Fellowships for at-risk scholars can benefit whole societies

The need to help at-risk scholars may be obvious to some in the higher education community. Yet, it still provokes many questions, doubts and even contestation. Given that there are many at-risk individuals who require support, why give special attention to academics?

Similar to professions such as journalism, academia entails certain risks, as critical analysis and thinking are not welcomed everywhere and always. Academics are often persecuted and criminalised only because they engage internationally, speak foreign languages and adhere to alternative ideas.

Working in higher education and research institutions in different countries is part of academics’ DNA. While there are, of course, differences in language and culture, it is usually a lot easier for academics to transfer to another country than for other professionals. But what about costs, sustainability and impact?

Academics’ salaries tend to range in the medium bracket, and, at least in the beginning, at-risk researchers tend to be employed for a limited period, or receive a fellowship. That said, one can argue that even in a high-income European country, in perspective, this might be the most feasible and sustainable solution, both from a humanitarian, but also from an economic point of view.

Academics who participate in such fellowship schemes can continue to work in their profession, regain their social mobility and contribute to both their host – and depending on circumstances – often also to their home institutions and societies.

Another frequent question is whether fellowship schemes accelerate brain drain. While this cannot be completely excluded, it can also be argued that they help to prevent brain drain, and contribute to brain circulation.

These are scholars who have to leave their country, or are no longer allowed to work. Abroad, they can stay in science and academia. Apart from helping an individual scholar in a difficult – sometimes life-threatening – situation, supporting academics at risk also means supporting global research and higher education.

They also may be able to return to their home country if and when safe conditions allow it, equipped with new skills, knowledge, networks and experiences.

In some European countries, these issues seem to have been understood. As a result, several initiatives and programmes for the support of at-risk researchers and academics have been established.

Since 2016, the Inspireurope+ project, funded by the European Commission, has developed concrete suggestions on how the EU and its member states could support academics at risk. This has had some success.

Proposed by the European Parliament, a first European pilot initiative will hopefully start in 2024.

In addition, the European Commission, in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, provided funding for the MSCA4Ukraine initiative, launched in October 2022. It is the first dedicated European Union fellowship scheme for at-risk scholars and now supports 125 academics and doctoral candidates through fellowships at European universities.

Experiences of MSCA4Ukraine fellows

In a recent webinar, two Ukrainian researchers, Oksana Chukova and Olha Karaman, and one doctoral candidate, Artem Nazarko, shared their still relatively fresh experiences as MSCA4Ukraine fellows. Their insights also shed light on many of the issues mentioned above.

First and foremost, all three researchers have been able to continue their work in a stable and safe environment, access necessary scientific equipment and engage in the international scientific community.

While this is important for every academic, it is particularly critical for early-career researchers such as Artem Nazarko, who started his doctoral studies in 2021. Artem’s field of study, international criminal and humanitarian law, is highly relevant to wartime Ukraine. However, he had not been able to pursue it further before receiving a two-year fellowship at the University of Bergen in Norway.

MSCA4Ukraine fellowships also enable connections with the global research community and contribute to establishing and enhancing relations between institutions. As the testimonies of Oksana, Olha and Artem show, this is also important for their home institutions back in Ukraine.

For example, Artem has been pioneering links, and joint research efforts, between his home university in Odessa and his host institution, the University of Bergen.

While he still teaches online seminars to students back in Ukraine, his current experience of living and working abroad allows him to look at things from a different angle. Indeed, based on his own – often challenging – experience, Artem shares strategies for publishing in European and American journals with Ukrainian colleagues.

The fact that one of his advisors in Bergen is also from Ukraine is clearly of advantage here, and shows the importance of diaspora links.

Oksana Chukova, a physicist working on electronic processes in luminescence spectra formation, was already familiar with her host institution, the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron in Hamburg, Germany, from prior stays. Now as an MSCA4Ukraine fellow, she is able to host groups of colleagues from her home institution, Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv.

In addition, regular trips back to Kyiv allow her to continue working with her colleagues, and, on occasion, to transport samples and results back and forth, making best use of the technical and human capacities of both institutions.

Overall, the fellowship has enhanced her international exposure, allowing her to network and share her research at conferences across Europe – a sharp contrast to the danger and uncertainty at home, where her office and lab have been hit by Russian missiles.

Olha Karaman is a biologist and onco-immunologist from RE Kavetsky Institute of Experimental Pathology, Oncology and Radiobiology, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Kyiv, working in the field of cancer immunotherapy. Having been awarded a fellowship, she now divides her time between the National Cancer Institute in Lithuania and a secondment in the laboratories of Loyola University Chicago in the United States.

As is the case of many MSCA4Ukraine fellows, Olha is also focused on how her current work can have a positive impact in her home country. Indeed, she hopes that her research will bring advanced technologies into the Ukrainian medical research sector and make the resulting treatments available to Ukrainian cancer patients.

Common lessons

These three journeys are different enough to raise curiosity about those of the other 122 MSCA4Ukraine fellows. Indeed, we have been hearing from some of them in an ongoing video series. That said, Oksana, Olha and Artem already converge on some clear messages.

All three scholars agreed that it was important to receive a fellowship for at least two years. Shorter periods would have made it more difficult for them to plan ahead and engage in the way they do now.

If there is something to improve further, it would be the ability to enhance collaboration with home institutions. A key question is whether this should be part of a fellowship scheme, or could rather be provided through a separate funding instrument.

Listening to the presentations of the three fellows, an overall insight is again that, for an at-risk scholar, a fellowship has pretty much the very same function as for any other academic. It enables them to research and teach – with one important difference: the higher level of urgency for career development and continuation, and possibly even for survival.

As discussions on the reconstruction of Ukraine in the uncertain situation of an ongoing war continue, it is important to recall the benefits of such fellowships, beyond the individual scholars, for academic communities and institutions and society at large. Ukraine’s future will depend also on its scientific and academic capacity. This is, of course, also valid for other countries, such as Afghanistan, Iran or Syria.

Michael Gaebel is director of higher education policy at the European University Association.