CRISIS-RIDDEN scientific cities in Russia are lobbying the Kremlin for a legal lifeline to save them from total collapse.
The Association of Scientific Towns of Russia is putting pressure on federal authorities to give research communities special legal status.
The association, which represents institutes from more than 40 scientific towns in Russia, is urging the creation of tax free enterprise zones and special funding to enable research-driven communities to convert to self-sufficient and profitable production centres.
According to a draft law before Russia's parliament, cash for the towns should be ringfenced by central government to support the residential, medical, educational and community facilities, not hard-pressed regional budgets as for the past three years, Nikolai Urakov, director of a state research centre for applied microbiology in Obolensk, 80 km south of Moscow, said: "In three to five years we would be able to create normal conditions in scientific towns, enabling us to overcome our crisis and build self-sufficient centres with the support of this law."
The scientific towns built in the postwar years were once magnets for the brightest and best young scientists attracted by the prospects of well-funded facilities in the most modern surroundings.
Political priorities spurred the development of towns devoted to pure and applied research in nuclear physics, space exploration and medical fields in such places as Novosibirsk's Akademgorodok, built by the Russian Academy of Sciences to the south of the Siberian city.
But cash stopped along with the collapse of communism and the end of the cold war. Today workers in scientific towns the length and breadth of Russia struggle to survive on poverty-level wages in institutes starved of funds.
Obolensk, established in 1975, was the last purpose-built scientific town in Russia. Designed to deliver solutions to infectious diseases such as food poisoning and meningitis, a town of 20,000 was planned. The first residents arrived in 1984 and today the town is little more than an isolated cluster of crumbling apartment blocks and half-built buildings surrounded by a pine forest.
Most of the town's 6,000 residents are forced to find work elsewhere in a largely rural region, following a series of cuts at the institute, which once employed 3,500.
Today Obolensk survives on less than a tenth of its budgetary needs and Professor Urakov estimates that the centre has lost 90 per cent of its joint ministry of science and ministry of health funding.
"Today nobody knows what the budget is, because on paper there is one figure, but in reality you might receive less than half of that," he said, adding that this year's figure of 4.5 billion roubles (about Pounds 470,000) was a tenth of its 1985 allocation in real terms.
The amount is just over half the money needed to run Obolensk's "social facilities", the housing and community services.
The regional Serpukhov administration is supposed to pay for these, but does not, leaving Professor Urakov and his team of 1,500 researchers, engineers and production workers to generate enough income to cover this in addition to their own needs.
Frequent raids by regional tax inspectors, who regard the centre as a chief source of revenue in their area, only add to their difficulties.
The centre is developing production of pharmaceutical products and energetically pursues foreign aid grants. This year it won a Pounds 440,000 grant from the International Science and Technology Centre, an American, Japanese and European Community supported organisation, and a small Soros Foundation award enables it to run a social and educational centre, where employment retraining and alcoholism self-help groups are provided.
But the key to Obolensk's long-term future, like that of all scientific towns, is gaining support for conversion to centres of wealth production, Professor Urakov said.
"We need to understand our market and find the niches within which we can sell our products. For this we also need to retrain our managers, as we lack enough experience in this area."
Irina Agaltzeva, deputy headteacher of Obolensk's school, a "first citizen" of the town who arrived in 1984, said she, like all who moved to work there, never expected the Obolensk dream to so quickly turn into a nightmare.
"Nobody could predict that everything would turn out so badly. Our prospects at that time were very high."