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Re: Taking Issue with “After the Fall of the Wall”

We are grateful to Mr. Richmond for his feedback on our coverage of the changes in science in Eastern Europe since 1989. Many official exchange programs were indeed in place between the East and the West in the decades preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall — not just with the Soviet Union, as Richmond describes, but also with the Eastern European Soviet satellite states that were the subject of our feature. As we wrote in the paragraph Richmond cites:

“The Soviet-controlled governments of the former Eastern Bloc valued science and scientific research. But decisions on funding and scientific priorities were controlled by the government, and scientific importance often played little role in those decisions. Research in those countries was done in near-complete isolation from the international community. The circulation of people and scientific information was meticulously controlled, and access to training opportunities abroad, and even international research journals, was highly restricted.”
 
The scientists participating in formal exchange programs, and the scientific areas they represented, were carefully selected by their national authorities. Scientists not taking part in such programs — that is, most scientists — had a much harder time getting a passport. The Eastern scientists we talked to told us that it was very difficult to be authorized to leave the country. Even if they were given permission to, let’s say, go to an international conference, the scarce funding and high exchange rates meant that they often could not afford the trip.
 
Many of the scientists we interviewed also told us of the restricted, sometimes nonexistent, access to international journals. This was before the Internet era, so it left individual Eastern scientists with little means of finding out what their counterparts in the West were doing. We were told for example that a letter sent from Romania to Germany could take 2 months to arrive, and letters were often opened and censored by the Ceauşescu government before it fell.
 
We appreciate you bringing to our attention the details of these scholarly and scientific exchange programs, which no doubt contributed to the scientific advancement of the Soviet Union. Yet the objective of our article was to summarize the situation for the majority of scientists on the ground in Eastern European countries, and to focus on how science and individual scientists in these countries have advanced since 1989.

 – Elisabeth Pain and Kate Travis