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Scientists, with their ethic of questioning prevailing truths, are important to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts to democratize his country's politics and revitalize its economy, says a visiting scholar.

"Scientists have an important role to play, first, in the formation of a democratic political culture and, second, in the reconstruction of their own research environment," said Linda L. Lubrano, a professor in American University's School of International Service.Lubrano, whose research has focused on the USSR Academy of Sciences, spoke at the University of Utah on Monday about "Science, Democracy and Perestroika in the Soviet Union."

She said the effects of Gorbachev's reforms are already visible in the USSR Academy, the most prestigious Soviet scientific organization.

Traditionally a top-down organization, the academy recently has seen demands for greater democratization. As they did during the "thaw" period under Khrushchev, scientists under Gorbachev have been pushing for greater decentralization and autonomy from Moscow.

"Today's reformers are much more daring, however. They want decentralization in the academy to be accomplished by democratization within the institutes themselves." In some of the academy's 270 research institutes, rank-and-file scientists have even won the right to elect their institute directors, Lubrano said.

Traditional patterns of block funding to institutes are being replaced in some instances by individual acquisition of money for specific research projects. Scientists are having to learn the art of grantsmanship as they apply for funding not only from outside their own institutes but even from outside the country, through international foundations.

These changes have, in effect, begun to formalize an informal mode of operation that has existed in Soviet science for decades, said Lubrano.

Since the days of Stalin and before, Soviet scientists have established informal networks to exchange information, share equipment and supplies and pursue science. "They have learned how to work the system to their own advantage."

"This is not to say that all Soviet scientists are liberal reformers - quite the contrary." In science as in other aspects of Soviet society, resistance is especially strong among those who have benefited from the old power structure, and it remains to be seen how things will shake out."