Western nations cut ties with Russian science, even as some projects try to remain neutral | Science

In 2011, Russia signed a deal that would pay the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) $300 million to help found the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech), an English-language research university on the outskirts of Moscow. Dozens of researchers from around the world leaped at the chance for a foreign assignment, which they thought would help mend lingering rifts from the Soviet era, while boosting innovation in a place aspiring to be Russia’s Silicon Valley. “It was a very exciting time,” says Ed Seidel, a computer scientist and current president of the University of Wyoming, who was tasked with building up Skoltech’s research capacity.

Citing “the Russian government’s violent invasion of a peaceful neighbor,” MIT on 25 February dissolved its partnership with Skoltech, 1 day after President Vladimir Putin began a bloody war with Ukraine. The decision had a personal echo for MIT President L. Rafael Reif, who in a statement says his parents fled the western Ukraine-Moldova region on the eve of World War II. MIT’s withdrawal only affects a handful of faculty and students, but it will still be an enormous loss of prestige, says Skoltech Provost Keith Stevenson, an electrochemist who moved to Russia from the University of Texas, Austin, to establish a center for energy storage technology. “It’s kind of like getting a divorce from someone you love,” says Stevenson, who plans to stay in Russia. “We’ll have to think creatively how we can maintain morale.”

A rising chorus is calling on the West to cut other ties with Russian science. The European Commission suspended Russia’s participation in its flagship research program, Horizon Europe, and the national research councils of several European nations, including France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands, froze collaborations with Russia. “While there is a war and people are fighting, the only decision is to stop everything,” says Augusto Marcelli, a physicist at Italy’s National Institute of Nuclear Physics and adviser to Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Science diplomacy veterans who spent careers forging ties with Russia agree. “It’s important to be consistent in our policy toward Russia, which is to isolate and punish them. If there were high-level scientists in a position to influence decision-making, I would be more comfortable in making an argument to keep ties open,” says Cathleen Campbell, former president of CRDF Global, a nonprofit that specializes in nuclear and bioweapons nonproliferation work in the former Soviet Union. “Why should we treat scientific exchanges any differently than Champions League soccer matches, ballet performances, financial transactions, and investment projects—which have all been canceled in recent days?” asks Alfred Watkins, chairman of the Global Solutions Summit and a former World Bank official who led science capacity-building projects in Russia and Ukraine.

Other science organizations have resisted being drawn into what they see as a political minefield. Last week, for example, the International Astronomical Union rejected a petition from Ukrainian astronomers to ban Russian astronomers from IAU activities. “That would definitely be making a political statement, which the IAU cannot do,” IAU President Debra Elmegreen wrote in a 1 March email to Yaroslav Yatskiv, president of the Ukrainian Astronomy Association. “The IAU was founded right after WWI [World War I] in order to bring colleagues together, so we do not wish to drive them apart by deciding whom to support based on what their governments are doing.” And the experimental ITER fusion reactor in France has no plans at present to expel Russia, which is a full member of one of the world’s biggest science collaborations. “ITER is a child of the Cold War and is deliberately nonaligned,” says ITER spokesperson Laban Coblentz.

Universities UK, which represents the nation’s vice chancellors, advised its members to review collaborations with Russia on a case-by-case basis. “We do not support a blanket boycott,” it said in a statement. Although Germany is taking a hardline stance, cutting off funding for supported researchers in Russia, Peter-André Alt, president of the German Rectors’ Conference, encouraged scientists to keep informal channels open. He notes that many scientists in Russia have spoken out against the war—at least until last week, when Russia passed a law that threatens jail time for anyone departing from Russia’s characterization of the assault on Ukraine as a “special military operation.” “We want to support these colleagues,” Alt says.

CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, in Switzerland, has long prided itself as an East-West crossroads. “One of CERN’s mottos is ‘science for peace,’” says John Ellis, a theoretical physicist from King’s College London who works at CERN and was on the lab’s staff for more than
40 years. He notes that CERN did not expel Russian scientists when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 or Afghanistan in 1979. “My personal attitude is that we should really strive to maintain that collaboration, if it’s all politically possible.”

The governing CERN Council appears to be walking a fine line. In a special session on 8 March, representatives from the lab’s 23 member states voted to suspend Russia’s “observer” status and barred its representatives from auditing the council’s deliberations. But it did not expel the more than 1000 Russian scientists who make up roughly 8% of CERN’s international users. In a statement, the council says it will continue to monitor the situation and “is ready to take further measures as appropriate.”

Many Ukrainian scientists excoriate Western colleagues for attempting to remain neutral. Civilian deaths are mounting after Russia shifted its strategy and amped up indiscriminate shelling of civilian targets. “We need help in the isolation of Russia and Russian people from the world,” says Sergiy Ryabchenko of Ukraine’s Institute of Physics. “And we need more weapons.”

