News in depth: Russian researchers disappear from academic conferences as isolation bites

14 Nov 2023 | News

Following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine a fear of working with the West, sanctions, visa restrictions, travel issues and an exodus of academics have forced Russia to retreat from the global scientific conversation

Russian president Vladimir Putin at a quantum technologies conference in Moscow in July 2023. Photo: Олег Барханов / Форум будущих технологий

Since leaving the USSR in 1990, the Moscow-born oncologist Andrei Gudkov has acted as something of a bridge between US and Russian science.

A professor at the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in New York state, he has for three decades carried out joint research projects with Russian cancer centres, organised symposia in Russia, reviewed grant proposals for Russian scientists, and accepted numerous visiting scholars to his lab.

But this all changed on 24 February 2022, when president Vladimir Putin ordered his tanks to roll into Ukraine. Now, some of his former colleagues are unwilling even to speak to him on the phone. Gudkov limits the number of phone calls he makes to Russia, so as not to put his colleagues there at risk. 

“Some people are clearly afraid of accepting calls from the US,” he said. Even emails can be “problematic”, so some resort to using private messaging services like Telegram.

It’s not that his colleagues fear being accused of giving away crucial secrets, says Gudkov – after all, oncology is hardly a militarily critical field.

Instead, this sudden silence is due to the ongoing “witch hunt” in Russian society against those who keep in contact with the West, which is now more than ever portrayed as an “enemy” and an “evil force”, he said.

In this stifling climate of fear and secrecy, assessing the state of Russian science more than 18 months after the invasion of Ukraine is difficult indeed. Russian academics are, understandably, sometimes reluctant to speak to their western colleagues, let alone journalists.

But publication data and anonymous interviews paint a picture of a system in rapid retreat from international science, due to a series of high-profile treason trials, travel restrictions, a severing of official projects with the West, an exodus of top academics, and difficulty getting lab equipment due to sanctions.

Collapse in conference papers

Back in July, Putin appeared at a quantum technologies conference held in Moscow to deny that a scientific “de facto blockade” by other countries, including restrictions on access to technology, had been successful.

“Russia will only go forward […] without isolating itself from any other country,” he told stoney-faced delegates.

But the data tell a different story: the war appears to have had a stark effect on Russian participation in the global scientific conversation. In 2022, the proportion of academic conference papers with a Russia-affiliated author fell by 40%, and has continued to drop this year.

In absolute terms, in 2021 around 35,000 conference papers had at least one Russia-based author, but this dropped to about 20,000 the following year. Just 10,597 have been published in 2023 to date.

This has undone half a decade of rapid growth, and suggests that Russian academics are retreating from the central fora of global scientific collaboration, with big potential knock-on effects for joint papers and collaborations down the line.

“There is a huge drop in Russian participation at international conferences over the last year and a half - almost down to complete zero - and I observe this myself firsthand while participating at such events,” said Andrey Kalinichev, a Russian-born research director at IMT Atlantique, a technology university in France.

“Where I would have usually expected a dozen or two of Russian participants, now I see none or 1 – 2,” he said in an email.

Take, for example, the Journal Of Physics Conference series run by the UK’s Institute of Physics. Since 2000, Russian scientists have published more papers there than anywhere else, underlining the fact that physics is a field in which Russia has traditionally been very strong. But the war appears to have slammed on the brakes. In 2021, Russian authors presented nearly 6,000 papers at the series. In 2022, this plummeted to 1,023. In 2023 so far, just 106 Russian papers have been presented.

Fall in joint papers

Actual published papers are more of a lagging indicator than those at conferences, as they can take a year or more to go through the peer review process. But even here, there were signs of a sharp drop in joint Russian papers with the US, Germany and UK last year (it is not possible yet to analyse data from 2023 in a comparable way).

The trends for 2022 split almost perfectly along geopolitical fault lines: publications with the US, Germany, UK and Japan fell sharply, but continued growing with China and India, which have been respectively supportive and neutral towards Moscow following its invasion.

