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«Russian science has been exterminated» Researchers from Russia on the ramifications of war and sanctions

Iva Tsoy

With the war ongoing, the world's leading research institutes have started terminating joint projects with Russian researchers. The most prominent case dates back to the second day of the invasion: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of the most reputable establishments worldwide, ceased its cooperation with Skolkovo as early as February 25. Meanwhile, Western scientists published an open letter in Science with a call to refrain from condemning their Russian colleagues for their government’s actions. However, soaring procurement prices, the inability to pay for the necessary equipment, and the absence of direct international flights may well result in the isolation and “demise” of Russian science. The Insider spoke to research associates to find out what challenges they are facing, how they feel about the situation, and whether they intend to leave the country. For obvious reasons, all interviewees chose to remain anonymous.

ALL CARDS
  • Doctor of Sciences, head of a biotech lab at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT):

  • Senior research associate at the Faculty of Physics, Moscow State University:

  • Researcher, MSU:

  • Employee of Moscow Pedagogical State University (MPGU):

  • Associate professor, candidate of physical and mathematical sciences (a Russian PhD-level degree), MIPT:

  • Junior research associate, Skoltech:

  • Psychologist, post-graduate student, Higher School of Economics:

«There are countries without science. Russia will join the list»

Doctor of Sciences, head of a biotech lab at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT):

The MIPT experienced its first sanctions even before February 24 – for one, from the U.S. in November 2021. <The Insider's note: the institute was denied access to U.S. technologies because of its cooperation with the Russian military.> Those sanctions had no particular impact on our work. Buying so-called dual-use products had already been a challenge for a decade. We weren’t procuring anything, but I think that researchers who need high-tech equipment, for instance, for fluorescent analysis, could only buy it through intermediaries at a much higher price.

After February 24, many more companies will withdraw from the Russian market. Furthermore, the dollar exchange rate has skyrocketed, driving up prices even for the most innocuous equipment two- or threefold if bought through third parties. Unfortunately, almost none of the equipment for modern research is manufactured domestically. Too little time has passed for us to make any predictions about the long-term implications. At our lab, we planned to repair some of the equipment we bought over a decade ago, but we can't proceed with the repairs now, so a few projects have been put on hold. A few microscopes are out of order. At the moment, we don’t have the resources for any serious equipment, but we realize full well that disposables have gone up too, so our financing, which was always scarce, will no longer cover our needs. We thought we had enough money and supplies to last for six months, but it’s apparent that we only have two or three months before we have to halt the research.

Even the most innocuous equipment has gone up two- or threefold if bought through third parties

We didn't have any official international grant-funded projects. Instead, we ran informal, voluntary collaborations with our foreign partners and applied for grants whenever we could. Such projects are being suspended. We’re still maintaining informal contacts because personal acquaintance is a whole other story. Personal contacts make further cooperation possible, but we’re still unable to formalize it, which eliminates our chances of financial or technical support. Earlier, when we contributed to an American or Dutch project, we did so with a grant application in mind. Now we can’t apply for grants anymore – not only because Russia is becoming the world's pariah. For instance, if we receive a grant from an international organization and it pays my salary or covers my trip to a conference, Russia could label me a “foreign agent” and disenfranchise me. The institute’s administration would only be too happy.

In all, our prospects are grim. On the one hand, research labs will put a brake on their studies due to the lack of access to modern technology; on the other hand, “elite” labs will continue to get everything they need. Researchers who cater to the needs of the political elite will, most likely, remain unaffected. There is Skolkovo [an innovation hub outside Moscow] and Skoltech [an associated private institute], which are supposed to showcase Russia’s scientific and technological advancement. I think the government will make a point of showering them with money to prove that nothing has changed. I don’t have anything to say about secret labs in the military sector, but it's probably safe to assume they’ll keep doing whatever they need regardless of the costs. They’ll get their supplies through third parties, as we did with computers in the late 1980s – early 1990s. We couldn’t procure ordinary PCs – with Intel 286 or 386 processors – because the U. S. restricted their export to Russia under the Jackson – Vanik Amendment. So we bought them at three or four times the original price from intermediaries in Turkey, Egypt, or elsewhere. Individual labs and research institutes that cover the state's needs may be spared the brunt of the crisis, but the general situation will hobble scientific research.

