Europe divided on whether to isolate Russia scientifically

01 Mar 2022 | News

Germany has said it will cut all links. Now the UK, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands are mulling whether to follow suit. But Belgian rectors have called for ties to remain

Thomas Sattelberger, Germany’s parliamentary state secretary for research. Photo: Steffen Prößdorf

Governments, universities and individual academics across Europe over are being forced to choose whether to cut research ties with Russia after Moscow shocked the scientific community with its assault on Ukraine.

Germany, Russia’s second biggest research collaborator after the US, has said it will halt all scientific cooperation, while the UK is reviewing its links.

But most governments and research organisations appeared to be caught in a dilemma that they are still working through.

Proponents of isolating Russia say that the invasion is such an affront that even science diplomacy cannot be right at this time. Ukraine has called on Europe to isolate Russia through all means necessary.

Last week, Germany’s parliamentary state secretary for research, Thomas Sattelberger, tweeted that “there can be no science diplomacy in the face of brutal, international law-breaking aggression.”

The war has shocked some into changing their position. “Usually I would argue that universities are the place where peace, rationality, democracy and resistance against autocrats could grow, and this is definitely also the case in Russia, so we should keep up ties,” said Frank Ziegele, executive director of Germany’s Centre for Higher Education.

“But in the current situation, I have the feeling that for the moment there has to be a cut in all areas of life, including academia,” he said.

“Scientific cooperation is in large part a branch of diplomacy, and diplomacy has failed, so it is entirely reasonable to pull back from scientific cooperation at this time,” said David Clements, an astrophysicist at Imperial College London, one of many academics who has debated scientific sanctions this past week on Twitter and elsewhere.

The academic community lived through this dilemma before during the campaign to boycott apartheid South Africa, he said. “I stood on the fence about this until a Black South African told me that since they were hurting anyway, any action that could end apartheid was needed, boycotts included,” Clements said.

Preserve the backchannels

Yet opponents of isolating Russia argue cutting ties will punish anti-war Russian academics and harm diplomatic backchannels.

On 27 February the Belgian Rectors’ Conference put out a statement calling on governments to “Make sure that academic cooperation can continue as much as possible, as it allows the free flow of thoughts even during the darkest hours of armed conflict.”

Ghent University has defended its Russia Platform, which organises exchanges and research collaborations and describes Russia on its website as “an important and valuable partner.”

Rector Rik Van de Walle told students and staff last week that the platform’s operation was “not up for discussion”, although Ghent has stopped its student exchange and is letting its students return from Russia.

“Breaking all ties can play into the hands of extremists who gain support by claiming that the nation needs to unite against hostile foreign powers,” said Martin Dominik, an astrophysicist at St Andrews University in Scotland. “Helping them to portray us as hostile is counterproductive to our case. Notably, most oppressive powers tend to isolate themselves.”

Meanwhile, the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and the EU itself are all still working out whether to fully follow Germany’s lead and isolate Russia academically.

A spokesman for the UK’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy said that the country was “rapidly reviewing research collaboration with Russian beneficiaries of UK science and innovation funding.” Any changes as a result will be announced in “due course”, they said.

Some individual UK universities have made similar announcements. Warwick University said it would review all relations with “Russian State institutions, with a view to terminating relations and contracts where possible”, including student exchanges.

But the country’s biggest research universities, Oxford and Cambridge, did not respond when pressed on whether they would cut research ties.

The Danish Rector’s Conference will meet in the coming days to decide next steps, said a spokesman for Universities Denmark, an umbrella body. “We have noticed the German initiative,” he said. “It is clear that the action of Russia will impact cooperation in science and education with Russia going forward.”

Meanwhile, Dutch and Swedish universities are still working out their own response.

“Sweden is aware of the response from Germany and is monitoring the situation closely. We are currently assessing appropriate ways forward and the minister for education has an ongoing dialogue with higher education and research organisations,” a spokeswoman for the Swedish government said.

In Brussels, Commission policymakers have still not decided whether to heed the demand of German MEP Christian Ehler last week to sever all research ties.

“The Commission is currently taking steps to recalibrate its working relations with Russia and in this sense nothing is off the table,” a spokesman said.

Whether to change research relations with Russia is down to individual universities, said Martina Weiss, general secretary of the umbrella body swissuniversities.

Antonio Loprieno, president of the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities, said the potential expulsion of the Russian Academy of Sciences – currently an associate member – was “definitely on our radar” and would be discussed at the federation’s next board meeting.

In the debate over whether to isolate Russia, academics have reached for historical parallels: the boycott of apartheid South Africa, or the Cold War, when scientific exchange continued throughout.

There was even scientific exchange with Nazi Germany in the 1930s, noted Kieron Flanagan, professor of Science and Technology Policy at Manchester University, with German scientists continuing to publish in international journals. “At that time there were also voices saying we should keep science out of it,” he said.

But when the Second World War broke out, that cooperation became much more difficult, not least due to laws against collaborating with the enemy.

Since then, science has become much more international, and state funded, meaning geopolitics intervenes to a much greater extent, said Flanagan. There were no equivalents to international infrastructures like CERN, except in the field of astronomy. “Science was not the same activity,” he said.

“There’s this idealistic notion of science diplomacy, and I think that’s already taken a battering over the past few years because of China,” Flanagan said, referring to the technological and scientific competition that has soured academic relations between China and the US and Europe.

The problem is that when scientists lobby for funding, they do in “nationalistic” terms of pay up or we will be overtaken scientifically by a rival. This made it hard to then argue for an “idealistic,” borderless idea of science when a geopolitical crisis struck, he argued.

As for today’s debates about whether to isolate Russia academically, “you make all these choices in the short term,” he said. “But when do you stop doing this? What’s the exit strategy for scientific isolation?”

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