EU under pressure to halt science cooperation with Russia

Pressure is mounting on the European Union to sever science ties with Russia following a coordinated push by the German Ministry of Education and Research and the Alliance of Science Organisations in Germany to halt scientific cooperation in response to the invasion of Ukraine.

After Germany announced that it would freeze cooperation with Russia in higher education and research, German MEP, Christian Ehler, who is lead rapporteur to the European Parliament on the EU’s Horizon Europe programme, called on the EU to follow suit.

In a statement on Friday 25 February, he said: “I call on the European Commission and Council of the EU to cut off all scientific and research relations with the Russian Federation.”

“We need to cut off all scientific and research cooperation between the EU, its member states and Russia,” he tweeted on Friday. “We need to stand by Ukraine now and defend our European home by all means.”

He was repeating word for word the demand of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, which also said: “The Russian attack on #Ukraine is a grave breach of international law with no justification whatsoever. There must be serious consequences. By its actions, Russia has turned its back on the international community.”

The ministry said that any cooperation with Russia “is now impossible” because it has “broken all norms of the European order we believe in” by invading Ukraine.

German Federal Minister of Education and Research Bettina Stark-Watzinger said in an interview with Die Welt: “For the Ministry of Education and Research, this means that long-standing cooperation in higher education and research as well as in vocational training will be stopped for the time being.”

All ongoing and planned measures with Russia are being “frozen and critically reviewed. For the time being, there will be no new measures”, she said.

The move follows a recommendation from the German Federal Foreign Office to “freeze academic relations and in particular scientific projects with Russia”, confirmed by Peter-André Alt, president of the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), on Thursday 24 February, as reported by University World News.

Significantly, the Education and Research Ministry’s demand was matched by a forceful coordinated statement, also on Friday, from the Alliance of Science Organisations in Germany, saying that scientific cooperation with Russia must be “frozen with immediate effect”.

The alliance comprises the most significant scientific organisations in Germany as well as the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK). Its members include the German Research Foundation, which has taken over the leadership for 2022, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the Fraunhofer Society, the Helmholtz Association, the Leibniz Association, the Max Planck Society, the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina and the German Science Council.

In a statement, it announced that its members would support students and academics who have to leave Ukraine as a result of Russian aggression and recommended that scientific cooperation with Russian “state institutions and business enterprises” be frozen until further notice, that German research funds should no longer benefit Russia and that no new science collaboration projects be initiated, despite the consequences for science.

The alliance said it sees in the Russian invasion an attack on the elementary values of freedom, democracy and self-determination, on which freedom of science and scientific cooperation possibilities are based.

Its members have long maintained diverse and fruitful scientific cooperation with their partners in Ukraine, to whom they pledged “unrestricted solidarity”, and it remains committed to continue contacts and intensive cooperation with Ukrainian partners at all levels, in student exchanges as well as in the promotion of bilateral research projects and in the construction as well as in the use of scientific infrastructures.

“We will offer students, scientists who have to leave their country as a result of the Russian aggression, support within the framework of comprehensive aid programmes,” the statement said.

The alliance said it is being consulted about the situation and is committed to working in close agreement with the German federal government and other political decision-makers on further steps to be taken in the crisis.

“Even at the present time, however, it is recommended that scientific cooperation with state institutions and economic enterprises in Russia with immediate effect be further frozen, that German research funds [to] Russia no longer come in handy and that no common research can be done. New cooperation projects should not be initiated at present,” the statement said.

German research collaboration with Russia is extensive, a German government briefing (in German) reveals. Due to the Russian focus on research infrastructures, the most important cooperation partner among the four major German research organisations is the Helmholtz Association (HGF), which hosted 362 Russian guest researchers in 2019 alone.

Also in 2019, some 380 Russian young scientists and guest scientists stayed at the Max Planck Society (MPG), for which Russia is ahead of Great Britain and France as a country of origin of cooperating researchers, with 94 project collaborations.

The strong, swift and coordinated German response has caused a feeling among European researchers that they are being bounced into the same position since the Germans have the biggest research budget and without them it would be difficult for the EU to continue projects with Russia, even though they are intended to tackle global challenges for the greater good of mankind.

