The high-technology ploy that Jimmy Carter played last week against the Soviets invites the question of why we have it and they don't.
No chauvinism here. Just the observation that the traffic in computers, oil-drilling equipment, laboratory apparatus, pharmaceutical and so on is all from west to east. For those who speculate that the Soviets hide their real technological prowness, there's the extraordinary recent event of a team of American eye surgeons' being summoned, with their special equipment, to the Kremlin clinic to operate on a high-level Soviet official. Don't expect a reciprocal invitation.
Weather and terrain help explain the Soviets' agricultural deficiencies, and their various other material shortfalls can be related to heavy military spending, indeological rigidity in economic planning and inept management.
But when it comes to science and technology, the avowedly science-based Soviet system -- with more engineers per ruling elite than any other nation -- has not been niggardly with resources or ambition. It is generally agreed, in fact, that the Soviets outspend the United States both in absolute terms and in percentage of national wealth allotted to research and development. Scientists and engineers have traditionally been among the best-rewarded and privileged professionals in the Soviet Union. They predominated among the very few permitted international travel during the long-ago low points of Soviet-American relations. And the Soviet Academy of Sciences -- which is the national holding company for almost all basic science in the U.S.S.R. -- has not infrequently thumbed its nose at political tinkering with its claimed rights and privileges. Not long ago, for example, it simply refused to bestow a requested membership on one of the party's political hacks.
With all this going for its scientific and technological elite, why do the Soviets find it necessary to pursue American high technology, even to the point of setting up phony import firms in Western Europe to get their hands on some advanced goods? The answers from close examiners of the Soviet scene generally point in the same direction and, coincidentally, provide some useful insights for the maintenance of a resource that the United States increasingly recognizes as a mightly asset in a troubled world.
The Soviet system, first of all, is highly compartmentalized. Institutions for basic science and for technology are walled off from each other, and they are also segregated from industry. Western students have repeatedly found that there's no incentive for collaboration among these separate bastions, since their life-lines for money and glory run back to separate agencies in Moscow. Teaming up with the laboratory of another ministry may be scientifically fruitful, but it can be bureaucratically disastrous -- which probably accounts for Soviet backwardness in computers and pharmaceuticals, fields based on close collaboration between fundamental research and product development.
Another characteristic of the Soviet research system is that it's non-competitive. Once a laboratory is established, it continues to be supported, regardless of its output. Peer review, the perhaps overly sacrosanct screening system for awarding most government research money in the United States, is used scarcely at all by the Soviets. rFurthermore, the chief of a Soviet laboratory usually has a lifetime job, no matter how obsolete his talents might be, and his young underlings are well advised to be reverential to the boss. The conversational give-and-take that characterizes senior-junior relations in American research institutions brings stares from Soviet visitors.
There appears also to be very little traffic in people, ideas or products between the Soviet military-industrial system and the rest of the economy. By contrast, the U.S. military-industrial complex has profited from piggybacking the development of civilian products on government-supported weapons research.
Finally, in recent years the Soviets have placed severe restrictions on educational and professional opportunities for Soviet Jews.
Soviet technocrats concede most of these difficulties and say they're trying to correct them -- though there's little evidence that they're making much progress. Meanwhile, as many formulas are discussed for ensuring the well-being of American high-technology enterprise,l the most important one ought not to be overlooked: don't emulate the Soviets in centralization, red tape, non-competitiveness and the various other self-imposed burdens that send them scurrying for modern-day goods that they ought to be able to produce for themselves.