How the war in Ukraine reshaped the world of science in 2022

22 Dec 2022 | News

Sadly and inevitably, scientific values have been eroded by conflict and sanctions. Science|Business looks back at stories we published in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine to track the impact and consequences for science and technology

In February, Russia invaded Ukraine, upending everything we thought we knew about geopolitics and energy supply - and pushing science into the direct line of fire. On the ever-growing list of sanctions against Russia, governments in Europe and North America introduced blanket bans on joint research and education projects with Russian institutions, and sought to halt exports of critical technologies.

International cooperation became the hottest topic in science as academics began debating whether science sanctions limit academic freedom, or whether allies should still use scientific cooperation as an open communication channel to Russia.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, research institutions and universities started to suffer from the indiscriminate Russian bombardments. Research leaders saw the country’s most basic research and higher education infrastructure being destroyed and called on Europe and the US for help. Over the past ten months, a flurry of programmes dedicated to helping refugee academics have been announced, but the hard work on rebuilding and reforming Ukraine’s research system still lies ahead.

In Brussels and across EU capitals, policymakers have been working on ensuring Europe’s short-term supply of energy after imports from Russia decreased. In parallel, policies and investments aimed at developing novel energy and defence technologies have gained a new sense of urgency.

We at Science|Business have been following these issues and, before we start a new year, have compiled a list of our most impactful stories on the war in Ukraine and the consequences it has had on science and technology.

1. Germany was the first EU country to announce science sanctions in February  

The German government instructed universities to freeze academic relations with Russia on 24 February. A day later, Germany had announced it would stop its long-standing cooperation with Russia in science, research, and vocational education and training, while politicians in Brussels were still mulling over the issue.

2. The view from Kyiv

In the wake of the Russian invasion, Ukrainian universities suspended activities on their campuses, and students and staff were advised to stay at home.

Science in Ukraine had also come to a halt, as the military invasion crippled the country’s newly established research agency and forced its leader to a bomb shelter in Kyiv. During the day, Olga Polotska, the executive director of the National Research Foundation of Ukraine (NRFU), was helping deliver food and supplies across Kyiv. At night she was going back to an underground shelter from where she was trying to keep herself and her agency alive.

3. US, EU and allies rachet up moves to isolate Russia technologically

The US, EU and Japan announced technology sanctions, in an attempt to grind down Russia’s economy capacity and stop it acquiring advanced weaponry. Then the EU suspended research payments to Russian partners.

Leading US university the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ended its 11-year partnership with Russia’s tech hub, Skolkovo. The war has also disrupted east-west cooperation in space.

4. First divisions become apparent

Governments, universities and individual academics across Europe were forced to choose whether to cut research ties with Russia. Despite Germany’s prompt decisions, most governments and research organisations appeared to be caught in a dilemma that they were still working through a week after the war had started.

Karolinska Institutet’s Ole Petter Ottersen said medical and other faculties must plan for the long haul – condemning Russia´s military aggression without sacrificing academic freedom.

Ghent University rector Rik Van de Walle said a pro-Kremlin statement by Russian rectors changes the game, but individual east-west contacts and academic freedom must continue.

James Moran, associate senior research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies argued the science world should keep talking to Russia.

5. Ukrainian scientists needed bullets, not grants

Back in March, Ukrainian scientists said they needed weapons not grants, as Russian invaders continued bombarding cities, civilian shelters and infrastructure across the country.

6. New research aid package

Plans by EU research and innovation commissioner Mariya Gabriel for a €25 million direct research aid package emerged in April. The Commission said the money was going to be allocated through Marie Skłodowska-Curie grants, to be managed by a consortium of ten research organisations, universities and non-governmental organisations, to help researchers from Ukraine.

7. New round of sanctions

In April, the Commission announced the termination of grant agreements with Russian public organisations. The decision was made a few weeks after several science organisations, including the European Space Agency and Europe’s top funding agencies, announced additional sanctions against Russia.

8. Science goes to war

The war in Ukraine moved directly into the lab after western governments announced a series of new measures to coordinate their military research, including on quantum technologies and hypersonic missiles. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, estimates by the Young Scientists Council showed 40% of the country’s science workforce has been affected by the war. Some have been killed. Others are missing. The vast majority are displaced, either internally or as refugees.

9. The “naïve” era of science diplomacy is over

While stressing research across borders remains crucial, European universities acknowledged that cooperation is not always an unalloyed good that transcends geopolitics.

In the same vein, G7 science ministers urged democracies to unite research efforts, emphasising that freedom and democracy are the basis for scientific exchange.

However, the international science community remains divided over the justification for science sanctions against Russia.

10. Rebuilding Ukraine’s education, research and innovation sectors

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky urged universities in the US to provide the expertise in defence, cybersecurity, aeronautics and healthcare that is needed to rebuild his country’s war-torn economy and infrastructure, in an address to representatives of the Association of American Universities (AAU).

Ukrainians also urged decision makers to turn their eyes to the situation in the country and start thinking about long-term support for the education, research and innovation sectors.

Ukraine needs new doctoral schools or risks losing a generation of scholars, according to Oleksiy Kolezhuk, chair of the country’s Scientific Committee of the National Council of Ukraine on Science and Technology Development.

Ukraine-born Maryna Viazovska became only the second woman in its 86-year history to be awarded the Fields Medal, often described as the Nobel Prize of mathematics. In an interview with Science|Business, she shared her views on how to keep Ukrainian science going as Russia continues to wage war on her native country.

Targeted financial help would get cash strapped institutions in the west of the country - away from the seat of war - back up to speed and have a more immediate impact on the research system as a whole, according to two experts from MIT who visited Ukraine this summer.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up