Finding a Role in Nato’s Science Programme
Membership of the Alliance means involvement in numerous scientific research projects
Mention Nato and what comes to mind first?
The Cold War standoff with the Warsaw Pact? The Kosovo air campaign? The recent row over Iraq?
Nato’s military dimension is at the forefront of most discussions concerning the 54-year-old organisation. Article 5, the security guarantee in Nato’s founding charter, may have been the primary reason Lithuanian politicians and the general public support membership. When Lithuania officially joins in May 2004, it accepts the agreement that an attack on any member will be considered an attack on all.
The Alliance, however, is multidimensional and goes beyond its military and political functions. Many Lithuanian scientists have already discovered that Nato offers helpful support and opportunities for exchange in the scientific realm.
“Lithuania’s contribution to the Nato Science Programme is already good,” said Fausto Pedrazzini (below) of the Science Affairs Division. At a briefing that coincided with a Nato-sponsored workshop in Vilnius last June, he briefed participants on the programme’s history and future direction.
Currently, Nato supports seven Science for Peace projects in Lithuania with 1.2 million euros. Since 1999, Nato has awarded grants to as many as 48 projects involving Lithuanian scientists. About 100 have been awarded Nato fellowships to work up to a year in advanced laboratories in Nato countries. In addition, a Lithuanian scientist, Professor Valdas Sirutkaitis, is serving on a Nato Advisory Panel, said Pedrazzini.
These joint projects between Lithuania and Nato member states encompass hard science topics in biochemistry, laser physics, herbicides and semiconductor research. Last year, Lithuania hosted a Nato-sponsored Advanced Research Workshop (ARW) that studied substitutes for the Ignalina nuclear power plant. This summer, scientists in the field of solid-state ultraviolet light emitters and detectors came to Vilnius to exchange ideas and discuss recent breakthroughs. It was the tenth ARW held in Lithuania.
In his opening remarks at the conference, Valdemaras Sarapinas, the State Secretary of the Lithuanian Ministry of Defence, asked if costly science and high-technology programmes are necessary for a country the size of Lithuania. His conclusion was, yes, Lithuania does need a scientific basis and Nato programmes to assist scientists to procure needed equipment, conduct research abroad, and establish links with other scientists. In fact, he continued, Lithuania is quite active and successful in receiving funding – an indication of its competitiveness in certain fields.
Professor Algis Galdikas of the Institute of Semiconductor Physics in Vilnius, who served as representative to the Nato Science Committee, said Lithuania has done well compared to larger candidate countries and its Baltic neighbours. Latvia and Estonia only participate in one project each.
Once adversaries, now partners
“After the Second World War, the scientific community in Western Europe was not in a good state. The Nato Science Programme was a sort of ‘Marshall Plan’ for the scientific community of Europe and set to facilitate exchanges between both sides of the Atlantic,” said Pedrazzini.
In 1957, the Nato Science Programme was created to encourage an exchange of knowledge. At that time, Soviet emphasis on scientific research seemed attractive to European scientists; therefore, this science programme acted as a counterbalance and to make sure Western science remained appealing, he said.
Today, scientists from the 19 member countries, 26 Euro-Atlantic partner countries (of which Lithuania is currently a member, along with the Balkan, Baltic, Caucasus and Central Asian states) and the six countries from the Mediterranean Dialogue Group (North Africa) are eligible to apply for support for expert visits, exchanges and seminars.
Even when Lithuania was hidden behind the Iron Curtain, it developed a foundation of institutes that remain strong today. According to Galdikas, much of the country’s advanced science research had a military purpose. Numerous factories supported the arms industry, including one in Vilnius that made high-speed electronics; while a 3,000-person plant in Vilnius made microcircuits including some for space research and satellites. Another big microcircuit factory was located in Šiauliai, and a semi-military factory in Kaunas specialised in microcircuit technology and advanced electronics.
Despite these advanced sectors, scientists remained in the dark about Western science. “We were cut off,” said Professor Arūnas Krotkus, head of the Optoelectronic Laboratory at the Institute of Semiconductor Physics. He explained that even in the 1980s, journal articles written in the United States could take four years after publication to trickle down for them to read.
After regaining independence, Lithuania gained access to this once hidden body of work.
“We no longer had to create problems for ourselves to solve,” said Krotkus. He and fellow scientists could tackle current issues, but with a hitch. As the Soviet state system crumbled, so did scientific funding.
“Money disappeared within a year of the collapse of the Soviet Union,” said Professor Galdikas. Lithuanian high-tech and hard science not only lost its sponsors, but also its market for goods and services. The sector collapsed.
From 1993, Lithuanian scientists started to make connections with Western counterparts, while the industry discovered new markets. From the mid-1990s, the Soros Foundation, the European Union, as well as the United States Army and Air Force, began funding a variety of projects, complementing the scarce resources provided by the Ministry of Education.
By 1999, Lithuania and all other Nato partner countries could join in the Nato Science Programme and apply for funding. Although the assistance from Nato is smaller compared to large commercial investments, it does allow for equipment procurement, which in turn can lead to further research grants and collaborative opportunities.
The result of one such Science for Peace grant can be found in an unlit basement room of Vilnius’ Institute of Semiconductor Physics. In the ultrafast optoelectronics lab, a greenish glow radiates from one side of the femtosecond pulse laser. Hunched over a microscope that is situated among lenses, mirrors and other instrumentation, a French scientist and a Lithuanian research student take measurements.
