbursed, and the balance is scheduled to be spent by the end of next year. Soros said he is willing to continue helping former Soviet scientists -- albeit at a reduced level -- but only if his foundation's efforts are matched by funding from the Russian and U.S. governments. He has offered to put up $20 million in 1996 and 1997 if Moscow and Washington do the same.

Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin has promised $12.5 million for 1995. Soros matched that, and took it as a good omen for 1996 and 1997.

But in Washington administration officials have balked at pledging any money to keep the program alive. For example, they have expressed doubts that funds from the Defense Department, earmarked for conversion, could be applied to other purposes.

Moreover, with Republicans taking control of Congress next year there is talk of tightening all foreign aid programs.

"Most people are very supportive of the Soros program," said one U.S. official. "But there are so many programs, and priorities are focused on so many things other than science."

Unfortunately, said Alexander Sobolev, a chemist who won a Soros grant last year, ending the science program now would be analagous to having "a drowning man who was lent a hand -- and just as he was dragged halfway out, the hand was taken from him."