Policy Memos

Will Russian Scientists Go Rogue? A Survey on the Threat and the Impact of Western Assistance

Policy Memo:


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The collapse of the Soviet Union sparked fears throughout the world that rogue nations and terrorist organizations would gain access to weapons of mass destruction (WMD). One specific concern has been “WMD brain drain.” Russians with knowledge about nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons could now depart to any country of their choice, including rogue nations seeking to produce WMD. Meanwhile, Russian science fell into a protracted crisis, with plummeting salaries, little funding for research, and few new recruits to science. These developments increased both the incentives and the opportunities for scientists to sell their knowledge to governments and terrorist organizations with hostile intentions toward the United States. Recognizing the threat of WMD brain drain from Russia, the United States, and other governments implemented a host of programs designed to reduce the risk. Despite, or perhaps partly because of massive assistance from the West to prevent scientists with WMD knowledge from emigrating, the threat of Russian WMD brain drain has recently faded from view. Yet we have seen no evidence that these programs are effective and little systematic assessment of the current threat of WMD migration. [...]

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About the author

Professor of Sociology
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, University of California