The future of research collaborations involving Russia

The Presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences building in Moscow

The Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow is based in a building whose bronze embellishments have earned it the nickname ‘golden brains’.Credit: Felix Lipov/Alamy

On the banks of the Moskva River, just upstream from the Kremlin and Red Square, sits a grandiose network of interconnected concrete buildings. The tallest two are bejewelled with bulky bronze structures, and this unique aesthetic has earned the Moscow-based Russian Academy of Sciences its nickname — ‘golden brains’. Until very recently, the organization had every reason to think that Russian science was deserving of such an epithet.

After years of stagnation in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, scientific output in Russia had been rising steeply. In the Nature Index database, for example, which tracks affiliations in research articles across 82 high-quality science journals, Russia’s overall share of affiliations jumped by almost 10% between 2019 and 2020 alone, placing the country 18th in the 2021 rankings.

This progress is now in jeopardy, however, as scientists around the world shun their Russian counterparts, either voluntarily or at the behest of their governments in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“I want to address scientists in the Western world and say that it can’t be business as usual for them and their collaborations with Russia,” says Maksym Strikha, a physicist at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv who has stayed behind in the Ukrainian capital, partly because he thinks he’s too old to start a career in the West. “I’m a professor and respected person here. It’s really too late for me to start work from point zero elsewhere,” he says. It would also be difficult to evacuate his elderly mother, he says. “We’re in a desperate situation. Every minute people are killed, and I don’t know if I’ll be alive tomorrow.”

It’s unlikely that things will carry on as normal, says Daniel Treisman, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose research focuses on Russian politics and economics. “Inevitably, there’s going to be a decrease in collaboration because it’s harder to travel to Russia now. Available funding is going to decrease, and so on a practical level it’s harder,” he says. “Then there’s the moral dilemma. Academics will have to ask themselves whether they should work with a Russian state university, which may not be directly related to the war, but is nonetheless funded by the Russian state.”

Can Russian science survive in a vacuum?

Some of the sanctions imposed against Russia by the West explicitly prohibit research collaborations. The German government has taken one of the most hawkish approaches, officially suspending all scientific cooperation with Russia from 25 February until further notice; its stance has been backed by the German Research Foundation. German politicians are lobbying other countries to follow suit; Christian Ehler, a German member of the European Parliament, urged the European Union to halt funding to Russian participants of the EU’s flagship Horizon Europe research programme. “I call on the European Commission and the Council of the EU to cut off all scientific relations,” he said in a statement.

Eckart Rühl is a physical chemist at the Free University of Berlin and a scientific coordinator for the German–Russian Interdisciplinary Science Centre (G–RISC), an organization that aims to nurture cooperation between the two countries. Some of his research involves working with Russian scientists to develop and test molecules for use in topical medicines. He says he got a telephone call from the German Academic Exchange Service, the world’s largest international exchange funder, within hours of Russia starting its invasion on 24 February to explain that official collaborations between Russia and Germany would be paused indefinitely. “It was extremely fast,” he says. “The authorities were well prepared.” But this speed of change means that Rühl is unsure how the salaries of some of G–RISC’s staff in Saint Petersburg will be paid in the long run, and some of his German colleagues in Russia are struggling to return home amid widespread flight cancellations. “One had to get the bus to Finland and fly back from there,” he says.

Studies show that international collaborations, such as those encouraged by G–RISC, improve the quality and impact of research. Before the invasion of Ukraine, Western countries were eagerly embracing Russian scientists as research partners. More than 19,000 papers were co-authored by scientists in Russia and the United Kingdom during the past decade, according to the British Council. Meanwhile, data from the Nature Index shows that Russian scientists rely heavily on the West for the bulk of their international research projects. Of Russia’s ten biggest collaborators (see ‘Top ten countries collaborating with Russia’), only China has refrained from issuing sanctions in response to the invasion of Ukraine. Even Switzerland has eschewed its conventionally neutral stance to match restrictions imposed by the EU.

