Iron curtain falls on science in Russia

“I am going through a personal disaster. This war is destroying my entire scientific career.”sorry in secure messaging Ivan *, eminent physicist at the Institute for Nuclear Research in Moscow. “I have spent many years in Europe collaborating with various institutions. Today, I don’t believe it will be possible again.” The biggest challenge for this sixty-year-old man, whose publications in major scientific journals are countless, is not the prospect of seeing his adventure with physics come to an end forever. No, the hardest test he had to endure in these last days, he whispers to us, was to notice that some of his colleagues – “a tiny one, of course, but still a part” –approved the war unleashed in Ukraine by Vladimir Putin.

Anton, also a physicist at the Moscow Research Institute, in his thirties, seems equally stunned. “Of course, physically we are fine. But we are shocked. For a week I was paralyzed, unable to do anything, like many of my colleagues who saw themselves unable to teach or continue their scientific work., he admits. Like Ivan and many of his fellow citizens, he watches helplessly as his country is shut down after the accumulation of economic sanctions against Russia and the withdrawal or curtailment of more than 300 international companies established in the territory. He also knows that the coup promises to be even more brutal for him than for other Russians whose work is not dependent on decisions made abroad. He, who until now has never stopped traveling and, of course, working closely with colleagues around the world, is now blacklisted by a large number of universities and other international scientific institutions.

Russian rectors behind Vladimir Putin

In less than ten days, a whole section of the Western academic world decided to cut ties with Russian researchers in protest at the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine. And this despite an open letter to Vladimir Putin posted on February 24 on the website Trinity Option-Science, the leading scientific publication in Russia. In the message, now withdrawn, after the adoption by the Duma of an amendment to the Criminal Code, which provides for heavy fines and up to 15 years in prison for anyone who disseminates information aimed at “discredit” military or vocation “impose sanctions against Russia”almost 7,000 Russian researchers unanimously condemned the military invasion.

“For a week I was paralyzed, unable to do anything, as were many of my colleagues who saw themselves as unable to teach or continue their research.”

The world-renowned stance was not enough to stop MIT from ending its partnership with Skolkovo on February 25 — just 24 hours after Russian forces attacked Ukraine. The Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech), an English-speaking university located in the Moscow region. On Monday, March 7, it was the turn of the Association of European Universities (EUA) to announce the suspension of cooperation with twelve Russian universities whose rectors had expressed their support for the conflict. In their statements, they emphasized “significance” encourage the army and the president by calling it “main debt” teaching your students “patriotism”. As in France, the rectors of Russian universities are appointed directly by the headState. Enough for the EUA to react immediately given this position “diametrically opposed” to European values ​​that the institutions in question “kissed upon joining the association”.

Inhibitions that divide

At the same time, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Lithuania announced the termination of all research projects in partnership with Russia and Belarus, although the governments of these EStates urged scientists not to sever their personal ties with Russian researchers. CNRS suspended in France “a completely new form of cooperation with Russia”while ensuring that Russian scientists working in the CNRS laboratories can continue to do so.

Finally, on Wednesday, March 9, it was the turn of the prestigious CERN, the world’s largest center for particle physics, to present a series of decisions taken at an extraordinary meeting, which was attended by representatives of its 23 EMember States. The laboratory, whose motto is “science for peace,” reminds the magazine of one of its employees. The science – as a result, they voted for the suspension of Russia’s observer status and forbade its representatives to attend Council meetings. However, he decided not to expel the 1,000 Russian scientists, who make up about 8% of CERN’s international users.