“We are calling on the world scientific community to immediately stop the bloodshed and barbaric destruction of a civilized European country,” says Anatoly Zagorodny, president of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. “Do not leave us alone facing the brutal aggressor.” Western institutions must take a stand, says global security expert Gerson Sher, who led early efforts to engage Russian scientists after the Soviet breakup in 1991. “It’s a moral issue, and silence is not an option.”

Ukrainians crowd under a destroyed bridge
On 5 March, Ukrainians fleeing Kyiv crowd under a destroyed bridge over the Irpin River.AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti

Conditions in Kyiv and other besieged cities are rapidly deteriorating. Last week, missile fragments damaged a pipeline that provides heat and hot water to central Kyiv where Sergei Mosyakin, director of the Institute of Botany, resides. “I do not care much because I’m rather cold-resistant,” he says. Rather, he worries how it will affect the elderly and young children.

Mosyakin says many of his colleagues have taken up arms to defend their homes. Others have sought refuge abroad. Irina Belskaya, an expert on asteroids and comets at V.N. Karazin Kharkiv National University, reached Poland, she says, thanks to help from colleagues at the Poznan´ Observatory. Some are seeking sanctuary for their scientific prizes: Entomologist Valery Korneyev of the I.I. Schmalhausen Institute of Zoology in Kyiv was trying to get to Berlin with two plastic duffels stuffed with type specimens. “Keeping my fingers crossed,” he says.

Other Ukrainian scientists have yet to escape the war zone. “I have no strength to stand for hours and hours at the train station,” says Irina Yehorchenko, a mathematical physicist at the Institute of Mathematics who has spent her days shuttling between a bomb shelter and her Kyiv apartment. She hopes to join a humanitarian convoy bound for Lviv, in western Ukraine.

Labs in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere are throwing open their doors. Taras Oleksyk, a Ukrainian evolutionary biologist at Oakland University in Michigan, and colleagues have compiled a list of more than 1000 labs willing to host refugee scientists. The Polish Young Academy, part of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN), has already found accommodations and jobs for dozens of Ukrainian researchers, says Jacek Kolanowski of PAN’s Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry. “I think in the upcoming weeks we will have a logarithmic rise in requests,” he says.

Russian scientists will be among the refugees. Rumors are swirling that Putin will declare martial law and close borders. Some Russian scientists who oppose the war are fleeing before a new Iron Curtain traps them. “They leave in fear of what is coming,” says Igor Krichever, a Russian American mathematician at Columbia University who has spent several months each year in Moscow as the head of Skoltech’s Center for Advanced Studies and is one of more than 500 Russian mathematicians who signed an open letter denouncing the invasion.

But room for dissent is disappearing in Russia. Last week, it expunged the last vestiges of its free press. And the leaders of nearly 200 Russian universities have come out staunchly in support of the war. In a signed statement posted to the website of the Russian Union of Rectors on 4 March, the leaders commended Putin’s decision to “achieve the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine.” The nation’s premier nuclear research center, the Kurchatov Institute, which helped Ukraine deal with the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, posted a similarly prowar statement to its website on 7 March.

The U.S. government was among the leaders in enacting financial sanctions on Russia and slapping new limits on technology transfers. Still, a governmentwide policy on cooperation with Russia on R&D has yet to be publicly issued.

Some decisions couldn’t wait for a directive. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) intervened in an ongoing expedition with Canada and Russia to better understand salmon ecology in the North Pacific Ocean, where salmon congregate before spawning in rivers in all three countries. A U.S. scientist was supposed to travel on the Russian vessel Tinro, but on 24 February, NOAA forbade the scientist from boarding the ship. And last week, Eric Regehr, a University of Washington, Seattle, biologist, abandoned plans to join Russian researchers on remote Wrangel Island in an annual campaign, supported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to study polar bear migrations from Alaska to Siberia. “There’s no way,” Regehr says. “The idea of it being legal and safe and practical to go over there is zero.”

Skoltech has survived previous rough patches. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, and later that year, Russian-backed separatists shot down a Malaysia Airlines flight over eastern Ukraine. The Dutch director of Skoltech’s stem cell research center knew someone who died in the crash and resigned. Skoltech “persevered,” Seidel says. But he fears this time it’s different. He’s already shelved an idea for a partnership he was exploring with a Skoltech colleague.

Skoltech hopes an infusion of young Russian talent will help overcome its impending isolation: Last week, it invited transfer applications from overseas Russian graduate students facing blowback from the war overseas. But so long as Russia remains a pariah, Skoltech will be crippled, Seidel says. “It leaves me heartbroken. I don’t know how they’ll recover from this.”