NEW YORK -- Professor Vladimir N. Smirnov, 53, is so fluent in English and so comfortable in his surroundings that he could almost have passed for a visiting American scientist. The trim director of the Soviet Institute of Experimental Cardiology was giving a luncheon talk at the Rogosin Institute in New York on the development of atherosclerosis

-- hardening of the arteries.

Smirnov deftly fielded the Rogosin scientists' questions and, earlier in an interview, when a reporter's queries seemed too slow and carefully worded, he quickly interrupted with comments like "I got the message."

"Gorbachev has completely opened up scientific exchanges. If anybody wants to go anywhere -- alone or with family, which is extremely important -- we can do that at any moment," he said.

At Smirnov's own institute, for example, of the 600 professional staff members, he estimates that perhaps one third now go abroad annually to attend exchanges or conferences at the invitations of host countries.

"That's 10 times as many as it used to be in the early 1980s," he said. But such extensive travel is true "only for leading Soviet institutes where people are known with international reputations," said Smirnov. Compared to the U.S., there are few major medical research centers in the U.S.S.R., he added.

It is a "very big concern," said Smirnov, that his country will lose some visiting scientists to the West, since the "conditions for science are just not comparable" and even the basic salaries offered in the U.S. are many times greater than those in the Soviet Union. But "for our country, exchanges are useful because they bring knowledge back."

In addition to academic exchanges, institutes like Smirnov's are also seeking joint ventures with Western firms that will bring needed money and medical supplies to the Soviet Union. He has a small biotechnology plant affiliated with the cardiology institute to help make drugs and other products. "We are in business for the sake of science," he said.

The Soviets are also applying capitalism to the research process. Smirnov said that a Soviet law promoted by government health officials allows immediate autopsies, so tissues can be made available soon after death. To assure that his institute would receive blood vessels for atherosclerosis studies as soon as possible, the salary of the pathologist in charge was greatly increased. "Pretty capitalistic principle," joked Smirnov. "It worked."

In 1960, Smirnov was a graduate student at the University of Chicago for 10 months. Now, 30 years later, he welcomes glasnost. "Red tape has practically disappeared. We are becoming a civilized society," he said. "The opportunity to travel is a key issue. We are no longer isolated."