On 24 February, as Russian troops poured across the border in an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Sergei Mosyakin, director of the Institute of Botany in Kyiv, set out with a few key staff to secure the institute and its National Herbarium, which holds more than 2 million specimens representing the wealth of Ukraine’s floral and fungal diversity. Several kilometers to the south, Fedor Danevich and six colleagues at the Institute for Nuclear Research had joined an online workshop for a multinational physics project in South Korea. The Zoom call included Russian physicists. “One said that he is sorry for the war,” Danevich recalls. The other Russians kept silent.
In the weeks leading up to the invasion, many Ukrainian scientists had dismissed Russia’s military buildup on their border as bluster. Now, their lives have been turned upside down as they make fateful decisions about whether to dig in or flee to other European nations that have stepped up to offer accommodations and job prospects.
As Russian forces bombarded and sought to encircle Kyiv, Mosyakin and some fellow botanists hunkered down at home, whereas others took refuge with relatives in the countryside. Danevich says he and his wife intended to stay in Kyiv, but their son persuaded them to seek shelter in Budapest, Hungary. As Science went to press, the family had made it as far as Romania.
Condemnation of the invasion has rained down on Russia from many quarters, and a rising chorus is calling on the West to sever ties with Russian scientists. “I’m sitting now with my 86-year-old mother, who is a prominent biochemist, listening to the sounds of battle some 20 kilometers to the west, and waiting for the next bombardment,” says Maksym Strikha, a physicist and former top official in Ukraine’s science ministry. “Could you imagine asking a Polish physicist, surrounded and bombed in Warsaw in September 1939, whether it would be fair to maintain scientific diplomacy with scientists in Nazi Germany?”
The repercussions in international science are already being felt. The European Space Agency (ESA) announced on 28 February that international sanctions against Russia and “the wider context” are likely to delay by at least 2 years the launch of a Mars rover, part of the ExoMars astrobiology mission jointly sponsored by Russia and ESA. And the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is pulling out of a key collaboration with a Russian university, the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech), which MIT had helped found.
Last week, as Russian troops crossed the border, Ukrainian scientists pleaded for more drastic steps. In an open letter posted on 27 February, the Council of Young Scientists at the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine called on the European Commission to “urgently suspend all kinds of international collaboration with Russian institutions,” including ending Russia’s participation in Horizon Europe, the flagship research fund. They also urged that Russia be expelled from two premier international R&D ventures—the experimental ITER fusion reactor in France and the CERN nuclear research center in Switzerland.
For now, Russia remains part of Horizon Europe and other European funding schemes. And the nine-nation collaboration Danevich is involved in to examine the nature of the neutrino—the Advanced Mo-based Rare process Experiment (AMoRE) at South Korea’s Yangyang Underground Laboratory—is proceeding. In an email to collaborators, AMoRE’s spokespeople described its leaders’ “determination to carry out our program during this difficult period.”
But the collateral damage to Russia’s scientific enterprise is mounting. In addition to the effects on ExoMars and Skoltech, the United States imposed fresh sanctions on technology transfers to Russia, which the Russian space agency claimed could threaten operation of the International Space Station. After Germany’s research ministry ordered a suspension of collaboration with Russia, the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics turned off the main instrument on Russia’s Spektr-RG research satellite: the German-run eRosita x-ray survey telescope, meant to probe the universe’s large-scale structure. And math societies in several countries announced last week they will not participate in the International Congress of Mathematicians, which was slated for St. Petersburg, Russia, in July but now plans to go virtual.
Within Russia itself, some scientists sought to show solidarity with Ukraine. More than 4750 Russian scientists and science journalists signed a letter calling the war “a step to nowhere” that will turn Russia into a pariah.
The invasion, the 24 February letter says, “means that we scientists will no longer be able to do our job normally: after all, conducting scientific research is unthinkable without cooperation with colleagues from other countries.” Posted to the independent science news site TrV-Nauka, the letter is in part an appeal to the international community “that any actions to punish Russia are weighted in such a way as to not punish the very people who object to what Russia is doing,” says Mikhail Gelfand, a bioinformatics specialist at Skoltech who helps edit TrV-Nauka. (He notes that he is not speaking on behalf of his employer, Skoltech.)
Russian scientists may face peril for speaking out on Ukraine’s behalf. The office of Russia’s Prosecutor General has declared that anyone caught providing assistance to a nation or organization acting against the Russian Federation could be charged with treason. Authorities have arrested hundreds of street protesters, including Skoltech professor Georgii Bazykin, a prominent evolutionary geneticist who was detained on 27 February after holding up a handwritten sign in downtown Moscow saying, “Stop the War Today.” He was later released pending trial. Bazykin later tweeted that his plight is a “minor inconvenience compared to what people of Ukraine face now, or what the world including Russia will face if [President Vladimir] Putin has his way.”
In Europe, a number of institutions have offered refuge to Ukrainian scientists, some of whom have joined an exodus of more than 500,000 people from the besieged country. The Polish Young Academy, part of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN), has lined up scores of institutes and universities willing to host refugee scientists. “We want to find them jobs in their expertise,” says Jacek Kolanowski of PAN’s Institute of Bioorganic chemistry. So far, they’ve secured positions for a psychologist in Warsaw, a cancer researcher in Lublin, and a law professor in Poznań. In Germany, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s Philipp Schwartz-Initiative, which helps find succor for scholars at risk, has invited Ukrainian scientists to apply for funding with German partners. “Our lab in Berlin will support researchers who had to flee Ukraine,” tweeted Matthias Rillig, an ecologist at the Free University of Berlin.
Many Ukrainian scientists have vowed to stay and defend their homeland. “Virtually the entire population has taken up arms,” says Oleg Krishtal, a neurophysiologist with the Bogomoletz Institute of Physiology, who is sticking it out in Kyiv. Mosyakin says that although he is a mixture of at least four nationalities, “I am a Ukrainian, period.” And most Ukrainians he knows “are not afraid to die for their native land.”