War in Ukraine prompts shifts in thinking about international cooperation in science

02 Mar 2023 | News

One year on, and as Russia continues waging war on Ukraine, the research community is holding its breath to see how geopolitical fractures will impact global science cooperation

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (left) with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (centre) and President of the European Council Charles Michel. The EU quickly moved to support Ukraine after Russia’s wholescale invasion in February 2022, but the future of Ukraine’s research community remains uncertain. Photo: Dati Bendo / European Union

A year ago, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine redefined geopolitics in a shockwave that is still reverberating through the science world. The EU research community was quick to cut ties with Russia and lend Ukraine a helping hand – but now it is grappling with resulting instability and uncertainty as the war climbs into its second year.

Lucian Brujan, programme director for international relations and science diplomacy at the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, says it’s too early to say what the long-term impact will be on research and innovation - and urges patience.

“I think many in the community are waiting to see how the political problems will be solved and how this war will end; and after that, we’ll need to have a discussion,” Brujan says. “We have to be honest with ourselves in the scientific community. We are dealing with political and security uncertainty.”

But what is clear already is the shift in discourse on international cooperation. While it’s hard to judge the effect in hard terms, conversation has shifted away from blanket arguments in favour of openness, towards a more careful attitude, observes Thomas Jørgensen, director for policy coordination and foresight at the European University Association.

“Before the war in Ukraine, even if we found that we have hardened transatlantic blocks, we would still argue for openness and do under the radar science diplomacy,” says Jörgensen. “We will see later if we’ve seen less co-authorships with countries that are not like-minded, but it has certainly changed the way we talk about these things. The Ukraine war gives good arguments for those that are more diligent and technology sovereignty oriented.”

Some frame the shift as a loss of innocence. Russia’s invasion was an attack on EU’s fundamental values, and it shocked many. Before the war, the EU’s stance on science cooperation rested on the ‘as open as possible and as closed as necessary’ principle, and while this remains the rule, one former diplomat says, “We can see a certain shift towards the second part of this principle.”

Eyes on China

As global tensions intensify, eyes turn to China, which in recent weeks has been deliberating sending weapons to Russia.

That the EU has a complex relationship with China isn’t new, but the tense geopolitical situation and China’s equivocation on the war in Ukraine, has added has a new dimension to it, says Lidia Borrell-Damian, secretary general of Science Europe.

The complexity isn’t just about big politics but “comes from different legislative approaches in the EU and China regarding open access, open science, treatment of data, the outcomes of research. The difficulties of research collaboration with China have been there for years now,” adds Borrell-Damian.

The EU cut off all research ties with Russia as the war broke out, and now the big question is whether it was a one-off extreme measure, or a realisation about the complexity of the world we live in that will lead to reappraisal of research ties with others, including China.

Jörgensen believes it was the latter, and the tone is changing. “In Brussels, there are those that have started talking about a more transactional approach: arguing we should only work with China if there is a clear benefit,” says Jörgensen.

It's not about cutting ties but being smart about cooperation. The geopolitical shift comes at a time when Europe needs to strengthen its global standing, including in research and innovation. It cannot go at it alone, but the recipe for ‘smart’ cooperation is yet to be concocted. “We have this global competition of systems, and in this changed world science needs to position itself in a new way to a certain extent,” one diplomat says. “The overall goal should be smart cooperation, not less cooperation.”

Right now, there is a waiting game to see which direction China will move in, whether it will help Russia’s war effort or not. In the meanwhile, governments are thinking strategy. Germany is to set out a new China strategy by summer, which will reference aims to become more strategically independent and diversify supply chains.

Solidarity with Ukraine

While tensions rise in the east, Europe’s research community has been stepping up its support for Ukraine, which has seen many of its universities and research institutions destroyed, and researchers and academics displaced.

In Europe, universities and research organisations welcomed refugee scientists, mobilised grant support, set up collaborative initiatives and helped fast-track Ukraine’s engagement in EU research frameworks. “I think that the European research community has been exemplary in supporting research in Ukraine,” says Borrell-Damian. “If we look at all these actions from a science diplomacy angle, it’s a good outcome. We can’t stop the war, but if we look at what we have done from a science diplomacy angle, we have indeed taken a stance.”

Jörgensen notes the knowhow is there from previous crises, as he praises the unprecedented response. “It builds on the solidarity of the many experiences of universities when we had an influx of refugees in 2015, in particular from Syria. There’s a knowhow and it’s been put to good use to help Ukrainian scientists,” he tells Science|Business.

But the big danger now is brain drain, and Ukrainians are acutely aware of it. To deal with this, Brujan says it’s important to keep research and education at the top of priorities when the country is rebuilding, and to keep those that fled Ukraine engaged. But these are future worries: up to now, the EU’s support has largely focused on immediate relief for the country’s scientists, and long term planning remains nearly impossible in war time. “In a war situation, it’s not about big research but surviving day to day,” Brujan says.

Once the war is over, he adds, it will be important to involve Ukrainians in the discussions on the support they receive and their involvement in the European Research Area.

The Ukrainian research community is ready to put in the work. “They rise up to the challenge,” says Borrell-Damian.

Researchers confused

For researchers on the ground, the shift in geopolitics raises practical questions. In France, researchers are inquiring how it will affect their work and host institutions are raising awareness about the terms on which scientific collaboration can and cannot continue.

For laboratories that deal with sensitive issues, there’s a dedicated framework. “They ask us to provide guidelines – they know that there are issues and risks that come with their work, in particular in specific scientific domains,” a source in the French government says.

At the same time, foreign interference has become a focal point of discussions around cooperation. “It was there before, but in this new geopolitical context it’s an even more pressing issue. We have to talk about it when we talk about cooperation,” they add.

Overall, Brujan notes, “The war has shown one clear trend: scientific organisations and even scientists are way more careful than they have been before. Various aspects are being reconsidered, from security to fundamentals to practicalities. The scientific community will see how this prudence is going to affect cooperation globally.

This is a normal reaction to navigating an unstable environment, he adds. We need to see how this prudence is going to affect scientific cooperation. It doesn’t mean we have to give up our way of doing: my message is to have patience and observe sharply what’s going on.”

The important thing now is to keep discussions going, at all levels. Talks under the European Research Area (ERA) framework have been fruitful, but “what we don’t know, and where there can be a mismatch, is between high-level diplomatic geopolitics discussions and research policy discussions,” said Jörgensen.

For this discussion to happen, scientists and policymakers will need to learn to speak each other’s languages, and take a more practical approach, Brujan notes.

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