"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
Science in the Pursuit of Peace: The Success and Future of the ISTC

June/July 1998

By Victor Alessi and Ronald F. Lehman II

The International Science and Technology Center (ISTC) in Moscow is now in its fifth year of operation. The center was founded to help prevent the proliferation of the knowledge and technology of weapons of mass destruction after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In particular, the ISTC was tasked with heading off a "brain drain" of weapons scientists to proliferant or rogue states as a result of the collapse of financial support for much of the former Soviet defense research and development complex. Thus far, the ISTC has been successful. It has managed to keep thousands of former Soviet weapons scientists at home doing peaceful research. The ISTC continues to help scientists, not just nuclear weapons scientists but those previously involved in biological weapons, chemical weapons and missile technologies, turn their skills to basic and peaceful applied science. This little-known science center has been one of the centerpieces of U.S. non-proliferation efforts this decade despite its relatively meager funding. The question is whether it can continue its accomplishments without increased U.S. support.

Nearly seven years have gone by since the attempted coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on August 19, 1991. The ease with which the Moscow conspirators knocked the United States off stride and changed U.S. calculations about the Soviet Union is still bewildering. The United States had worked for change in the Soviet Union and had reason to hope that Moscow, which had just signed the long-sought-after START agreement, would evolve into a long-term and cooperative partner of the West. The United States had assumed that the internal problems of the Soviet Union, while serious, would be managed in the context of glasnost and peristroyka. President George Bush's speech before the Ukrainian parliament right after the START summit in Moscow was intended to promote that peaceful evolution in the face of growing unrest in several Soviet republics.

Those Americans who sat in Saint Catherine's Hall for the START signing ceremony just weeks before the attempted coup had little inkling of how far the decay of deep dissatisfaction had dug into the Soviet soul. They certainly did not suspect that many of the senior Soviet officials sitting in the audience and applauding START's signature would turn so dramatically against Gorbachev less than three weeks later. The failed coup succeeded in ways unimagined by its conspirators, because rather than saving the Soviet Union the coup hastened its demise. Within days of the insurrection against him, Gorbachev was back in the Kremlin but presiding over a quickly collapsing empire.

To its credit, the Bush administration quickly recognized the danger of a disintegrating Soviet Union, whose huge nuclear arsenal was deployed in a number of potentially independence-seeking former republics with no structure for central control or protection for such weapons. On September 27, Bush made a bold and far-reaching unilateral offer to eliminate many thousands of ground-based battlefield nuclear weapons and withdraw thousands of other deployed nuclear weapons from aircraft and ships. Bush asked the Soviet Union to do likewise. The initiative deliberately sought to bypass the traditional negotiating approach used during the Cold War in order to deal immediately with a rapidly disintegrating Soviet Union. In contrast to the START accord, which had taken nine years to negotiate, the new nuclear initiative was to take effect at once.

Gorbachev's October 5 response paralleled the U.S. proposal, and both countries set in motion programs to remove quickly thousands of battlefield weapons from their operational forces, to take thousands of other nuclear weapons off their delivery platforms and place them in central storage facilities, and to begin dismantlement of many of the weapons. Fortunately, the effort outlasted the Soviet Union itself and was strongly supported by the Yeltsin administration in the new Russian Federation.


Preventing a 'Brain Drain'

As these efforts took place, reports of nuclear scientists in the states of the former Soviet Union facing increasingly desperate circumstances caught the attention of U.S. nuclear weapons scientists. The accounts were extremely worrisome. Deteriorating conditions at the Russian nuclear weapons institutes could lead to the mass exodus of weapons designers, testers and fabricators into a growing nuclear proliferation market. Rogue states and sub-state actors would welcome them into their laboratories to help them develop nuclear weapons capabilities.

Recognizing the potential dangers of the situation, scientists at the U.S. national laboratories sought ways to discourage such proliferation-related emigration and prevent a potentially catastrophic situation. With the U.S. government's blessing, U.S. scientists began what has become known as the "lab-to-lab" initiative. Taking advantage of relationships forged with Soviet scientists during the 1988 Joint Verification Experiment and the very technical negotiations of the Threshold Test Ban Treaty and Peaceful Nuclear Explosion Treaty protocols, U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons laboratory scientists began low-key exchange visits almost immediately upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This innovative program enabled the United States to assess the circumstances facing Russian nuclear weapons scientists and do what it could to help stabilize the situation until Washington could begin more formal programs to help reduce the threat posed by a potential "brain drain" of Soviet scientific expertise. However, what the United States could not do was provide major financial support for Russian and other former Soviet scientists. Such monetary support would have to come later.

