The war in Ukraine: science community is divided over the justification for science sanctions against Russia

08 Sep 2022 | News

For some, bridges to Russia’s scientists should remain open to encourage dissent and maintain ties. But those closest to the frontline in Ukraine say this is naïve

Olga Polotska, Executive Director of Ukraine’s National Research Foundation (NRFU)

Six months into the war in Ukraine, researchers around the world are continuing discussions on science sanctions. Following the invasion, Russia is cut out of much scientific collaboration with the west, but some say it would be better to maintain links with scientists in the country and encourage dissent, while others believe all ties must be cut.

Meanwhile, the jury is still out on whether the impact of science sanctions on Russia are worth the collateral damage elsewhere.

Those for and against sanctions exchanged views during a panel discussion debating the pros and cons at a Science|Business conference on Wednesday. While all speakers acknowledged Russia’s aggressor role in the war, not everyone was convinced the country’s scientists should suffer for their state’s actions.

Mathieu Denis, acting chief executive officer and science director at the International Science Council, believes generating and sharing knowledge is a global responsibility, especially in a world plagued by one crisis after another, and which science plays a key role in confronting.

“There is evidence that the sanctions are weakening and deeply affecting Russia’s scientific system. Yet, we live in a world where we need to address global problems,” said Denis. When it comes to sanctioning Russia and cutting off ties, “There’s a cost to pay.”

On the other side of the debate, Olga Polotska, executive director at the National Research Foundation of Ukraine, called for more sanctions on Russia, noting Ukrainian scientists started cutting off ties with Russian counterparts after the invasion of Crimea in 2014.

Japan has denounced the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but Yuko Harayama, co-chair of the Japanese Association for the Advancement of Science, believes science must remain open and support dissident academics living under murderous regimes. “My view is that we have to protect and defend science anywhere, without distinction and borders,” she told delegates.

South Africa, meanwhile, is not imposing science sanctions on Russia. Daan du Toit, deputy director general for international cooperation and resources in South Africa’s Department of Science and Innovation, stressed the importance of scientific collaboration in addressing global challenges.

Sanctions will hurt developing countries as well as Europe, he noted. “[They] will affect everyone’s ability to respond to climate change and address the huge poverty and inequalities that exist,” said du Toit. “We really would like to call for free values, for free principles.”

The Ukrainian view

As is the case with economic sanctions, science sanctions are not only causing damage in Russia, but also reverberating around the wider scientific community. As ties with Russia are cut, Arctic research in particular may suffer, which could have wider repercussions on the fight against climate change.

But Polotska believes science is political. Research relies on the individuals conducting it, and in Russia, the scientists are part of the problem, she said. On 2 March, just days after the full-scale war started, the National Research Foundation sent off 40,000 emails to Russian researchers with an appeal to condemn the invasion and not be silent. Only 12% of the responses the foundation received were supportive or even neutral. The rest showed clear support for their country’s aggression.

Support for the state in the Russian science world is systemic, Polotska believes. That is a result of inheriting much of its administrative culture from the Soviet Union, where only those close to the ruling party could take up important positions. It remains the case that most top scientists in Russia are chummy with the regime. “Nobody can get all these privileges unless they have very good connections with the administration,” says Polotska.

With the trust gone, for Polotska, the fate of Russian scientists is not high up on the agenda when Ukrainian counterparts continue suffering from the war. In Ukraine, few have the privilege to continue doing science. The National Research Foundation’s €25 million grant fund was redirected to the armed forces of Ukraine until the war is over.

 As many as 131 universities and colleges have been damaged, including 22 completely that are completely destroyed. Over 50 research institutions have been damaged or destroyed. The situation in occupied parts of the country may be even worse, and there is evidence of looting and research equipment being stolen and moved to Russia.  “I don’t even know what would get me interested in that,” Polotska says, when asked about the situation in Russia.

Do sanctions work?

When the invasion began in February, most EU member states were quick to sanction Russian science organisations. The country was cut off from the EU’s Horizon Europe research programme and many joint projects were suspended. But there’s been no assessment of the impact of the sanctions over the last six months.

Harayama said an analysis of the impact on Russia and the rest of the world is needed in order to come up with effective ways to use science sanctions in the future. “We can’t evaluate today. There are too many unknowns,” she said. “We need an assessment by the science community, not just picking up some aspect, but having a comprehensive view of what is happening to have a better impact of sanctions. It’ll take time, but we have to proceed this way, not just react with sanctions.”

A report by the International Science Council and a discussion paper by Science|Business, both highlighted during this week’s conference, also singled out monitoring of the impact of the science sanctions on Russia as well as consulting the scientific community on a joint framework for responding to conflicts and crises as key next steps.

Another question to be dealt with is how to treat individual researchers in sanctioned countries. Some may support the regime, but others may oppose it and want to flee. To do so, they may need support from abroad. While support for Ukraine comes first, Denis singled out three priorities when dealing with Russia: support for scientists fleeing the regime; finding a way to enable Russian researchers to participate in the global science scene; and assessing the local and global effects of science sanctions.

Luc Soete, emeritus professor and former rector of Maastricht University, suggested a strategic move would be to frame policies to attract Russian scientists and sanction the country’s scientific system by stealing its best brains. For Soete, it’s a question of individual responsibility. In the global science market every scientist has to satisfy the same excellence and scientific integrity criteria, whether they are from China, Russia, or Europe.

But he acknowledged more should have done sooner. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine started in 2014, not February 2022, yet the discussions about collaboration with Russia did not start until this year. “This is one of the areas where we could have used much more science diplomacy at the time,” said Soete.

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