Survey War

«It is not only the Russian economy that is mobilizing for war, but also science»

Machine assisted translation

Since February 24, 2022, we live in a new reality. It has concerned all people on Earth, but scientists have been particularly affected. International scientific ties, projects, and traditions that have been forming for decades were crumbling in front of our very eyes. We asked researchers in various fields of science to answer three questions to find out how the war affected their activities and them personally. We continue to publish scientists’ answers (the first issue was published on February 24, 2023.

1. Science. One year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, how do you assess changes in science?
2. Colleagues. What has changed in your specific professional environment, in your scientific groups, organizations, and communities?
3. Personally. How has this war year affected you personally? What have you learned for yourself?

Natalia Berloff, Professor at The Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge, UK.

1. Science and universities around the world have recovered from the impact of the coronavirus, conferences, meetings of scientists, seminars, and face-to-face sessions with students have resumed. We began to appreciate face-to-face interaction with colleagues even more when it became clear that we had taken for granted something that could be destroyed overnight. The fabric of the scientific world is very fragile, and it must be guarded against external shocks at all costs. The war dealt a brutal blow to Russia’s scientific community, and the waves of this blow are spreading around the world. Students were forced to leave Russia after being arrested for participating in unauthorized rallies or simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Many scientists and professors have left for permanent or temporary positions in the West, in China, India, Latin America. Ties and careers are crumbling, but of course, all this pales in comparison with the fact that people are physically dying.

What will happen to Russian science in the future? Science can exist in many forms. Andrew Wiles isolated himself from the scientific community for a long eight years before he presented his proof of Fermat’s Grand Theorem to the world. But this is the exception rather than the rule. To solve complex questions, there is a growing need for large research teams spread across different types of institutions and geographies. Such collaborations often begin at international conferences, where potential colleagues outside one’s own institution and country can be found. Researchers in some fields are looking for answers that require not only large-scale collaborations, but also enormous resources and unique equipment. If you want to stay on the cutting edge, do the most exciting science, and do what no one else has done before, it gets more and more expensive. That means international collaborations. If Russian scientists are deprived of all this for a long period of time, it will be a disaster.

As the best leave, and the rest close in on themselves. The contribution of Russian science to the Nature Index (which indexes publications in the most influential international journals in physics, chemistry, biology, and earth sciences) rose by a third from 2017 to 2021, and last year fell almost to 2017 levels. Furthermore, the vast majority of the index was made up of publications submitted before February 24, 2022. It’s clear that the decline will be even more dramatic in future years. It pains me very much for the people who believed in the rise of science in Russia and put a lot of effort into it. And now they see how everything they built has been destroyed overnight.

2. Colleagues. I have been impressed by the support that colleagues both in Cambridge and around the world have given and are giving to members of the scientific community who are in trouble.

Special funds have been established to which scientists and students from Ukraine and Russia can apply. Many of them have already come to Cambridge. When I urgently asked for help for graduate and undergraduate students who found themselves in Georgia, Turkey and Armenia, colleagues responded almost immediately and offered their help. The colleges provided resources to support out of their own additional funds, as well as meeting space and English classes for newcomers from Ukraine, Russia, and Belorussia. At the same time, even with specialized funds, resources, and willingness to help, there is the problem of entry visas. Home Office still issues visas very reluctantly and with great delays. We are trying to solve this problem somehow, by asking for help from members of parliament and attracting public attention.

Many of my colleagues do not support the boycott of Russian scientists and believe that terminating interaction would be a serious blow to world-wide interests, which include rapid progress in solving global scientific and technological problems and climate challenges, and to universal human values. They see the value in continuing individual contacts, in maintaining channels of communication across national borders, and in countering ideological stereotypes, especially in a situation in which many scientists have openly criticized the Russian government in the media or have signed widely circulated statements condemning the Russian invasion.

3. Personally. Like many around me, I went through all the stages of negative emotions: shock, horror, anger, despair, fatigue, severing ties, making new ties. Scholars from Ukraine, mostly women, historians, philologists, arrived at Cambridge… They tell how they worry about their husbands and adult children left behind in Ukraine, remember the terror they felt at the sound of Russian missile strikes, and how they dream again and again of those strikes. They ask: How could this have happened? What is wrong with Russian society, with the Russians, how did they allow this horrible war to happen and why does the majority of the population support it? I have no answers to these questions, only a lump in my throat. But yesterday my daughter told me that she and her new friends from Kiev, Odessa and Kharkov will perform Lesya Ukrainka’s «Forest Song» at school. While our children together create a poetic dream of a life full of humanity, beauty and love, I want to believe that not all is still lost.

Dinara Gagarina, Research Fellow, American University of Central Asia, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

1. Science. A drastic negative change is taking place. While so far we are seeing only the first effect, the consequences and recovery will take decades. The causes and manifestations of these changes have been voiced many times, I can only repeat them.

