Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forever changed the way the world deals with science

Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images

Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images

Last week, 10 months after Russia invaded his country, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a precarious trip to Washington to ask for additional US help to finally end a conflict that continues to fuel fears of an environmental disaster in the wake of Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s nuclear power plants , as well as Russian threats to use nuclear weapons. Among other things, Zelensky asked the US to “strengthen tariffs” against Russia and make the war financially unsustainable. This would particularly affect the areas of scientific and technological research where Russia has traditionally excelled, including physics, space exploration and climatology.

But despite widespread Western support for Ukraine, it has proven difficult to untangle U.S.-Russian scientific and technical cooperation. In many cases, the resistance comes from US scientists themselves, who argue that their work and that of their colleagues is too important and urgent to be disrupted, especially in the context of climate change research as global warming accelerates.

A few days before Zelensky’s speech, an editorial published in Nature the journal urged that science should not be treated as a “diplomatic pawn” and that war “must not become an obstacle for cooperating countries” in solving pressing scientific problems such as climate change. Physicist Michael Riordan of the University of California, Santa Cruz shared a similar view The New York Times in late August, announcing: “I am a physicist who does not want Russia to leave the world of science.”

Putin threatens Russia that it may add a nuclear first strike to its attack plan

Others see things differently. “During the Cold War, Russia was a scientific powerhouse,” Marcia McNutt, president of the US National Academy of Sciences, told The Daily Beast. “But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian science has not been as strong. When you look at the big issues of the day like gene editing, I just don’t see Russia as leading the way.”

At the same time as Russia’s scientific contribution waned, Ukraine emerged as a science leader in Eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union, especially in the fields of agricultural research and nuclear energy.

When Russia first invaded Ukraine on February 24, Europe reacted quickly by severing relations with Russia, which included scientific and technological endeavors. Germany announced that it would end all scientific cooperation with Russia the very next day, and other European Union member states soon introduced similar comprehensive bans. CERN, Switzerland’s international particle physics laboratory and home to the famous Large Hadron Collider, suspended Russia’s membership in early March, as did the European Space Agency and the Max Planck Institute. ESA’s efforts have been particularly consistent as its joint Mars rover mission with Russia is currently in a complete hiatus.

In contrast, the response of the American scientific community has been somewhat uneven. The Biden administration was silent on the status of US-Russia cooperation until June. This month, they announced that the US would begin “shut down” all current federally funded research projects in collaboration with Russia and ban new projects.

“Given the war crimes and other atrocities committed by Russia, it was very important to us to make a clear statement of support for Ukraine,” Daily Beast, on condition of anonymity.

“But at the same time,” the official said, “we acknowledge that there is a strategic need to engage with Russia” to prevent the global destruction that hung over the Cold War.

Since the beginning of the war, Russia has been attacking Ukraine’s scientific infrastructure. The Ukrainian Institute of Physics and Technology in Kharkov was heavily damaged by Russian bombs. At Chernobyl and other nuclear power plants and research centers, Russian troops looted or destroyed millions of dollars worth of equipment and computers. At least 20 Ukrainian universities were completely destroyed.

Russia is already sabotaging the mission to avoid a nuclear catastrophe

Lest the war escalate into the total destruction of Ukraine’s colleges and potential nuclear catastrophe, the Biden administration refrained from completely severing scientific ties with Russia – a policy formulated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which advises the president on all matters related to science and technology. The four-month gap between the invasion and the announcement of the policy was likely “a reflection of the nature of America’s science enterprise” and “decentralized research community” in the US, a government official said.

Culturally, the scientific community has always been more resilient to the international schisms that characterize many other fields of work. For many scientists, there is resistance to having to cut off access and partnerships with groups because of the war. For example, one of CERN’s mottos is ‘science for peace’.

“There is plenty of evidence that many Russian scientists do not want to be involved in Putin’s war. We want to make sure these people have a clear path to work with us or leave Russia if they so choose,” the official said.

“There are mixed feelings and different views in the scientific community about the appropriate response,” Raymond Jeanloz, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, told The Daily Beast. “Many of the people we talk to have known or worked together in one form or another for years or decades. They are friends.” Jeanloz is also the chairman of the Committee on International Security and Arms Control at the National Academy of Sciences, a private, non-profit, non-profit organization funded primarily by federal grants. His research is used to inform the OSTP.