“The Nato project allowed us to buy our laser system and renovate the technology lab,” said Professor Krotkus, who oversees the experiment. It was the largest investment in equipment in the last 15 years.
“Now, instead of us going abroad, people come to us to do research and calibrate equipment,” he said.
“It keeps young scientists in Lithuania who might otherwise leave. When we receive new equipment they are more likely to stay. Also, new equipment can mean new projects,” said Artūras Jagelavičius of the Defence Ministry’s Resources and Programmes Department.
In the past, the Lithuanian Defence Ministry, in conjunction with Nato and the Education Ministry, helped open another laser research centre at Vilnius University that, among other experiments, tests crystal coatings.
At last November’s Nato Summit in Prague, the Alliance accepted sweeping changes. Nato invited seven countries for membership, and adopted new capability goals to face security challenges such as combating terrorism and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The Alliance’s shifting focus has also impacted the Science Programme.
“We have been asked by nations to be more in line with the missions of Nato,” said Pedrazzini. Now, more science funding will be directed specifically to topics concerning the threats to the security of Nato and partner members.
Hard science research will be de-emphasised, and more attention will focus on applications for nuclear, biological and chemical decontamination, agro-terrorism, as well as environmental security issues, water and other resource management, and food safety.
“The Nato Science Programme is changing,” said Galdikas. At this summer’s Science Committee meeting in Kiev, Nato will officially announce its new priorities.
He said that some points are clear; emphasis will be placed on anti-terrorism equipment and research, such as bio sensors, security measures to find and detect dangers, and ways to increase the safety of computer systems. Within the programme, additional steps should also be taken to better encourage young scientists, to curb the “brain drain” from partner countries and to better publicise successful projects and findings. Despite this shift of mission, Lithuanian participation in the Nato scientific community should not diminish.
“I do not think it will have such a big impact,” said Galdikas. “The sum of money (approximately 250,000 euros per project) is important, but not enough for the institutes to change drastically their research fields.”
Actually, a number of institutes are in a good position. “Our institute is investigating biosensors with the Institute of Biochemistry,” he said. “Also, biotechnology research and laser physics in Lithuania are in quite a good position … We’ll see.”
In certain areas, Lithuanian researchers and their overseas partners already stand at the forefront. The workshop held in June 2002 was a good example of a topic that bridges hard science with applications relevant to Nato’s mission. The conference focused on “solid-state UV light emitters and detectors” used in ballistic missile defence and in detecting hazardous biological agents. It brought together experts from 13 countries.
Lithuania’s conference co-sponsor, Artūras Žukauskas, director of the Institute of Material Science and Applied Research at Vilnius University, said that these technologies could contribute to devices that detect chemical and biological weapons.
The keynote presenter, Lieutenant John Carrano of the US Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, described progress made towards creating small biosensors the size of smoke detectors, that use UV light to detect biological agents such as anthrax. If perfected, these sensors could quickly replace ones currently in use at many airports and subways, which are big, bulky, costly and unreliable, said Carrano.
He forecasted that such UV light technology could dominate the defence market in the decade ahead with numerous applications beyond biosensing. At a later press conference, Carrano praised Lithuanian scientists for their contributions to the body of knowledge and described them as leaders in the UV optoelectronic field.
Sliding down the electromagnetic spectrum, Nato Science for Peace funding supports another Lithuanian group headed by Professor Steponas Ašmontas conducting research with Terahertz waves – a band of waves with much potential. (On the spectrum, the relatively unknown Terahertz waves are positioned between the infrared and microwave bands.)
Gintaras Valušis, a senior research associate in Terahertz physics, said that exploiting these waves allows one to “look at the world in a completely different way”.
Terahertz imaging has potential for security applications such as package inspection, but also in medicine. One day, Terahertz wave devices could replace the common X-ray machines found in hospitals. Unlike X-rays, Terahertz waves (or T-rays) have none of the destructive properties stemming from exposure to radiation. Terahertz research around the world is also exploring how it can be used to diagnose breast cancer and even tooth cavities.
With the Nato science grant, Valušis said the lab created the environment around the laser, the infrastructure and measuring equipment.
Once Lithuania becomes a full Nato member in May 2004, local scientists could also become more involved in research beyond the Science Programme. Since Nato militaries work closely together, they often use interoperable equipment and follow similar procedures.
Likewise, countries also tackle common technical military problems or dangers. Professor Galdikas gave the example of a 1999 study on improving the fire resistance of naval ships, in which Lithuania took part as a candidate country.
Another such study concerned the safe landing of helicopters on ships sailing in rough seas. Galdikas thought a number of Lithuanian institutions could collaborate on such a project, either developing laser and sensor systems or creating software to assist with automatic landing.
“It’s a very complicated problem but the Vilnius University laser centre and other experts could contribute,” he said. With membership, there should be more chances to participate, which in turn could lead to additional grants and contracts.
Often applications developed originally for military purposes reap great commercial gains and end up affecting our everyday lives. Take Global Positioning Systems and the Internet as just two examples.
So, perhaps Lithuanian scientists can hope their programmes will yield the next “big” breakthrough: in Terahertz waves, UV light emitters, or even “Ceramic Substrate with Controlled Piezoelectric Properties for Surface Acoustic Wave Applications”… Only time will tell.
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