Electro wizards switch on to West

March 21, 1997

Scientists from St Petersburg's Electrotechnical University (LETI), once a centre for secret Soviet military-industrial research, are turning to the west to capitalise on technical advances developed during years of confidential work.

Microelectronics experts and leaders in superconductive ceramics, key areas with military and nuclear applications, have won a clutch of contracts with European and United States companies since the collapse of the Soviet Union six years ago.

They include a project to develop microwave-tuning elements for wireless communication with Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, and development of high-temperature superconductive films for use in microchip technology, under a Copernicus grant. Twenty-four agreements have been signed on cooperation with foreign universities and research centres in eight countries, including France, Italy and Germany.

One of the first, negotiated by Andrei Kozirev, of the university's department of electronics, was to develop applications for the use of radioactive-proof silicon carbide microelectronic circuitry in compact nuclear reactors for use in space, with the US's international research centre. It led to a contract to develop a silicon carbide plate in which the rocket's electronic circuitry could be implanted.

The historic deal, previously unthinkable for an institution where undergraduates had to sign confidentiality contracts and research work was scrutinised by the KGB, opened the way for a host of other commercial projects. This even led to rumours that LETI's research scientists were poachers-turned-gamekeepers doing deals with the Pentagon.

University leaders deny that LETI has ever had any direct contacts with US military researchers, but Alexander Yanchesky, vice rector for international affairs during this period, who now runs an independent international school of management in the university, said he did not doubt that the Pentagon had managed to access LETI's research.

"I cannot prove that there were research projects between LETI and the Pentagon, because anything of this nature would never have been done directly, but I am 100 per cent sure (of indirect contact)." Such access, possible in the early years of post-Soviet Russia, would probably not be feasible today, he added.

"At the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s public confidence in the KGB was at an all-time low: the KGB was being pilloried for the purges of 1937, its human rights record and other matters. The security system collapsed. This was the period when a KGB chief gave the Americans a detailed scheme of surveillance devices implanted in the new American Embassy in Moscow."

LETI's research is now subject to scrutiny and confidentiality tests by the KGB's successor, the Federal Security Bureau, but the level of security control is much more sensible, added Dr Yanchesky, who was forbidden to travel outside the Soviet Union until 1979 because of his systems-theory research background.

But cashing in on research has not all been positive for LETI. It has lost some key specialists to the brain drain.

Dr Yanchesky said: "Victor Varshavsky took his team of seven top researchers, who were working on his theory of computerised self-synchronising processes, to a Japanese university to develop technical and commercial applications. The last I heard from Victor was more than five years ago."

The strength of LETI's research base gives it access to much stronger commercial contacts and sources of outside revenue than most Russian universities.

"Very few countries have the pool of highly qualified people who have worked for years and years in very fundamental research like we do. Under the Soviet Union people had the luxury of undertaking well-funded fundamental research which would have been unheard of in the west."

Marketing LETI's often somewhat esoteric pure research and finding companies which can see the potential for commercial application is something the university had learned not to waste time or money on, he added.

Networking at international scientific conferences, where European or US research colleagues understood the potential and had commercial contacts to whom they could communicate this, had been found to be by far the best method for bridging the gap between abstract science and technical application.

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