Viewpoint: Time for a long-term strategy on Russian science relations and academic collaborations

10 Mar 2022 | Viewpoint

‘Every war is a health crisis,’ says Karolinska Institutet’s Ole Petter Ottersen. Medical and other faculties must plan for the long haul – condemning Russia´s military aggression without sacrificing academic freedom

Ole Petter Ottersen, Karolinska president. Photo:, Gustav Mårtensson

For about 20 years, Swedish medical university Karolinska Institutet has maintained a partnership with one of Russia’s main cardiology clinics, the Almazov National Medical Research Centre in St. Petersburg. This institutional tie was abruptly suspended on 2 March, as part of Sweden’s sanctions for the war in Ukraine.

“The very day the [Swedish] minister came out with her directive, of course, I had to write a letter to my colleague there saying that we have to discontinue the institutional collaboration,” says Ole Petter Ottersen, Karolinska president. It was almost “instinctive,” or “something that we had to do.” But that’s only for formal institution-to-institution collaborations. Personal relations and individual research collaborations between western and Russian colleagues are an entirely different matter; they should be allowed to  continue, provided they do not pose any security threat or strengthen the Russian military and its capacity.

It remains a dilemma, he says: How on one hand to stand firm on the Russian aggression while on the other hand try to minimise the indirect effects of longer-term scientific isolation? With Russian media no longer free and trade contacts curtailed, he says, “The only opening for communicating truth to Russia will be through academic channels. Academic networks serve a very special role when diplomatic channels break down.”

Now, he says, comes an even harder question – especially for universities: What is the west’s longer-term strategy for Russia? If the west stops scientific cooperation entirely, rather than “suspending” it as today, how will that affect the world’s ability to manage the current pandemic, or prepare for a new one? How will we deal with the health crisis that war brings?  “That’s the task of a university: we should have a long-term perspective. We should really reflect upon  the long-term consequences of these sanctions,” Ottersen said.

The long view

That call, for a longer perspective on scientific relations with Russia, is something many university faculties around the world are debating right now. In the two weeks since the war began, hundreds of western universities and academic associations, from Berlin to Boston, have suspended formal university partnerships with Russia – often at the request of their governments. And like Karolinska Institutet, Europe’s pre-eminent medical school and home to the Nobel Assembly that chooses the Nobel prize laureates in physiology or medicine, most universities are continuing personal researcher-to-researcher connections as a way of keeping communication channels open and supporting Russian colleagues opposed to the war.

From the beginning of the war, Ottersen has been very public in his call for caution. In the rush to punish Russia, he argues, do not break the world’s successful academic and scientific system, which relies on open exchange of data and ideas. Just before the Russian invasion, 24 February, his online blog warned that, “The academy must not be used as a means of power in war and conflict.” His position as KI president also comes with a Swedish state position, so he had little choice but to implement the government policy and suspend the Almazov relationship (which still shows KI as a partner).

Ottersen says he is, “between a rock and a hard place”, required to carry out government policy while preserving university prerogatives. But, he says, such was the shock of the war that he would have done the same thing even if he had been a private university president, without a public obligation.

But again, there’s now the longer game for which interpersonal relations with Russia are critical. Those relations proved their worth in the Cold War, when Russian physicists were among the most prominent Soviet dissidents. At a time of censorship, trade disruption and war, “academic networks serve as a sort of stabilising element in the turbulent flow” of events, Ottersen says.

Another reason: the world saw how important it was in the early days of COVID-19 for Chinese researchers to share SARS-CoV-2 genome sequences and other resources with the west – accelerating the development of vaccines. Though the Russians weren’t as good at sharing their own COVID-19 research, the next crisis will require more, not less, collaboration. “To be prepared for the next pandemic, we need to build even stronger connections between different countries to allow the flow of information regarding new viruses.”

Also, there’s a broader, philosophical reason for maintaining contact in that scientific sanctions would conflict with the very purpose of a university. Academia is about education and knowledge Ottersen says. For those, freedom is essential. And then there’s the practical consideration that trying to ban personal contacts – with anyone – on a typical university campus is both fruitless and contentious. It would risk creating divisions and polarisation within the west, he fears.

“Academic freedom is also the freedom to collaborate with anyone around the world” - with the exceptions mentioned above,” Ottersen said. “We are in the midst of a situation where the need to maintain academic freedom is challenged by the wish of the politicians to use academia as a focus for science sanctions. This is a delicate balance that we have to discuss carefully.”

The coming health crisis

Medical universities, while not privileged over other institutions, have important skills and expertise that should be brought to the policy table. “If this really develops into the health crisis that we see on the horizon [for Ukrainian civilians and refugees], then there is an added value for medical universities,” says Ottersen. “There is a need for competence, for education that is coupled to the emergency.”

And the university has begun acting. As it happens, just last year it opened a new centre for health crisis – originally with a pandemic focus, but now broadened to include Ukraine and other health emergencies. Another of KI’s international partners is Bogomolets National Medical University in Kyiv, and KI staff and students have been discussing with them how to shore up the country’s disrupted healthcare system. On top of this is refugee crisis. “As we speak, we are trying to connect with our partners in Hungary to see if we could assist, because they will have to take quite a lot of responsibility for refugees,” said Ottersen.

“Every war is, in essence, a health crisis,” he says. “We know that. And the more we use these terrible weapons the more it is a health crisis. So I would say that a medical university like ours is more or less fully preoccupied with the crisis at hand.”

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