Ukrainian researchers navigate times of war

07 Apr 2022 | News

Estimates show around 40% of the country’s 65,000-strong early career research force has been affected by war. Advocates say listening to their needs should be the main focus now.

Lviv, Ukraine - March 6, 2022: Refugees near railway station of Lviv waiting for the train to Poland. Photo: Bumble-Dee

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters its seventh week, life everywhere is up in the air. Researchers are away from their desks and laboratories, with many playing essential support roles in response to the war, while others have been displaced.

In war-torn Ukraine, “researchers are not something specific,” says Oleksandr Berezko, associate professor at the Lviv Polytechnic National University, where he is continuing his work while volunteering to help the army.

Berezko and his colleagues at the Young Scientists Council, an advisory body at the education and science ministry, estimate around 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.

Those that can help the war efforts do so. In Kiyv, Olesia Vaschuk, head of the Young Scientists Council, which represents around 65,000 doctoral students and early career researchers, is these days focusing on evacuating people from unsafe areas, finding them accommodation, raising funds, and providing humanitarian aid.

On Monday, she helped in taking ten young scientists with their families out of Melitopol, a temporarily occupied city in the east, a mission that took two weeks to prepare.

Vaschuk says these days staying fit and healthy is a luxury. “We say it’s a victory that we are alive,” she told Science|Business via Zoom.

In some cases, teaching and research are slowly being revived, with Berezko’s university back to online teaching and research. But these days education is only part of its work. It has become a shelter to around 3,000 displaced persons, including 36 families of academic staff and more than 100 students, and is running several aid initiatives to help the war efforts.

All this while, Russia continues to wage war. “We teach online, and perhaps some work is done, research is being performed, but there are some restrictions because we have many daily air raids. When you have them, you have to go to the shelter,” says Berezko. Kiyv is in a perilous position, he notes, with near constant air attacks from Russian forces.

Support for refugees

Across the border in the EU, universities and research organisations are supporting refugee scientists. This week, the EU set up a €25 million scholarship fund, while a grassroots database, Science for Ukraine, lists over 1,750 grant offers for researchers. The European Commission has also set up its own database listing opportunities for Ukrainian refugee scientists.

Eurodoc, the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers, estimates there are around 40,000 PhD candidates, 60,000 junior researchers and 250,000 bachelor’s and master’s students in Ukraine. Thus far, few have taken up offers abroad. The Young Scientists Council says it typically mediates around 2,500 student applications a day, and only around ten from PhD candidates and junior researchers.

Yevheniia Polishchuk, vice-head of international relations at the Young Scientists Council and an economics researcher at Kyiv National Economic University, has been spending her time talking to donors about how best to help researchers.

Polishchuk is now safe in Krakow, where she can focus on activism. Her fear is that grants, which rained on Ukrainian researchers in the first two weeks of the war, will dry up. Few people are ready to apply, and a big offer at this stage means there might be fewer grants later in the year, when they might be needed more. “We ask our donors to save money for the end of the year. People were frozen and they don’t know what to do,” said Polishchuk. But she notes movement on the Ukrainian side has started.

In the US, Emily Channell-Justice, an anthropologist at the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University, has been studying contemporary Ukraine for the past decade. She says providing funding is the most important thing right now to ensure people can move if they need to and get to relative safety. She notes many are homeless and displaced internally, and says temporary scholarships are needed that people can take up from wherever they are located.

These ‘remote’ grants for Ukrainians that have stayed in the country are still rather rare but interest is high. The EU funded NEP4DISSENT project offered such grants for a while but quickly ran out of money. Yet, the demand is not waning. “Even now, two weeks after the funds ran out, we still receive expressions of interest from Ukrainian scholars,” said Maciej Maryl, spokesman for the grassroots network Science4Ukraine.

Maryl said the grants provide a connection to science to those that don’t want to, or can’t leave Ukraine. “Also, Ukrainian universities are afraid of the brain drain and would prefer support that sustains scholars, but not necessarily means employing them elsewhere,” he said.

They are also often the only option for male researchers, who are not allowed to leave the country.

Navigating bureaucracy

Once those that can flee find a safe place abroad, they should be provided with help navigating bureaucracy in a foreign country, such as visa applications and how to write proposals for grants. “One of my big concerns is that those who will benefit are those that already know how to navigate European institutions,” Channell-Justice said.

Polishchuk is also worried many researchers may not be eligible for grants because they do not know English, even if they are highly skilled in their field.

To avoid disadvantaging those without experience abroad, governments and research institutions should first of all listen. “The focus first of all needs to be on asking Ukrainians what is most helpful to them and responding by listening,” says Channell-Justice.

For researchers in Ukraine who are able to sit down and work on their science, it is hard to concentrate in the face of ever more dire news of Russian atrocities. Berezko is currently working on multiple proposals for Horizon Europe and Erasmus+ grants but says he cannot be fully there for the partners abroad.

For thousands of displaced academics and researchers, working online is not an option. Many fled their homes with nothing but a few items of clothing and documents, sometimes not even that. One phone, the most commonly available device with an internet connection, is often shared between an entire family. And these people are in a relatively good situation, said Vaschuk. At the same time, “online format is not easy for us because many towns don’t have internet,” she said. 

Some universities have been bombed. Others are in Russian-occupied territories. But few are ready to give up and move, despite widespread destructions of university buildings. In Kharkiv, a city that Russian troops attempted to flatten to the ground, out of 34 universities, only one is moving to a different part of the country. A less certain situation is faced by at least two universities occupied by Russian troops, the Melitopol Padagogical University and the Berdyansk State Pedagogical University.


“Now our task as researchers is to survive and build our country in a smart way,” said Polishchuk.

Before the invasion, Ukraine had been working on reforming its research sector and making research careers more attractive, and the reforms are set to continue after the war. Polishchuk hopes the researchers that left will be able to come back to better universities with better governance. But that’s all in the future. “For now, we will only need those who will build. Builder will be the main profession, but I believe that we will save our profession,” she said.

For Europe, the next job after providing immediate support will be to establish and maintain strong research links with Ukraine. “In the long-term, we need to be thinking how to partner with universities in Ukraine,” said Channell-Justice.

Once the war is over, the entire science system will need to get off its knees and cooperation with the European counterparts will serve as the foundation. “Let’s be frank that science without money is not science. Science without intelligent minds is not science as well. Science by one person is also not science,” said Polishchuk.

The EU is supportive. The association agreement giving Ukrainian researchers full access to the EU’s Horizon Europe research programme has not been signed off, but the European Commission is already treating them as full-fledged members. At the same time, the European Parliament is calling on the EU to establish closer scientific cooperation with Ukraine, while cutting ties with Russia.

But for now, despite a short respite in some parts of the country as Russia regroups for a likely attack on the east, the war continues. To make the burden of those living it day to day a little easier, Vaschuk pleads for three things: block any contacts and cooperation with Russia, help refugees in Europe, and provide cars to Ukrainians, especially vans or mini buses.

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