Labs will put a brake on their studies due to the lack of access to modern technology

In the long term, Russian society will suffer from a lower level of education because researchers form the core of teaching staff at the best higher education establishments. If they can't continue their work and become mere lecturers – or fall behind their foreign peers – the level of education drops, as well as the professionalism of future engineers.

Admittedly, we might still see individual breakthroughs, but the best-case scenario will resemble the Soviet Union, where immense amounts of resources were pumped into nuclear research to ensure our competitiveness worldwide, while microelectronics remained subpar and biomedical research was two or three decades behind the world’s leaders. Studies were ongoing – but nothing to speak about. However, science is subject to geography. There are countries without any science at all, like Zimbabwe or Paraguay, where people somehow make do without it – and that’s what we’ll have to do.

There are countries without science, like Zimbabwe or Paraguay, where people somehow make do without it – and that’s what we’ll have to do

Since it all <The Insider’s note: the war> began, I’ve been profoundly depressed, even though I’m a grown-up and am supposed to keep my emotions in check. I have a strongly negative attitude to these events and signed the open letter that was published in Troitsky Variant <The Insider’s note: the newspaper published an open letter by Russian scientists against the war on its website on February 24>. It's hard to maintain a conversation with my colleagues because “fake information discrediting the Russian military” can earn you a fine or land you in jail. But I’m under the impression that less than half of my colleagues support the “special operation”. Those against it fall into two categories: those actively looking for alternatives, including emigration, and those who remain passive, waiting it out, keeping their heads down.

The supporters include those who “go with the flow”, taking the path of least resistance because “this doesn't concern us, so we’ll pull through” and those who see it as a time of new opportunities. They say we're being strangled with imported goods and import substitution will only do us good. Such declarations leave me extremely skeptical. Import substitution has been a thing since 2014 with little to no success. Every time someone shows up, saying: “I’m the one who can finally do it right. Just give me your money!” And they get the money, but two or three years later, nothing gets done, and we're back to square one.

As for emigration, people leave whenever they can. Few are prepared to leave their lives behind and cross the border with a single suitcase. Most understand they won't get a warm welcome. I’ve lived in different countries for many years and know that emigration normally results in a much lower social status – unless you’re a world-class specialist. Not everyone is willing to take such a risk. The Western academic labor market is finite – there are only so many job openings. Say, 100,000 research associates choose to leave Russia for the U.S. How can the U.S. procure 100,000 university jobs at once? One could always abandon an academic career and become a garbage collector. There is no shame in that, but it's a hard choice to make. One could become a mailman. Recent emigrants will need to find a job to survive, and most will have to settle for non-research positions.

«Some of my colleagues have left. The rest plan to follow suit»

Senior research associate at the Faculty of Physics, Moscow State University:

The heaviest blow is the lack of access to equipment. Either we don't have any domestic analogs, or they're way worse. There are Chinese analogs, but their quality is also subpar. Furthermore, we’ve been cut off from international projects (except Asian ones). We submitted a joint request for a funding program run by five European countries and secured partial approval, but it's off the table now. We’ll try applying for a joint grant under a program of cooperation with Taiwan and the BRIC countries. A few of our articles have been rejected. We’ve received two emails suggesting that we opt for a different journal “in light of the political circumstances”. But it’s been more of an exception than a rule so far.

Technology-intensive research will of course take a huge dent. You can already see it at Skolkovo, where a few companies have faced a collapse in their electronics and equipment procurement and are looking for Asian analogs. Almost all of Russia’s electronics are bought in developed countries. We’re nowhere near creating a technology platform for microchips or discrete electronic components. Science in general will continue to dwindle. Even without the sanctions, Russia was not getting anywhere.

