Blanket solutions are not enough to protect scientists amidst the Ukraine-Russia crisis


Zier Zhou

University of Ottawa Heart Institute

MSc Student

The ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia has led to thousands of Ukrainian lives lost, and millions displaced. When present surroundings force individuals into fight-or-flight mode, the future of science at the international level understandably fades from the forefront. However, understanding how global politics can influence the scientific community and vice versa remains critical, particularly in times of crisis when leaders and organizations are faced with difficult decisions with far-reaching consequences.

Canada is home to nearly 1.4 million Ukrainians, which is 4 percent of our total population and the largest Ukrainian community outside of Europe. As a country that stands in solidarity with Ukraine, how do we extend support to their learners and researchers? Simultaneously, should we sever ties with our Russian collaborators? And how can we minimize collateral setbacks to global scientific progress? These are just a few questions that the rest of this editorial sets to explore.

In Ukraine, dozens of universities have been bombed. Many scientists have been fortunate enough to survive the devastation, but still face the misfortune of leaving their labs behind and possibly losing decades of work. It is encouraging to see several initiatives supporting Ukrainian researchers, including Science for Ukraine, which began as a Twitter hashtag but soon expanded into a website to share international opportunities for funding and learning. In Canada, lots of labs are keen to welcome Ukrainian research trainees, and federal granting agencies have also established a special response fund for those directly impacted by the war.

However, we must remember that many Ukrainians lack the means or liberty to flee their home country. An online petition calling on institutions to increase the number of remote work positions has garnered close to 5,000 signatures. And for Ukrainians who can secure a safer place abroad, additional help with navigating unfamiliar systems may be needed. Visa applications and grant proposals can be especially difficult with language barriers stacked against the baseline stress of living as a refugee. Offering services in Ukrainian and access to English language classes are therefore reasonable strategies to implement alongside research and employment opportunities.

At the same time, many Western countries, including Canada, the United States, and those in the European Union, have imposed sanctions on Russia shortly following their invasion of Ukraine in late February. The overarching goal is to put pressure on Russia’s economy and in turn weaken its capacity to finance the war. These decisions are further significant in reflecting their collective disapproval of the violent actions taken by the Russian government.

Although incomparable to the suffering endured by most Ukrainian citizens, scientific sanctions have nonetheless taken a negative toll on Russian researchers, who can no longer attend international conferences, receive cross-border funding, or continue joint projects. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has terminated its decade-long partnership with the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow. Scholarly exchanges have also been suspended by journals rejecting manuscripts from Russian authors and citation databases excluding Russian journals.

These blanket bans reveal how the concept of science diplomacy is undeniably simpler in times of peace than in war, and so we must carefully consider their differential and widespread impacts. For instance, it makes sense for Western scientists to separate themselves from endeavours to advance weapons and technologies that end up strengthening Russia’s military powers. In contrast, stopping Arctic research and slowing down our global fight against climate change could endanger everyone’s lives more than we currently realize.

The other distinction to make is that the views held by the Kremlin are not automatically reflective of all Russian citizens. Over 8,000 members of the scientific community in Russia have signed an open letter condemning the war, noting that many of their friends, relatives, and colleagues reside in Ukraine. By participating in anti-war protests, these Russian scientists and science journalists assume the risk of losing their careers or spending years in prison. Without support from the West, these academics have nowhere to turn, and their acts of defiance may as well be in vain.

With each action we take, we must question whether the ultimate outcome does more harm than good. It is not only unfair to isolate Russian scientists from the rest of the world, but unproductive in terms of helping Ukraine in a meaningful way. Instead, we should be selective when issuing sanctions and allow certain research partnerships to continue, especially ones that address urgent and universal challenges. Keeping some scientific collaborations open may even facilitate the eventual process of rebuilding trust and restoring peace.

Along a similar line of reasoning, Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry has stated, “We do not call for a broad ban on collaborations with individual Russian researchers. However, we have asked the research-granting agencies to implement strict measures to prohibit funding for research collaborations that could further the interests of Putin’s regime.”

Moreover, as the world’s leading scientific journal, Nature has published an editorial with a title that could not be clearer: “Russia’s brutal attack on Ukraine is wrong and must stop”. While condemning the invasions, Nature will still consider submissions from Russian scientists, reasoning that they do not wish to further divide the global research community and limit the sharing of scholarly knowledge.

Whether it is opening opportunities to Ukrainian researchers or ending partnerships with the Russians, blanket solutions are not enough to cover an issue so vast and complicated. Between the two countries, we should prioritize Ukraine by providing multiple and accessible forms of support to accommodate varying circumstances. In response to Russia, we must be careful not to impose sanctions that add fuel to the fires and burn unnecessary bridges with their scientists.

At the end of the day, war distracts the world from tackling other pressing problems like climate change, which threaten us all. The decisions we make today will have deep-rooted repercussions that may not be easily reversible. Let’s not let global scientific cooperation be another victim of this war.