“The wall of isolation of Russian science from international science is growing,” wrote Dinara Gagarina, a Russian digital historian now based in Germany, in March this year on T-Invariant, a website run by emigree Russian academics that gives a rare uncensored view of Russian science. Along with Gudkov, Kalinichev is part of T-Invariant’s coordination council.

“Yes, personal ties and contacts are preserved,” she said. But “international collaborations are virtually impossible […] academic mobility and event participation have become more difficult on both sides,” she said.

Fear of treason

For Kalinichev, this disengagement has a clear cause. Since the war began, several Russian academics have been tried for sharing secret information and treason, despite in some cases receiving sign-off from security services at the time, he said. The government has become “much more suspicious of any contacts with foreign countries since the war began,” he said.

In June, a closed trial of a 76-year-old physicist involved in Russia’s hypersonic missile programme, Anatoly Maslov, began in St Petersburg, with prosecutors alleging the scientist had passed secrets to China.

Maslov is one of three hypersonic missile scientists arrested on suspicion of treason, a crackdown that has drawn public condemnation from Maslov’s colleagues, who have argued in a public letter that he had merely presented at international conferences and participated in international projects.

This is not an isolated incident. Last year, a quantum scientist died while in Federal Security Service (FSB) detention. Dmitry Kolker, also a hypersonics expert, was also reportedly under suspicion of leaking secrets to China, and had been removed from a cancer clinic where he was undergoing treatment, according to Science.

It’s true that even before the war, scientists were tried sporadically for allegedly divulging secret information, and the details of these particular cases are murky, given that the processes are closed.

But post-invasion, these kinds of convictions appear to have picked up, and are arguably even more frightening to academics in a war climate of extreme repression.

“When the climate in the society is like this, no one is safe,” said Alexandra Borissova Saleh, a Russian science journalist and communicator, who now lives in Italy.

“There was nothing special – all they did was usual work, like going to a conference or presenting a paper.” In another measure that could have damped international conference attendance, shortly after the invasion in 2022, Russia’s Ministry of Education and Science announced that it would not take participation into account when assessing Russian scientists.

Flights and visas

There’s also a more prosaic explanation for Russian disengagement: it’s now much harder for Russian scientists to travel to scientific conferences, at least in Europe and North America.

The war put pay to direct flights between Russia and the US or EU, meaning that researchers have to change in locations like Turkey, United Arab Emirates or Serbia. Russian credit cards no longer work in Europe due to sanctions, noted Borissova Saleh, making travel tricky.

“For conferences, travel costs and visa problems are certainly the main reasons [for a fall in attendance],” said a scientist based in Russia, communicating via Borissova Saleh to preserve their anonymity. “Getting visas is now difficult.”

Having to change in Turkey or the UAE makes flight tickets 2 - 3 times as expensive and this is made worse by the recent decline of the ruble, they said.

What’s more, after the invasion, most European states and the European Commission stopped official, institution-to-institution research projects with Russia, although there is no ban on personal contact. This inevitably means that collaboration with European scientists has “notably declined,” they said.

“I think that the fear of being accused of treason is not an important factor,” they said. “Many Russian scientists still have collaboration with Europe and still publish the results despite the difficulties.”

In 2022 Moscow also blacklisted several high profile academics, such as the Yale historian of the Soviet Union Timothy Snyder, for engaging in what it called an “anti-Russia campaign”.

There are also claims by some Russian academics that they are discriminated against by international conferences and journals. However, any such policies are certainly unofficial. The Journal of Molecular Structure appears to be the only journal that openly banned authors with Russian affiliations; it did not clarify whether the policy is still in effect.  

Gudkov said that some journals in his field refused to even consider manuscripts from Russia-based scientists, although declining to say which they are.

“It's a very controversial policy. I think it's discrimination, which only works in favour of Putin, to demonstrate how antagonistic the outside world is to Russia,” he said.

Mass exodus

Another factor that could explain the drop in conference publications is that many Russian scientists have physically fled the country, although it’s unclear how many have kept their Russian institutional affiliations despite leaving.

There has been a “mass exodus” from Russia “reminiscent of what happened with regard to Nazi Germany,” said Igor Efimov, a professor of biomedical engineering at Northwestern University,  referring to the flight of Jewish scientists before the Second World War. After the invasion, there had been a “collapse to zero” in Russia’s contribution to world science, he lamented on T-Invariant.

