Berlin Wall 2

Boycott of Russian scientists will not help to weaken military aggression

Earlier in March 2023, the Nature web­site fea­tured an open let­ter from sci­en­tists of Ukraine and dias­po­ra appeal­ing to their col­leagues around the world to boy­cott Russian sci­ence in order to weak­en the aggres­sive Russian state. The col­lec­tion of sig­na­tures under the open let­ter began on February 13, and by the time of Nature’s pub­li­ca­tion, the num­ber of sig­na­to­ries — most­ly from sci­en­tists in Ukraine and the Ukrainian dias­po­ra — had sur­passed two thousand.

The authors of the open let­ter came up with two main argu­ments. First, «in war, sci­ence itself becomes a weapon,» and there­fore the ene­my’s sci­ence must be weak­ened in the same way as the econ­o­my. Second, since «the media com­po­nent of sci­ence plays a very impor­tant role» the aggres­sor must be deprived of the oppor­tu­ni­ty to report any­thing pos­i­tive about itself in order to win the war «for the hearts and minds of the peo­ple.»

Despite the com­pas­sion towards the motives of the authors of the let­ter, there are oth­er argu­ments that should be tak­en into account before using a sci­en­tif­ic boy­cott as a tool of pol­i­tics and warfare.

1. A year ago, the Russian state launched a full-scale inva­sion to Ukraine, and it has no jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. Despite the fact that pro­pa­gan­da pro­vid­ed a high lev­el of sup­port for the war in Russia, the same day as the February attack, Russian sci­en­tists pub­lished an open let­ter against the war, which soon gath­ered more than 8,000 sig­na­tures. Similar let­ters were pub­lished by a num­ber of Russian pro­fes­sion­al sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ties. Most of the sig­na­to­ries were from Russian uni­ver­si­ties and research insti­tutes, asso­ci­at­ed them­selves with Russian cul­ture, had Russian cit­i­zen­ship, and lived in Russia. Of course, there are those among Russian sci­en­tists who hailed the war; yet, the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty in Russia proved to be one of the most anti-war-mind­ed seg­ments of the Russian pop­u­la­tion and active­ly and open­ly opposed the war. In response the Russian gov­ern­ment start­ed crim­i­nal­ly pros­e­cut­ing Russians for any anti-war statement.

2. Over the last year, many sci­en­tists have left Russia. However, just as a cen­tu­ry ago, not every­one who held an anti-war posi­tion was able and will­ing to leave. Some Russian schol­ars feel that it is their duty to stay close to their stu­dents, even though this threat­ens their rep­u­ta­tion abroad and puts them in dan­ger of per­se­cu­tion at home. They believe that in trou­bled times it is espe­cial­ly impor­tant to main­tain high stan­dards of sci­ence, com­mon sense, and human­is­tic prin­ci­ples, and for this pur­pose it is vital for sci­en­tists to main­tain per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al ties with the out­side world, and with their for­eign colleagues.

3. Access to world sci­ence — the tools of sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tion, data­bas­es, and exper­i­men­tal facil­i­ties — is a nec­es­sary com­po­nent of mod­ern high­er edu­ca­tion. A sci­en­tif­ic boy­cott of Russia will deprive a gen­er­a­tion of stu­dents of the right of access to an ade­quate edu­ca­tion, and this direct­ly con­tra­dicts Article 1 of the UN Convention Against Discrimination in Education, adopt­ed in 1960. Here it is impor­tant to empha­size that irrepara­ble dam­age will be caused to young peo­ple, who have bare­ly reached the vot­ing age and who can­not be held respon­si­ble for the polit­i­cal crimes of the coun­try’s rulers.

4. The wide­spread prac­tice of refus­ing sci­en­tif­ic pub­li­ca­tions to Russians sole­ly on the basis of the author’s cit­i­zen­ship or place of work is also con­tro­ver­sial in the con­text of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1950). Article 10 of this basic inter­na­tion­al human rights doc­u­ment ensures the right to freely receive and impart infor­ma­tion and ideas, and this right can be restrict­ed only by law. Article 14 pro­hibits dis­crim­i­na­tion with regard to the rights and free­doms enshrined in the doc­u­ment, in par­tic­u­lar on the grounds of «polit­i­cal or oth­er opin­ion, nation­al … ori­gin, … birth or any oth­er grounds.» Even in the case of war, such restric­tions may only be imposed on behalf of a gov­ern­ment with noti­fi­ca­tion to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe and stat­ing when these restric­tions will cease (Article 15). Thus, with­out appro­pri­ate gov­ern­ment deci­sions, the boy­cott of Russian sci­en­tists rais­es for­mal legal ques­tions, espe­cial­ly when it comes to those who, under a repres­sive author­i­tar­i­an regime, open­ly opposed the war.