Difference of opinions

It’s unclear how or whether Russian science will cope in this newfound isolation, and opinions are split over whether the West should end its scientific exchanges with Russia.

“I hope that research collaborations will continue in an open way that respects the values for honest research and academic freedom,” says Treisman. “Many people in Russia’s higher-education system are the most pro-internationalist and anti-war of Russian society. This isn’t their war.”

At the time of writing, close to 8,000 Russian scientists and science journalists had signed an open letter to unequivocally condemn the invasion of Ukraine, stating that “the responsibility for unleashing a new war in Europe lies entirely with Russia” and that “there is no rational justification for this war”.

Igor Abrikosov, a Russian physicist who works at Linköping University in Sweden, is one of the co-signatories. He talks passionately about the invasion, holding back tears of frustration over the actions of his homeland. “All my thoughts go to the people whose lives are in danger. We must stop the war, and the destruction, blood and tears it brings,” he says.

But he, too, fears that cutting scientific links could do more harm than good. “Why shouldn’t people outside of Russia cooperate with the scientists who signed the letter?” he says. “I worry that the authorities in Russia would be interested in cutting scientific collaborations even more than the West.”

Not everyone agrees — most notably, Ukrainian academics. Strikha says there’s anger and disbelief among Ukraine’s scientists that researchers elsewhere in the world would even consider continuing their partnerships with Russian universities. “I’m grateful to Russian colleagues who signed this letter,” he says. “But to collaborate with Russian scientists is a deeply immoral position.” He compares his country’s situation to what was happening in the Second World War. “I remember a situation some 80-odd years ago. Was it possible for someone in Britain or the United States to speak about collaboration with Germans?”

His views echo those expressed by the Council of Young Scientists at the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine in an open letter to the European Commission on 27 February, asking it to immediately suspend any kind of collaboration with Russian institutions.

Solidarity with Ukraine

Christian Dunn, a wetland ecologist at Bangor University, UK, who works on peatland biogeochemistry with scientists in Siberia, says it has been challenging to strike a balance between these two viewpoints. “The science we’re doing with Russia is absolutely essential in terms of climate change,” he says. “We’re looking at ways to supercharge peatlands to sequester more carbon.” He was invited by the British Embassy in Moscow to attend a climate seminar in Siberia in January 2020, which he says turned out to be something of a watershed moment. “It was astounding to find peatland scientists there doing similar work to us, yet we didn’t even know about each other’s work,” he says. They’ve collaborated ever since.

Ultimately, however, he has decided to officially pause the partnership, out of solidarity with Ukraine. “The argument that science is above politics could be applied to any sector — like sport, for example,” he says. “It’s with a heavy heart that I say we have to play our part in this.”

The loss of such projects will come as a blow to Russian science, which performs well in the physical sciences, but lags behind in the ecological sciences. From 1 December 2020 to 30 November 2021, just 7.5% of Russia’s research papers that are tracked by the Nature Index related to earth and environmental sciences, and before the invasion of Ukraine, the country was taking steps to diversify its science output with a particular focus on climate research such as Dunn’s. There were plans, for example, to build a year-round international research station in northern Siberia before the end of 2022, at a cost of more than US$12 million, although news reports suggest that its opening might now be delayed until 2024.

Looking east

Dunn hopes to restart his collaborations soon, but Treisman says that the sanctions are likely to persist for some time. Even if the war is over soon, he says, Russia’s invasion of a sovereign state isn’t going to be forgotten quickly.

The exception when it comes to sanctions is China, which was Russia’s third biggest scientific collaborator between December 2020 and November 2021, according to the Nature Index. Joint research projects will carry on undisturbed by the current shifts in geopolitics, catalysing a trend of closer cooperation between the two nations. Russia is already a leading member of China’s Alliance of International Science Organizations, and Nature has previously reported on how Beijing is helping to awaken “the sleeping bear of Russian science”. In the long run, the decision makers who occupy those golden brains of the Russian Academy of Sciences might decide that their future lies not with the West, but with the East.

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