As the desperation of Russian nuclear weapons scientists became more and more obvious, U.S. allies also began to recognize that the Soviet nuclear weapons threat was in the process of being replaced by a proliferation threat of unimaginable proportions. In the new post-Cold War environment, thousands of nuclear weapons, hundreds of tons of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium, uncontrolled nuclear technology, and many thousands of nuclear weapons scientists could flood a new international market of potential and well-bankrolled proliferants.

The United States was quick off the mark. In November 1991, Congress approved a $500 million aid package for the former Soviet Union that included $100 million for the transport of humanitarian aid and $400 million to assist in the transport, storage, safeguard and destruction of nuclear and other weapons. The measure, funded from the fiscal year (FY) 1992 defense budget, was the result of a bipartisan effort led by Senators Sam Nunn (D-GA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN). As a result of this initiative, known informally as the "Nunn-Lugar" security assistance program, quick progress was made in a number of areas. The effort to establish the ISTC took place during these early Nunn-Lugar efforts.

Founding of the ISTC

In the early days of the new Russia, concern about the possibility of a proliferation-related "brain drain" began to involve the United States with its closest allies. Early German interest led to involvement by the European Union (EU). Japan also joined in the effort. Soon, the United States, the EU, Japan and Russia were negotiating the terms of a science center aimed at keeping former Soviet weapons scientists, especially those involved with nuclear weapons, at home and not emigrating to troublesome proliferant countries.(1) The primary objectives of the proposed International Science and Technology Center would include:


  • To give weapons experts in the former Soviet Union the opportunity to redirect their talents to peaceful activities;


  • To support basic and applied research and technology development;


  • To reinforce the transition from government-directed weapons science to market-driven science;


  • To familiarize former Soviet weapons scientists with the standards and procedures of the international science community; and


  • To help solve national and international science and technology problems such as environmental restoration and arms control verification.


What looked like a quick negotiation of the ISTC charter slowed down in mid-1992 as the text of the agreement was translated into all the official languages of the EU—a delay that proved costly. The relatively brief translation period was just enough to allow the ISTC to get caught up in the growing political confrontation between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the Russian Duma, the lower house of parliament, in the fall of 1992. The Duma refused to consider approval of the ISTC agreement, which was signed in November 1992 by the United States, the EU, Japan and Russia, or any other endeavor involving cooperation with the West, especially the United States. Parliamentary ratification of the charter became impossible. U.S. initiatives intended to help Russia deal with its potential nuclear proliferation problems, such as the ISTC initiative that only months earlier was progressing rapidly, now were frozen.

However, the founding countries of the ISTC did not stand still during this impasse. They assigned representatives and scientists to Moscow to set up the new organization so that, once approval from Russia was obtained, the center could get off to a quick and successful start. The United States assumed the executive director's position, with Russia, the EU and Japan each assigning a deputy director. Glenn Schweitzer from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences was the first director.

While awaiting Russian approval to officially begin operations, Schweitzer and his staff negotiated with the Russian government for office space and support staff. The Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy (MINATOM), whose scientists had the most to gain from a successful ISTC, furnished space at its Institute of Pulsed Power in Moscow and took the lead in identifying key support staff.

The new staff set about creating the day-to-day procedures necessary for smooth and responsive operations once the center received final approval, and, most importantly, began to develop project proposals that would be ready for funding as soon as the bureaucratic delays were overcome. When the long-simmering feud between Yeltsin and the parliament came to an end in late 1993, the Russian government finally approved the opening of the ISTC, which officially began operations with its first Board of Governors meeting in March 1994.


Quick Off the Mark

Projects to support thousands of Russian scientists were approved at the first board meeting and each subsequent meeting added significantly to the number. Hundreds of projects were funded, ranging from basic physics to environmental sciences, reactor physics, materials science and fusion research. Before long, the ISTC broadened its support to include scientists in the areas of biological and chemical weapons and ballistic missile technology.

The FY 1992 U.S. contribution to the ISTC was $25 million ($10 million for the Kyiv center); Japan and the EU contributed comparable but smaller funding. Since it began operations, the ISTC has funded 593 projects valued at nearly $175 million, involving 21,000 former Soviet scientists and engineers at nearly 300 research institutes in the former Soviet Union.(2)(See Table 1.) Most of the scientists supported by the center have been, and continue to be, nuclear weapons scientists. (See Table 2 for 1997 activities.)

From its earliest days, the ISTC was a model of how an international organization could be effective. Since its founding by the United States, Russia, Japan and the 15 EU states, Norway and South Korea have joined as funding partners and Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic have acceded to the agreement. The United States, Japan and EU nations have furnished scientific and financial expertise to support the Secretariat staff of the ISTC.