Professor Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities (LERU), told University World News by email that he is opposed to politicising research and research collaboration.

“Should we punish innocent Russian researchers and universities (who condemn the war themselves) for the stupidities of their government and president?” he asked.

“So I must say I am surprised by the statements of MEP Ehler if that would be his intention. Did we ever stop cooperation with Chinese researchers and universities because of the violent ‘reintegration’ of Hong Kong or constant violation of Taiwan’s airspace by the Chinese government?”

Professor Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, said: “Assessing the implications for relations with Russian universities and science organisations will require more debate, because we also want to support those university communities in Russia that support our values, and which are opposed to the war.”

He said his members’ immediate focus was on supporting their Ukrainian communities and developing ways in which they can help an emerging need for higher education among refugees and displaced Ukrainians.

Ehler is seeking a ban on Russian-controlled entities participating in Horizon Europe, the EU’s flagship research programme, and said he wanted Russian recipients of European Research Council grants to be excluded from such a measure.

He is also seeking an end to Russian participation in any scientific and research projects involving the EU, including ITER (the international thermonuclear reactor) and CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), whose projects include the £18 billion (US$24 billion) Large Hadron Collider.

Ehler also called on all EU Member States to cut all science and research relations with Russia.

Impact on science regretted

The Alliance of Science Organisations in Germany said in its extraordinary statement that it is aware of and regrets the extreme consequences these measures will have for science.

“Many research projects that have been carried out over the years are being massively affected by the current war situation.

“We live in a multidimensional world, and only with the help of international scientific cooperation can the crises to which humanity finds itself exposed, such as climate change, species deaths or infectious diseases, be overcome,” the statement said.

“That is why our long-standing Russian cooperative partners, scientists, who are appalled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, also apply our solidarity.”

DAAD halts exchanges

The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) also on Friday toughened its initially weaker stance, announcing that it is restricting exchanges with the Russian Federation, although it seeks to retain its long-standing links with partner institutions in Russia.

DAAD has suspended application procedures for grants for Russia and has cancelled the selection of prospective grant-holders. Neither can already selected German grant-holders receive any financial support for planned stays in Russia. DAAD expects German universities to suspend all DAAD-funded project activities with partner institutions in Russia and Belarus.

“Russia’s attack on Ukraine represents a massive breach of international law,” said DAAD President Joybrato Mukherjee on Friday. “No normal relations can be maintained with a state which launches a war of aggression against a neighbouring country right in the middle of Europe, not even in academic foreign policy. We are therefore restricting the German-Russian exchange relationships for the time being.”

Mukherjee emphasised that his organisation is aware of this step being unfair to some and affecting a large number of academics and students alike who have made efforts to maintain peaceful relations under the rule of law and good neighbourly relations.

“We know that many of our Russian friends and our Russian partner organisations condemn the military campaign against Ukraine from the bottom of their heart,” he noted. “At the same time, given the war, it is absolutely necessary to critically review support for exchange relationships with Russia.”

In coordination with the German federal government and following consultations with the German Rectors’ Conference and German universities, the measures taken may be adapted to incorporate further developments in the coming days and weeks.

“We have to acknowledge that we are facing a huge foreign defence and security policy challenge, a challenge which Europe has not seen since World War II, and which is shaking the very foundations of European values. Academic foreign policy also has to ask itself what contribution it can make to the federal government’s overall strategy and the European Union and to isolating Russia,” Mukherjee said.

The new statement is a toughening of the line taken by DAAD on Thursday when, in a statement on its website, DAAD said it would closely monitor the situation and developments on the ground and, in close consultation with the German federal government and in exchange with the German Rectors’ Conference and German universities, assess in the coming days and weeks how academic cooperation with Ukraine can be shaped.

Currently, 46 DAAD projects and 62 projects within the framework of Erasmus+ are being funded in Ukraine. Due to the pandemic, the current cooperation is largely taking place digitally.

Due to the worsening situation, DAAD funding recipients from Germany have already left Ukraine in the past few days, DAAD said in a statement on its website.