There is an opinion that it is unfair to judge individual scientists based on the actions of their government. Indeed, several thousand Russian scientists signed a letter denouncing the invasion shortly after it occurred.

But Russian science is inseparable from the Russian government. Most of the country’s scientists are at least partially funded by the Russian government.

And in September, elections for the leadership of the Russian Academy of Sciences showed evidence of state interference: the incumbent president withdrew his candidacy a day before the elections, in what he called a “forced decision.” Instead, Gennady Krasnikov, the head of Mikron, Russia’s largest chipmaker, was elected.

Shocking US ties to Putin’s deadly war machines

The Biden administration imposed sanctions on Mikron in April as part of a broad sanctions panel against Russia’s aerospace, maritime and electronics sectors. Another round of sanctions in August targeted the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech), founded in 2011 as a partnership with the Massachusetts Institutes of Technology to build a Russian version of Silicon Valley. MIT announced it was shutting down a $3 billion company in February – the day after the invasion.

On Earth – and above it

Climate change research is an area where Russia’s contributions will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace. The vast majority of the world’s permafrost, which scientists track to measure the rate of global warming, is in Russia. Russia currently chairs the Arctic Council, an eight-nation consortium that promotes collaboration in climate change research. At dozens of research stations in Russia, international teams of scientists collect permafrost samples by drilling boreholes in the ground.

Shortly after the invasion began, seven other members of the Arctic Council, including the US, suspended their participation in the Council. They have since resumed research without Russia. Part of the research was transferred to Canada and Greenland, where there are their own permafrost reserves. But this still gives an incomplete picture and may not accurately reflect what is happening with Russia’s permafrost – a big problem when one degree of change can throw the whole model off.

“It’s the difference between ice and water,” said Brendan Kelly, a professor of marine biology at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and a member of the International Center for Arctic Research. “No engagement opportunities [Russia] is significant damage. It will be a big loss for us as we try to understand on a pan-Arctic scale what is happening in the Arctic.”

The Russians have made a huge contribution to climate science, Kelly said. But at the same time, “they weren’t the best team players in terms of data sharing.According to Kelly, this was a decades-old problem.

In other fields of science, a clean separation is almost impossible. Perhaps the quintessential example of this is the International Space Station, a collaboration between the US, Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency, the first of which was launched in 1998. The ISS literally cannot operate without Russia and the US providing propulsion and power respectively . Scientists at the station are conducting experiments primarily to see how things work in microgravity in order to prepare for long-term spaceflight. It has been lauded for decades as an example of international cooperation between parties that do not always share the same goals in other areas of geopolitics. And life as astronauts aboard the ISS has always required both countries’ space programs to isolate themselves from deteriorating relations elsewhere.

Russia may just plunge the world into the dark age of space

But that isolation eroded as the invasion progressed. In July, Russian cosmonauts on the ISS staged a photo of them holding up Russian and anti-Ukrainian flags in a propaganda episode that drew a “strong rebuke” from NASA. This month, Russia announced it planned to retire from the ISS to focus on building its own structure, but later withdrew and confirmed its participation by 2028 (several years before the station formally shuts down in 2031).

In September, NASA and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, collaborated to send astronaut Frank Rubio and two cosmonauts to the ISS on the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft, launched from Kazakhstan.

Good substitutes

Ultimately, there is no easy action that will satisfy all parties involved. “Of course, war is indecent,” Kelly added. “This is a devastating humanitarian crisis. But we also have a climate crisis, and failing to better understand where the climate is heading will cost people lives and prosperity in the long run. I don’t know how to divide a child here. It’s not an easy conversation.”

Currently, the total destruction in Ukraine is enormous. Nearly 7,000 Ukrainian civilians have died since the start of the war, according to the UN. Ukraine’s scientific infrastructure and nuclear power plants continue to be threatened by Russian forces.

While many American scientists hope the conflict will end soon and they can return to a somewhat normalized relationship with their Russian counterparts, others see the war as a turning point that can – and should – encourage the West to rethink its scientific partnerships in all fields .

Some even believe that Ukraine itself could fill the void left by Russia. To this end, the NAS created a sort of exchange program where displaced Ukrainian scientists worked in positions at Western universities and research institutions.

“Ukraine needs its scientists to rebuild itself. Russia experienced much less damage from this war,” McNutt said. We are not talking about the need to rebuild Russia.”

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