The United States, for its part, has sent several scientists from its national laboratories to manage the ISTC's scientific accounts and has provided a chief financial officer to ensure that the funds reached their targets—former Soviet scientists.


How the ISTC Works

Any project funded by the ISTC must be acceptable to the government of the host country where the proposing institutes or laboratories are located. The project must also meet high technical and scientific standards, involve scientists who have worked on weapons of mass destruction, and be consistent with the center's goal of preventing proliferation.

A typical Russian project, for example, might involve a lead institute (for example, the All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Experimental Physics in Sarov, formerly known as Arzamas-16) working with several other institutes. The first step in the approval process is to submit the proposal, which would include the names and technical specialties and experience of the proposed scientists, to an appropriate Russian agency for governmental approval. Once approved by the Russian government, the project is submitted to the ISTC, where it is examined for, among other things, its technical competence and involvement by weapons scientists. The ISTC, in turn, circulates the proposal for evaluation to all the countries represented on the Board of Governors.

For the United States, the proposal is sent to the State Department's Bureau of Political-Military (PM) Affairs, which manages the U.S. ISTC involvement on a day-to-day basis. After a quick review to ensure that the proposal has been properly prepared and screened by the ISTC Directorate, PM circulates the proposal for review:


  • Technical reviews are managed by a team of science advisors, drawn from the Department of Energy's (DOE) national laboratories and assisted by the Civilian Research and Development Foundation;


  • A policy review is conducted by those agencies usually responsible for non-proliferation policy (for example, the departments of Defense, Energy and State and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency);


  • Non-proliferation and other reviews are conducted to assess any potential dual-use issues.


The technical reviews are collected and collated by the science advisors, who produce an overall assessment and technical recommendation for consideration by the U.S. board member, the State Department and, eventually, the interagency community. An important element of the scientific evaluation is a determination of the percentage of weapons scientists that will work on the project. The PM bureau collects the policy reviews from the interested agencies.

Before each board meeting (there are usually three a year), the proposals are evaluated and rated for suitability for U.S. funding. This determination occurs over a series of meetings at which each proposal is rated for scientific merit, consistency with U.S. non-proliferation policy, practicality, and involvement of weapons scientists. Thus, each project will have a technical grade, which includes its prospect for commercialization, a determination of whether the percentage of weapons scientists is high enough for the United States to fund it, a policy approval or disapproval, and a priority rating. The priority rating is given because there is not enough funding from the ISTC's funding parties to support all technically qualified projects.

Once this evaluation process is finished, instructions are drafted to guide the U.S. board member and delegation in determining which projects get funded by the United States during board deliberations. Individual projects are funded either entirely by one country or by a combination of interested states. Because the United States must vote on all funding decisions, the instructions also determine whether Washington can support funding by other countries on the other projects. Once a project is approved by the board, procedures for the project are negotiated between the ISTC and the appropriate institutes. After the project begins, the ISTC Secretariat pays the scientists on the project team by directly depositing their salaries into their individual bank accounts. To date, the average project funding amount is roughly $320,000, and the average project duration is 30 months.


A Record of Success

Despite its slow start, the ISTC quickly made up for lost time and equaled, if not overtook, other efforts to stem the threat of proliferation from the former Soviet Union, especially Russia. Though the ISTC was not the only forum in which the United States tried to help Russia deal with problems posed by its weapons of mass destruction programs, it seems to have been the one which moved most quickly toward meeting its goals. While other initiatives froze whenever the Russian government slowed down (such as during Yeltsin's illnesses), the center's efforts continued to move forward.

The ISTC has thus far escaped the anti-Western and, in some quarters particularly, the anti-U.S. sentiments that became fashionable once the initial euphoria from independence passed and expectations for democracy and free enterprise faded. These were replaced by the shock of transition difficulties such as economic depression, income disparities and crime, including mafia-like organized crime. Why was the ISTC not affected like other U.S. initiatives, most of which were far better funded, were more visible and had much more backing from the U.S. and Russian governments? The answer lies in the nature of the ISTC, that is, its low political profile, its charter and its immediate impact on the scientists involved. Its success also arises from the manner in which the founding members acted like partners, with Russia treated as an equal—bearing its share of the costs—rather than being simply a recipient of Western and Japanese largesse.