Moscow exempted IT professionals from conscription into the army in 2022 but not academic researchers.

Novaya Gazeta Europe, a Russian newspaper-in-exile, in August counted more than 270 Russian academics who had left the country since the war started, with computer science the most affected field.

But this could be a major undercount. “From the discussions of this article in social networks I have an impression that the actual figures may be even up to an order of magnitude higher,” said Kalinichev.

Borissova Saleh estimates that thousands of scientists have left, “if not dozens of thousands”. The majority of her scientist friends have already emigrated, she said.

“It is clear that many professors have left the leading universities, but it is unknown how many and from where,” said Lyubov Borusyak, an education researcher at Moscow City University, who has been following those who left.

Equipment shortages

Scientific equipment shortages present another hurdle to Russian science. Immediately after the war, western sanctions on logistics, software, computing, banking and technology imports caused big problems in Russian labs, as scientists struggled to get their hands on things like reagents and seeds.

More than 18 months on, Russian research institutions are still seriously affected and have not found a way to circumvent the sanctions.

“Our university is under strict sanctions and everything is very difficult,” said one senior research manager at a Russian university, communicating through Kalinichev to protect their anonymity “It is impossible to buy anything for the university.”

“We are in deep [trouble] because of the sanctions,” said another.

Russian medical R&D sites allude to serious problems with supply in medical diagnostics. In September 2022, one reported a major shortage of biochemical reagents in laboratories, as large foreign suppliers left the market.

Pivot to China?

After the war broke out, some of Borissova Saleh’s scientific contacts pivoted to create scientific collaborations with academics in India and China, echoing Kremlin rhetoric that Russia could forge new links with Beijing.

But she and others who spoke to Science|Business are sceptical that a switch to China can make up for the loss of contact with the West, at least in the short or medium term. “It worked in the sense that it's better than nothing, but, it cannot be equal,” she said. “Scientific collaboration is a fragile tissue that is formed over years.”

The data shows that 2022 was a record year for joint China-Russia conference papers, but from a very low base. Joint conference papers with China accounted only for 1.5% of Russia’s total in 2022.

However, as the graph above shows, joint publications with China continued to grow steadily in 2022 and on current trends will overtake those with the US or Germany this year.

In a sign of just how reliant – and some might say subservient - Moscow has become on Beijing, earlier this year the Russian Academy of Sciences opened a “Xi Jinping Thought Research Laboratory” to study the ideology of China’s leader – the first such research centre outside China.

The question for Europe

If Russian science is increasingly isolated from global colleagues, particularly in the West, this poses a major question for the European academy: is this what we want?

On the one hand, Russian isolation shows European scientific sanctions are working, at least from the point of view of the European Commission.

When the EU announced sanctions after the Ukraine invasion, Commission president Ursula von der Leyen was explicit that part of the goal was “eroding sharply Russia’s economic base, slashing any prospect to modernise it”. Cutting Russia off from global science will help achieve this.  

This is not the only motive for isolating Russia’s scientists, of course. The Commission, when cutting research and innovation ties, has also made the case that EU research collaboration has to be built on principles of scientific freedom and cultural autonomy, which Russia has self-evidently shattered through its invasion.

Ukrainian scientists have also called for a boycott of all Russian academia, arguing it is intrinsically linked to state power. They have urged academics to stop any joint publications with Russia-affiliated scientists, and even to leave the room during their conference talks.

But even pro-Ukrainian Russia academics are dubious about this, saying further isolation of the sector will do nothing to help bring about change in the country. Some European academics have argued excluding Russian scientists from programmes like Horizon Europe violates scientific freedom under international human rights law. And without Russian help, certain crucial scientific questions, like the impact of climate change on the Siberian permafrost, will be much harder for the global research community to explore. 

“Scientific sanctions do not diminish the capabilities of the Russian military or economy, because academic science in Russia is mostly too sophisticated for practical applications,” said Borissova Saleh’s academic contact. “In my opinion, the restrictions against Russian science do not help to bring peace and [are] plainly harmful for the global scientific community.”

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