War in Ukraine: Russian scientists isolated, research disoriented

A month ago, for Boris, a neuroscientist from Paris, “everything collapsed.” Like thousands of his peers, he saw his research projects, created in collaboration with Russia, fade away after the break with Moscow.

ESA (European Space Agency), CNRS (largest French research organization), CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), MIT (prestigious American institute). many of the bridges linking them to the Russians.

A blow to science diplomacy, especially in civilian space, where Western powers and Russia forged close ties since the end of the Cold War (early 1990s).

“This decision was painful,” commented Josef Aschbacher, head of the ESA, whose 22 member states had just announced a break with their Roscosmos counterparts, commented last week.

– Science without borders –

The first casualty: the ExoMars mission, which was supposed to be launched by a Russian rocket from Baikonur (Kazakhstan) in the fall of 2022 and is delayed by at least two years.

Prototype of the Rosalind Franklin rover at the ADS plant in Stevenage (North London) on February 7, 2019, which was supposed to be delivered to the Martian soil as part of the ExoMars mission in cooperation with the Russians (AFP / Archive – Ben Stansall)

The shipwreck of thousands of scientists from Europe and Russia who have invested for years in this project, which is critical to the search for extraterrestrial life; they have formed an open global community driven by the ideal of science without borders and who have just recovered from the Covid pandemic.

In the same vein, Boris, a fellow at the Ecole Normale Supérieure and Inserm, founded a center for cognitive science in Moscow with the support of the Higher School of Economics, a school founded in the 1990s by “progressive” Russian economists. .

His students traveled to different laboratories all over Europe, went to give him lessons in Russia … “It was a unique cross-border model in the field of neuroscience,” this Soviet-American living in France, who preferred not to use his last name, tells AFP.

– “The war is outside of us” –

Ten years of work flew by overnight. Officially, the project has not been stopped, except that in fact “everything is blocked”, if only because graduate students in Russia can no longer finance their work due to banking sanctions.

Others who were threatened with arrest for protesting fled to Armenia or Turkey. “We talk to each other every day via Skype or Zoom… but we got lost, the war is behind us,” admits a devastated Pentecostal whose parents left the USSR in the 1980s after the invasion of Afghanistan.

Academy of Sciences in Moscow, behind the heavenly metro tunnel, July 30, 2021 (AFP/Archive - Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV)
Academy of Sciences in Moscow, behind the heavenly metro tunnel, July 30, 2021 (AFP/Archive – Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV)

“For students who did not survive the Soviet era, it is unimaginable to live in a country cut off from the world. They were truly Europeans in their minds.”

On the Russian side, isolation raises fears that the country will fall out of the global scientific competition. In early March, 7,000 scientists working in Russia signed a petition against the war.

They had just learned of the cancellation of the most prestigious mathematical congress in the world, and lamented the “desolation” of the long years spent “fortifying the reputation” of their country as a leading center of mathematics.

Carol Sigman of CNRS also notes that the influential Russian Academy of Sciences “called for a cessation of hostilities and turned to foreign researchers to avoid severing scientific relations.”

The French researcher testifies to the large number of visa applications from Russian social science researchers wishing to come to France, as well as their colleagues from Ukraine or Belarus.

– “Don’t leave them” –

On the western side, professors from renowned universities, including Harvard and Cambridge, urged “not to give up” to their Russian counterparts in a column in Science on Thursday.

“Indiscriminate persecution” would be, in their opinion, “a serious blow to Western values ​​based on scientific and technological progress.” Conversely, several Ukrainian researchers, such as the physicist Maxim Strikha of the Taras-Shevchenko University of Kiev, are calling for a “complete boycott” of the Russian academic community.

However, the links are saved. “The wall is still permeable,” notes Denis Gutleben, scientific attache of the CNRS history committee: the state organization has suspended its new cooperation with Moscow, but continues to operate in its international laboratories in Russia.

A symbol of post-Cold War science diplomacy, the ITER nuclear fusion program developed in Cadarache (Bouches-du-Rhone) did not exclude the Russian Federation.

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