The ISTC is not merely a U.S.-Russian initiative; it is an international organization. As such it escapes the domestic political charge by some Russians that it is yet another U.S. initiative aimed at taking advantage of a weakened and troubled Russia. Except for the branch offices in Armenia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, all the major components of the organization are multinational. Besides the Governing Board and Secretariat, this includes the Scientific Advisory Committee (which discusses the ISTC's overall science policy) and the Coordination Committee (which prepares the decisions of the Governing Board and resolves issues facing the organization in its administration, finances or other matters).

Despite the strong role played by the United States on the ISTC Board of Directors and in the day-to-day operations of the center, the United States is still only one of many countries involved in the program. Although never officially approved by the Duma, the ISTC enjoys strong internal support from the Russian government. It is not seen as a political tool of the West, but as an organization that avoids politics and focuses on its primary mission—to help redirect the activities of weapons scientists to peaceful purposes. The support of the Russian government surfaces at high-level bilateral meetings with the United States, but the ISTC remains largely unknown to the Russian public.

The ISTC's charter requires all its members to provide some support for its activities. Russia provides the center's staff and office space (Armenia, Belarus and Kazakhstan provide similar support for their branch offices), whereas most of the direct financial aid comes from the United States, the EU and Japan. The funds provided are not subject to taxation or to the high support costs of the funded institutes. This means that money goes much further when spent for ISTC projects than for other efforts in Russia. ISTC project funds go directly without taxation to the scientists who do the research. Russia's contribution (above the actual support of the center in Moscow) involves covering the indirect personnel costs (health benefits and housing, for example, that the tax on income would have supported), and maintaining the infrastructure costs of the institutes which sponsor the scientists.

The most important factor in the center's success has been the attitude of the initial funding partners. From the beginning, the ISTC initiative has been a cooperative effort, where all the involved parties are considered to be equal partners with a voice on all issues. All votes at the ISTC's board meetings are by consensus, (3) even though not every member may provide funding for each project. This forces the board to work together on each and every project.

In keeping with its goals for the center, the United States totally funds a project only when most of the scientists proposed are weapons of mass destruction scientists. Even when the United States shares funding for a project with other funding members, it requires that a significant percentage (even if less than half) of the scientists be weapons scientists. In no case is there a requirement that all must be weapons scientists. Scientists not previously engaged in weapons research are often accepted and, in fact, welcomed in order to help weapons scientists conduct peaceful research that is not always in their central areas of expertise. Of course, the United States takes care not to support projects at institutes that it believes are not taking necessary measures to prevent assistance, directly or indirectly, to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Each funding partner has its own internal funding priorities. All, however, favor projects that offer hope of commercialization. They see the long-term success of the center in its ability to reshape Russian science toward projects that will create future Russian and international industry. Funding members share the intellectual property rights with the funded states.


Is Success Guaranteed?

How can one measure the progress made by the ISTC after four years? Its goal was principally to keep scientists at home doing peaceful research and away from countries that are potential proliferators. Of course, the center cannot guarantee absolute success. There is no way to ensure that some emigration to troublesome countries will not happen. Some people have their price. However, what was needed and what the ISTC achieved was the creation of a safety valve that helped prevent a hemorrhage of weapons scientists to potential proliferators. The more than 21,000 former Soviet scientists and engineers who have benefitted from the ISTC initiative represent more than the combined number of scientists at Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos national laboratories. The center has made it possible for these thousands of scientists, who prefer to stay at home, to do so with dignity and with a living wage. The salaries that they earn from their ISTC-sponsored research, although not extravagant, at least enable them to support their families and to move toward civilian work.

The ISTC has supported scientific projects on the enforcement of non-proliferation, arms control verification, environmental restoration, and research enterprises that have potential for commercialization. The focus aims at making Russian science the locomotive for aggressive participation in peace-making, and for cleaning up and restoring the many sites that have been polluted through years of official neglect in industry and government weapons programs. The ISTC-sponsored projects try to use Russian science to improve national and international industries. If successful, they will help create a commercial base for supporting future technology-based Russian industry, making it less dependent on subsidies such as those from the ISTC. Effective commercialization of ISTC-sponsored research could inspire a generation of new Russian industries that are state-of-the-art and competitive worldwide.

