Opinion: Should scientists cut ties with Russians over Ukraine?

There is an apt African proverb, “When elephants dance, it is the grass that gets trampled.” When nation states fight, people suffer. And while it is the populace of Ukraine that suffers the most, others are caught in the clash of titans, and this includes expatriate Russians who not only do not participate in the war but who condemn it. Some are scientists and friends of mine, and they are certainly not agents of the Russian government. How should a respectable and moral non-Russian scientist respond to the biggest European war since World War II?

On one hand, any compassionate human must be horrified by the unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation. News reports are full of images of shattered buildings and families who have become desperate refugees fleeing the carnage that only modern war can bring. Scientists, like me, along with the international community, condemn the fighting in the strongest possible terms.

Perhaps scientists should follow the lead of others and also refuse to work with Russian colleagues?

On the other hand, academic researchers are, by and large, internationalists. We ask hard questions and aim to solve difficult problems, and intellect respects neither race nor ethnicity and certainly not borders. Scientists work together to push back the frontiers of knowledge, generally with little or no concern about the national origin of our colleagues.

International scientific collaboration is common; for instance, the International Space Station, where Russian rockets have transported American astronauts into orbit; or ITER, a multinational effort to achieve controlled nuclear fusion, where geopolitical allies and rivals work together for the good of humanity.
My own experience involves physics research, conducted at two international particle physics laboratories: Fermilab, near Chicago, and the CERN laboratory, on the French-Swiss border. For more than three decades, I have worked on large projects involving hundreds or even thousands of scientists; Researchers from all continents except for Antarctica have worked hand in hand, side by side, to make some of the most difficult scientific discoveries ever made. We’ve created conditions so short-lived they were last common a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. In a real sense, we are exploring the origins of the universe.

These achievements are integral to global scientific progress, a uniquely invaluable tool to move the dial on our understanding of the world around us. And they would not have been possible without the contributions of everyone involved, including Russian researchers. Were scientists to forbid Russian involvement in these large scientific projects, we wouldn’t make such progress. While no one individual or nation is indispensable, all are important, and everyone pulls their weight.

For international science, there are two significant reactions to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that affect the field: that of national science funding agencies, and that of individual scientists. The reaction of funding agencies will be governed by the policies determined by the governments of the countries involved.

In the United States, science-focused organizations such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and NASA will execute policies set down by the current administration. This is reasonable, as these institutions must conform to geopolitical realities. If the legal, commercial and diplomatic world must respond forcefully to the Russian invasion, so too must the scientific one. When this war is over, the various governments will mend fences as each sees fit.

The question is trickier for individual scientists. On the research project with which I am currently involved, thousands of individuals — including people working at Russian and Ukrainian research institutes — have worked together harmoniously for decades, developing instrumentation and making measurements that have taught the world a lot about the ultimate laws of nature.

But what now? Should the scientific community ostracize individual Russian researchers because of their government’s policies or their support of their nation’s leader? Should the sins of the father be visited upon their sons and daughters? It’s a question scientists must wrestle with and debate.

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Certainly, refusing to work with Russian colleagues while the invasion is ongoing would be a powerful statement. And it may be a reasonable reaction to any Russian scientists who condone the incursion. I would personally be in favor of refusing to work with someone who actively supported this brutal war. Yet most Russian scientists are innocent of the geopolitical turmoil, and it is unlikely shunning those colleagues will have any effect on the war in Ukraine.

Indeed, many Russian scientists are opposed to the war. More than 8,000 of them have signed an open letter condemning the invasion. Over 7,000 Russians affiliated with Moscow State University have signed another letter with a similar message. Should these people be punished when they already know their government is wrong and have taken a brave stand?
On the other hand, nearly 9,000 scientists — many of whom are Ukrainian — have signed a separate letter, urging academic sanctions on Russian institutions. They make a cogent case these are exceptional times, requiring action.

But institutions are not people. Scientists have not invaded anyone. I expect many in the Russian scientific community would likely stop Putin’s invasion if they could. But they can’t.

The nations of the world should support both Ukrainian and Russian scientists who are already within their borders by extending visas where necessary and offering financial support for expatriate scientists cut off from their home institutions. While their suffering does not compare with that of Ukrainians trapped in combat zones, these scientists are also victims of this monstrous war.

And, irrespective of how the scientific community decides to respond to the Ukrainian war, scientists like me look forward to better days, when researchers from all nations can again harmoniously work together to understand better the laws of nature and make the world a better place.

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