First, the scientists left. Foreign researchers who worked in Russia and Russian researchers integrated into international science have left, and young promising scientists have left. A number of employees of Russian universities were fired or forced to resign because of their open anti-war views. Teams that had been formed over many years have disintegrated. The absolute number may not be as high, but the effect here is systemic and sad.

Secondly, the wall of isolation of Russian science from international science is growing. Yes, we resist, yes, personal ties and contacts are preserved, yes, we are not yet close to vernacular science. But the facts are stronger: international collaborations are virtually impossible, both in terms of teams and because of denials of funding. Academic mobility and event participation have become more difficult on both sides. Plus access to journals and, for a number of sciences, to equipment, software, and consumables.

Finally, something that we have not yet seen so clearly, but undoubtedly, the trend will be aggravated: It is not only the Russian economy that is mobilizing for war, but also science. And while the technical and natural sciences will focus on import substitution, the social and humanitarian sciences will probably be destined to become the conceptual backing of what is happening in politics.

2. Colleagues. I work in Digital Humanities, which is a relatively young academic field. In Russia our community is small and was originally formed in integration with the international community. Perhaps because of this, the proportion of people who have left in our segment is higher than the average for science. However, thanks to the small total number, we have maintained close ties and have been together all year, no matter what country we are in. We have also managed to maintain personal and professional ties with our Western colleagues. We seem to be united by a world view of values as well. In the early days of the war, my colleagues and I wrote an open letter against the Russian invasion of Ukraine from Russian digital humanitarians, it was signed by several hundred people. In the summer we launched DH CLOUD Community — a platform and community that brings together specialists in Digital Humanities in different countries, regardless of the current affiliation.

The social (let’s call it that) role of Digital Humanities is also interesting. The methods of data analysis we use work great not only on historical sources or fiction, but to capture, analyze and visualize what’s happening right now. Over the year, several such stories have appeared in System Block, a popular science media about Digital Humanities.

3. Personally in the first months of the war, I decided that as long as the situation allowed me to go out to students, say what I thought and do what I thought was important, I would be in Russia. I don’t like debates between those who left and those who stayed, but for myself I clearly chose to stay as long as possible. I stayed, to do my own thing, and to speak out against the war. I must admit that, despite all the anti-war activity, nobody bothered me at work until July. And then, from July to December, I was gradually dismissed from all of my projects and from all of my positions at the university. They fired me from my assistant professor position under an article for immoral behavior that was incompatible with teaching activities. I am trying to challenge the dismissal in court.

Looking back, I see my naivety and a number of mistakes. Naivety was one of the key ones. I was living in an information bubble, in the proverbial ivory tower, doing what I loved. It was a comfortable academic environment where colleagues and students shared values and goals. In nurturing and preserving this environment, we did not notice (let’s be honest, we did not want to notice) how we lost the country, the future, and negated the efforts of years past. I will not discuss collective guilt and responsibility, but as a representative of the academic community with access to information and some knowledge of history and the world order, I am of course responsible for what is happening.

I have been a research assistant at AUCA since February. In addition to my main project at the university, I am working on developing Digital Humanities in Central Asia. I traveled to three countries and met with colleagues from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. On March 15, our first joint event will be a roundtable discussion on «Digital Humanities in Central Asia».

Eugene Koonin, Senior Investigator at the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

1. Science. Changes in science in general are insignificant. Of course, for science in Ukraine the consequences of the war are disastrous right now, and for science in Russia — in the somewhat more distant future. But it must be recognized that the contribution of both countries (yes, and Russia) to the global scientific process is not great, so that overall progress has not slowed down (the pandemic had a much more serious effect, but that is another story). But changes in the atmosphere of the scientific community are noticeable: there is anxiety and new solidarity — I have not noticed ambiguity in any of my colleagues regarding the war and its perpetrators.

On the other hand, there are noticeable disagreements in attitudes toward Russian science. Some believe that Russian scientists in mass are victims who must be helped (of course, except for those who supported the aggression), while others believe that Russian scientists are accomplices to aggression and should be ostracized. I am in no way close to the second position, but it is held by many people, and they have their own arguments.

2. Colleagues. Again, generally speaking, not much has changed. Again solidarity: attempts are being made to help our Ukrainian colleagues, primarily, of course, by taking them to the laboratories. And much more modest attempts to help our Russian colleagues. I just managed to invite two colleagues to my lab who could not and did not want to stay in Russia. Fortunately, they are wonderful, talented researchers.

3. But personally, the war had a noticeable effect on me. For a month normal work practically stopped: all the time writing some appeals, giving interviews, it seemed a long and important job. Well, rightly so, I suppose. Then work returned to normal, but the understanding remained, such, you might say, existential understanding: they say for nothing that there is no such thing as black and white in the world, and there certainly is. And the fact that the country, in which you spent more than half of your life, becomes the embodiment of Evil, completely black, impeccable, is, of course, shocking.

, ,   7.03.2023