To improve the prospects for project commercialization, the ISTC recently instituted a "Partners Program" that eventually could wean the center from government subsidies. The Partners Program seeks to further industry's use of the ISTC. Forward-looking companies that recognize the world-class expertise of former Soviet scientists can direct their capital to sponsor research through the ISTC, where they can reap the benefits of no taxes or significant overhead and share the property rights with the scientists. Since June 1997, more than two dozen partners have been approved by the Governing Board, including The 3M Corporation; Dow Chemical Corporation; Framatome; General Atomics; Hitachi Chemical Company, Ltd.; Sandia National Laboratories; DOE; and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

Before the establishment of the ISTC, the private sector had no way to make effective use of the talent of former Soviet scientists through the Russian marketplace, which imposes extravagant taxes, often does not pay the workers and, in some cases, has even been subject to protection costs demanded by Russian organized crime. The ISTC offers an alternative that protects the investments of commercial partners and facilitates access to whatever scientific talent the company is seeking. Eventually, the ISTC seeks to be a clearing house for Russian scientific talent even if companies want to establish their own contact independently of the ISTC. Among the important benefits gained by Partners Program participants are:


  • Opportunities to develop research and development through the ISTC;


  • The use of the existing ISTC infrastructure and its tax-exempt diplomatic status;


  • Access to research facilities for monitoring and auditing of projects; and


  • Legally binding project agreements in which rights and obligations, including international property rights, are stipulated, safeguarding all proprietary information.


Looking to the Future

The greatest uncertainty facing the ISTC is the ability and willingness of the original funding parties to continue supporting research until the Partners Program can take up most of the funding slack resulting from lower foreign governmental subsidies. Despite the ISTC's record of keeping thousands of weapons scientists engaged in peaceful research, the United States and other funding parties have not been able to sustain the original funding levels and are struggling to keep already decreased levels from shrinking further. Although EU funding has stabilized at a level substantially higher than U.S. funding, without significant growth in the Partners Program it will impossible to continue supporting the ISTC at existing levels.

The United States began its commitment to the ISTC with $25 million. Those funds enabled the center to begin quickly and effectively, and most, if not all, of the monies supported the redirection of Russian weapons scientists. Washington has not funded the ISTC at the same level since the first year, even though in subsequent years its support benefitted other former Soviet republics besides Russia. Moreover, while the initiative's early emphasis was on helping nuclear weapons scientists, pressures are mounting to spend more on biological and chemical weapons scientists.

Given the importance of the ISTC in U.S. non-proliferation strategy, the scope of scientific disciplines that must be covered and the increased number of nations to be supported, the funding levels sought from Congress for the ISTC have been too small. That is partly because the program resides in the State Department, where large programs such as the ISTC are unusual and budget requirements to maintain the department's worldwide diplomatic infrastructure are substantial. The State Department itself has been woefully underfunded in recent years, and money for non-proliferation programs comes at the expense of funding embassies and consulates or training a new class of Foreign Service Officers. The State Department has been battling for the resources to function in its core business of diplomacy at the same time that it has had the new and, from the State Department point of view, large ISTC requirement dropped into its lap.

The management of the ISTC initiative by the State Department has been superb from the beginning, and there is no reason why the department should not continue to manage the program as long as it is able to secure the appropriate level of funding. Unfortunately, that has not been the case since the department took over the funding responsibilities from the Defense Department. The State Department seems unable to budget for the ISTC with the same vigor that it displays when trumpeting the accomplishments of the ISTC to argue for a larger slice of the funding pie for helping Russia, although the ISTC is a relatively small part of the pie. The department must undertake efforts to seek increased funding for key programs, such as the ISTC, which are not tied to its traditional primary mission.

The ISTC has proven its worth for more than four years. It has help prevent a massive "brain drain" of former Soviet weapons scientists into world proliferation markets. It is a program started with American initiative and foresight. No program has received more cooperation from the Russians. No program combines such a direct positive effect on worldwide non-proliferation efforts with the prospect of helping a democratic Russia build a modern, self-sustaining, scientifically based economy comparable and complementary to those in the West and in Japan. The United States still has a historic opportunity to channel Russian science away from weapons research and into peaceful work. The only question is whether U.S. policy-makers recognize this opportunity and are willing to increase support for the ISTC initiative so that it can fulfill its potential as the centerpiece of U.S. non-proliferation efforts.


NOTES 1. Eventually a comparable center was established in Kyiv, named the Science and Technology Center of the Ukraine, to take into account Ukraine's reluctance to participate in a Moscow-based center. Its purpose is the same as the International Science and Technology Center, but it is considerably smaller. [Back]

2. Statement of the 16th Governing Board of the International Science and Technology Center, July 1–2, 1998. [Back]

3. The exception is project funding decisions in which representatives from the Commonwealth of Independent States do not participate. [Back]

Victor Alessi, former director of the Department of Energy's Office of Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, is the original U.S. board member to the International Science and Technology Center (ISTC). He is currently president of DynMeridian, a subsidiary of DynCorp. Ronald F. Lehman II, former director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, is chairman of the governing board of the ISTC. He is currently director of the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.