Such decisions were made not only in response to this terrible news. Some directly respond to the request of Ukrainian scientists to directly stop all forms of cooperation with Russian scientific institutions. “We call on the world scientific community to immediately stop the bloodshed and barbaric destruction of a civilized European country”said at the end of February, the President of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine Anatoly Zagorodny. “Do not leave us alone against the cruel aggressor.” However, some scientific organizations have chosen not to respond favorably to this call for a boycott, arguing that such a political commitment would do science a disservice. Thus, last week the International Astronomical Union rejected a petition by Ukrainian astronomers aimed at banning Russian astronomers from engaging in IAU activities. “UAI was founded right after World War I to bring colleagues together, so we don’t want to alienate them by deciding who to support based on what their governments are doing.”wrote Debra Elmegreen, President of the IAU, in an email sent on March 1 to Yaroslav Yatskiv, President of the Ukrainian Astronomical Association, and to whom The science had access. The story is the same for the experimental fusion reactor ITER, an international project based in France, which does not currently plan to exclude Russia, a full participant in this large-scale scientific cooperation. “ITER is the brainchild of the Cold War, and it deliberately does not participate,” said Laban Koblenz, ITER representative.

Relentless Isolation

Both Ivan and Anton are glad that the dialogue with Western colleagues is still being maintained. “Finishing the papers, communicating via Zoom”explains the first. “My brothers and sisters have shown solidarity with me so far. They know my position.” Anton says that he feels the same support from his foreign contacts, but still fears that Russian scientists will soon find themselves in complete isolation, despite goodwill. “Some scientific organizations, especially in Germany, have cut off all channels of communication with Russia, even when it comes to work in progress. Reference journals no longer accept articles from Russian authors. We even learned that some referents refused to work with their Russian students, although I It feels like situations like this rarely happen…”

“I’Ethe state will finance the work of national scientific journals. If there is still funding, given the impending total collapse of our economy…”

Ivan says that in the next few days he expects to see how Russia reacts to all these lab doors slamming in his face: “I do not rule out that the Russian authorities cut off the oxygen from the inside.” So far, and for many years, Russian research funding bodies have favored the projects of researchers accustomed to publishing in major international scientific journals. If this practice, common to all Western countries, becomes impossible for Russians, the situation will inevitably change: “I’Ethe state will finance the work of national scientific journals. If there is still funding, given the impending total collapse of our economy…”

This retreat into oneself, this “scienceEtat”, that’s what Anton is most afraid of. “Isolation means the death of any progress we could make in Russia. The most talented people end up emigrating.” Unlike some of the older scientists he interacts with, he doesn’t believe in a return to scientific research. “as in the USSR.” “It will be much worse because science has become much more international and relies on networks,” he worries, given that Russian research “degraded already before the war due to numerous mistakes and isolation policies” imposed by the government. “But we have made significant progress in some areas, especially in education. If the situation does not change, we will lose everything.”

Leave or suffer

What choice do Russian scientists have then? Continue to work in the shadows with your foreign colleagues, who would agree to this, risking one day being overtaken by the FBS, the internal security service? Run away from the country, while you can still try to enter a foreign laboratory? “I can’t leave because I have very old parents that I have to take care of. And besides, I don’t think I’m old enough to start from scratch somewhere else…” Ivan confesses. “On the other hand, I will do my best to help the youngest who want to find work outside of Russia. Even if it seems obvious to me that priority will have to be given to Ukrainian scientists.”

IN At present, leaving Russia to settle somewhere else is by no means a simple matter. Because while scientists involved in international collaboration usually receive long-term visas, the health crisis has drastically restricted their freedom of movement. IN Due to Covid restrictions, it is unlikely that anyone else has such a visa. Most researchers who want to go to Europe do not have such an opportunity, even those who are expected there.”, – explains Anton, who claims that he himself received several invitations from European laboratories. In the last few days, he said, many Russians, scholars or not, have tried to get into Georgia and Armenia, two countries close to Russia that can still be entered without a visa. “I don’t want to leave, but if nothing positive happens within a month, I will be forced to do so”says the physicist, who is most hopeful that European visas will be possible again in the near future. “Otherwise, a very large number of people, including highly qualified people, will be forced to make very difficult choices.”

In a short e-mail, a famous Russian mathematician agreed to share his feelings with us: “As you probably know, I have signed several open letters against… I can no longer write this word. I face up to 15 years in prison. I have always tried to defend freedom in my country, but I am not (yet) ready to go to jail. I can tell you that I am terribly ashamed of the current events. As for us Russian scientists, I am afraid that our isolation will only contribute to creation of a new North Korea. ..”

*All names have been changed.

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