Science sanctions against Russia: Time for a reappraisal?

In what seemed like a change of tone on the issue of sanctions against Russian science and scientists following the invasion of Ukraine, a leading figure from the National Research Foundation of Ukraine found herself in a minority on a panel of international science experts meeting to discuss the future of scientific cooperation in times of conflict.

Olga Polotska, executive director of the National Research Foundation of Ukraine, appeared both surprised and disappointed to be asked whether she knew the impact of the war in Ukraine on Russian science at the opening session of an international networking conference on widening research and development (R&D) in times of war.

The conference on 7 September 2022 began with Polotska in Kiev being interviewed live online by Richard L Hudson, a former Wall Street Journal technology editor in the United States who is now editorial director and board vice-chair of the Science|Business Network which hosted the event.

After outlining the latest information on damage to Ukraine’s scientific infrastructure – 131 universities and colleges damaged, including 22 completely destroyed, and over 50 research institutions damaged or critically destroyed with unknown human losses – Polotska was asked by Hudson about the effect of the war on Russian researchers and on ties between Ukrainian and Russian researchers, which Hudson suggested had been close in the past.

A quick history lesson

Seemingly taken aback by the question, Polotska replied: “Honestly speaking, I am not very interested,” before giving Hudson a quick history lesson on the deterioration of relations between Ukraine and Russia, particularly during the past decade.

“Everyone understands in Ukraine, but unfortunately the international community does not understand this perfectly well, that the conflict actually did not start in February [2022].

“It became very acute in 2014 [with the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea] and since that time close cooperation and collaborative relationships with Russian researchers [have been] partially suspended or broken.”

She told her audience of European diplomats meeting in person in Brussels and 700 watching proceedings online, that “science cannot be silent about crimes against humanity” and argued: “Now is the time to cut off all ties and connections with research in the Russian Federation.”

But that view was not shared by others on the panel.

Mathieu Denis, acting chief executive and science director of the International Science Council (ISC), started by restating “absolute support” for Ukrainian scientists and help to rebuild Ukraine’s scientific infrastructure in a tone now familiar to international academic conferences discussing Ukraine.

But then he turned to Russia and stressed that the ISC was “not primarily a Western or European organisation” but the world’s leading independent non-governmental scientific federation, with representation in over 140 countries, and it “speaks for the global scientific community”.

Three priorities

Denis said: “We have certain shared responsibilities, one is to preserve capacity to produce knowledge that helps society address global challenges”, before highlighting three priorities for dealing with Russian science.

The first was supporting mobility programmes that “should be open to Russian scientists fleeing their country because of the war”.

While sanctions were “perhaps inevitable”, Denis said: “We must protect certain spaces where Russian scientists can participate in international collaborations; where they can publish and where they can participate in conferences and committees.”

Thirdly, he said, an assessment was needed on the effects of the sanctions on Russian science to try to evaluate the overall impact at the local level in Russia and also at the global level.

Denis questioned whether there was “any evidence that sanctions are impeding, reducing or weakening the capacity of Russia to lead its aggressive war on Ukraine” and said there was evidence that they were weakening the global capacity to address challenges, such as climate change, “where we need data from around the world to be effective, including from the Arctic Ocean marine stations [in Russia].”

A policy to attract Russian brains

Fellow panellist Professor Luc Soete, former rector magnificus of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, expressed sympathy with those in Ukraine who want to have nothing to do with Russians, but argued that it might be more effective to encourage a brain drain out of Russia.

He acknowledged that the conflict started in 2014 and not in February this year and admitted that science diplomacy should have been used at that time, but wasn’t. However, he suggested that “scientists are different from sportsmen and they are also different from trade” and that while sanctioning of research institutions supporting the war was inevitable, “we should do the exact opposite in terms of individual scientists”.

“Why don’t we have a real policy [to] attract Russian brains and generate a brain drain out of Russia to strengthen our scientific basis and to sanction the Russian science system by trying to steal their best scientific brains?” he asked.

The conference also heard from experts in South Africa and Japan, which have taken a different approach to Russia than the West since the invasion of Ukraine.

Daan du Toit, deputy director-general for international cooperation and resources at the South African Department of Science and Innovation, accepted that sanctions had been used against the apartheid regime in South Africa, but he was not sure about their effect on the current situation in Ukraine and his country was cooperating with both the Russian Federation and Ukraine.

The need for dialogue

He said South Africa believed established global governance structures, specifically the United Nations, should be used to respond to global crises like this and that dialogue was key to resolving conflict, as it had been for the eventual peaceful transition to democratisation in South Africa.

“At a time [when] we need global unity and solidarity, we see different blocs emerging and countries and continents, such as mine, being forced by some to choose sides,” said Du Toit.

Yuko Harayama, co-chair of the board of the Japanese Association for the Advancement of Science, adopted a similar tone when she said they preferred statements condemning aggression rather than supporting sanctions and said it was important to contrast sanctions against scientific institutions and sanctions against individuals.

She said the conflict in Ukraine seemed far away in Europe to many Japanese people and suggested that some Russians working and studying in Japan were against the invasion, which led Hudson to ask whether Japanese scientific institutions might see things differently if China invaded Taiwan.

Harayama accepted that might happen and was another reason why the scientific community needs to increase its capacity to deal with the unexpected and to have a comprehensive view about the impact of sanctions.

Responding to the discussion, Polotska queried whether large numbers of Russian scientists were in fact against the war and told the conference that in the second week of the war, in early March, the National Research Foundation of Ukraine sent over 40,000 emails to Russian researchers using open data sources to get their addresses and appealed to them to condemn the unlawful aggression by the Russian Federation.

Most of the emails were ignored, but of the replies “only 12% were relatively supportive or neutral”, while the other 88% supported the war and often used “very humiliating” and what she called “obsolete language” about the re-unification of Ukraine and rebuilding the old Soviet Union.

* A discussion paper “The conduct of science in times of war produced by Science|Business features contributions from several speakers at the conference. It urges monitoring of the impact of science sanctions on Russia as well as consultation with the scientific community on a joint framework for responding to future conflicts and crises.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. Follow @DelaCour_Comms on Twitter. Nic also blogs at