5. For many European and American sci­en­tif­ic orga­ni­za­tions the grounds for sev­er­ing ties with Russian uni­ver­si­ties was the appeal of the Rectors’ Union in sup­port of the war. It is also men­tioned in a let­ter of Ukrainian sci­en­tists. With this appeal, the rec­tors, under pres­sure from the author­i­ties, made their uni­ver­si­ties com­plic­it in the aggres­sion, and coop­er­a­tion with them became incom­pat­i­ble with sci­en­tif­ic ethics. It is impor­tant to keep in mind, how­ev­er, that rec­tors in Russia do not express the posi­tion of the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty, since they are usu­al­ly nom­i­nat­ed not by aca­d­e­mics, but by the bureau­crat­ic author­i­ties. Breaking up rela­tion­ships with Russian sci­en­tif­ic groups because of the demarche of their assigned supe­ri­ors actu­al­ly plays into the hands of the author­i­tar­i­an Russian regime. At the same time, the require­ment of the Ukrainian sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty not to indi­cate affil­i­a­tion of authors with Russian state insti­tu­tions in the pub­li­ca­tions and not to dis­close infor­ma­tion about Russian sources of fund­ing is quite rea­son­able. Such infor­ma­tion serves to pro­mote Russian sci­en­tif­ic brands, which in wartime is inap­pro­pri­ate. Likewise, of course, research groups involved in mil­i­tary devel­op­ments should not be sup­port­ed (includ­ing through publications).

6. The process of boy­cotting Russian sci­en­tists unfolds in par­al­lel with the tight­en­ing of visa regimes in Europe and the United States, and it affects those who, reject­ing the war, no longer want to work in Russian aca­d­e­m­ic insti­tu­tions and strive to leave the coun­try. Russian oppo­nents of the war are often not allowed into Western coun­tries, even when local uni­ver­si­ties advo­cate for them, and are under a ban on col­lab­o­ra­tion while they are still in Russia. Thus, the vic­tims of the boy­cott are pre­cise­ly those who oppose the war in Ukraine. Their des­per­ate sit­u­a­tion can in no way weak­en the cur­rent Russian power.

7. The let­ter of Ukrainian sci­en­tists equates sci­ence with weapons because its achieve­ments can be used for mil­i­tary pur­pos­es. However, the major­i­ty of sci­en­tif­ic works, espe­cial­ly those pre­sent­ed at the inter­na­tion­al lev­el, are pure­ly civil­ian research. Therefore, it is incor­rect to equate them with weapons. On the con­trary, sci­ence is a piv­otal civ­i­liza­tion­al ele­ment of the free demo­c­ra­t­ic world. Disconnecting Russia from world sci­ence will only lead to a fur­ther strength­en­ing of the archa­ic forces in the coun­try that are respon­si­ble for unleash­ing the war.

8. Military pro­pa­gan­da in Russia dai­ly rein­forces the bar­ri­ers sep­a­rat­ing the coun­try from the world. The free world should not assist in build­ing a new «Berlin Wall,» from its own side. On the con­trary, it is bet­ter to facil­i­tate its fall. Building a dia­logue with Russia’s anti-war sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty on an equal foot­ing is part of this great impor­tant work.

9. Science has no nation­al­i­ty. The knowl­edge gained about the nature of real­i­ty belongs to all. In the cur­rent cir­cum­stances, it is espe­cial­ly impor­tant to pre­serve our uni­ver­sal and com­mon cul­tur­al val­ues, which are above states and nations. The Russian-Ukrainian war is part of the great con­fronta­tion between the forces of devel­op­ment and the forces of archaism, law and oppres­sion, ethics and out­rage. Science, by its very nature, has always been on the side of devel­op­ment and progress. To over­come the archa­ic forces, it is impor­tant to sup­port the sci­en­tists who oppose them, not to help the Russian author­i­ties to bury the coun­try in the Dark Ages.

We under­stand the moti­va­tions behind the Ukrainian sci­en­tists’ let­ter, empathize with them, and will try to bring their vision to our audi­ence, although we believe that direct­ly join­ing the boy­cott they pro­pose may be in con­flict with impor­tant eth­i­cal and legal prin­ci­ples and could have neg­a­tive con­se­quences for the fur­ther devel­op­ment of sci­ence itself.

In con­clu­sion, we would like to express our sup­port to the peo­ple of Ukraine and its sci­en­tists, who are resist­ing the evil that Russian cit­i­zens have failed to curb in their homeland.

    T-invari­ant editorial

    This text is an edi­to­r­i­al col­umn and may not reflect the posi­tions
    of the mem­bers of the T-invari­ant Coordinating Council