Even without the sanctions, Russia was not getting anywhere

I believe the sanctions are justified (I may even have taken a harsher line if I were to decide). Some of my colleagues have left. The rest plan to follow suit. Scientific research always had vague prospects in Russia, but now all hope that remained has been lost. Unfortunately, I can't leave the country due to family circumstances – and no one will be too happy to see us abroad.

«Our ideas won’t get any more exposure»

Researcher, MSU:

We haven't been the subject of any sanctions. However, we’re running a project with a European university, which has received a directive banning any contact with Russian academics. Our contact said in a Zoom conference that he’d love to continue working with us but that his hands were tied. We’ll see how the situation unfolds.

Furthermore, we can't send the devices that are out of order abroad for repairs. Getting our hands on chemical supplies is also a challenge. So is purchasing lab equipment: we can’t buy items that require filling out end-user certificates. The overall attitude hasn't changed. [Foreign] researchers are understanding and willing to cooperate.

It's a new reality, and we’ll have to adapt. There’s no telling how long it'll take us to get back to normal. For now, we’ll try to make do with what we have.

The absence of publications in foreign journals will result in Russian science gradually losing its global recognition. Our ideas won’t get any more exposure. For the time being, we can keep reading foreign journals, but once they are out of reach too, the gap between us and the West will only widen.

«I’m considering emigration, but my professional prospects abroad are doubtful»

Employee of Moscow Pedagogical State University (MPGU):

Since Web of Science and Scopus <The Insider’s note: major citation databases that have closed access for Russian and Belarusian organizations> are no longer available for Russia-based organizations, requirements for publications changed, so we’ve had to edit the papers that were ready for print. It was a bit of a hassle. My team mostly interacts with Russian entities, so the sanctions haven't impacted our work all that much, but we still may face long-term ramifications.

In my understanding, humanities – that is, human-centered areas of research – are under a lot of pressure from the Russian authorities, so we can expect humanities studies to start lagging behind even more than they already do.

We can expect humanities studies to start lagging behind even more than they already do

Our colleagues and I are pessimistic about the future. We’ve talked about emigrating, but those with families find it harder to change their place of residence, of course. By contrast, I started considering it a long time ago, before these year’s events, and I could be eligible for young researcher programs. My professional prospects abroad, however, remain doubtful.

I feel that the Western sanctions are somehow excessive in their impact on ordinary Russians and the Russian academic community in particular. I agree with the authors of the letter. <The Insider's note: In an open letter in Science on March 24, Western scientists called on politicians and the international science and tech community to refrain from indiscriminately condemning all Russian scientists for the war in Ukraine.>. Unreasonable marginalization and stigmatization are uncalled for and detrimental to an integrated academic community. That said, I don't know how else you can bring pressure to bear on the government and those academics who support it. As society members, we must accept universal rules instead of thinking that we're above everyone else and that rules don’t apply to us.

«Without access to databases, all you can do is keep processing outdated and irrelevant bullshit»

Associate professor, candidate of physical and mathematical sciences (a Russian PhD-level degree), MIPT:

I’m a mathematician, and I hardly ever participate in international projects. Speaking of first-hand experiences, I’ve faced a certain hostility from my foreign colleagues (a Czech mathematician swore at me, saying I was personally responsible for the war) and the inability to attend international conferences. Russia has been denied the right to host the International Congress of Mathematicians 2022 (which was to be held in Saint Petersburg). The event's international organizing committee canceled it. Furthermore, I won’t be able to take part in two more conferences (satellite events of the Congress) because those have been canceled too. My trip to Sweden as a visiting professor is off the table. Participation in other conferences is not an option for financial reasons: without direct flights, travel costs have gone up, and Russia hardly ever offers travel grants or covers academic trips.

Canceled subscriptions will harm my work too. My communication with foreign journals is already complicated because I can’t pay for any extras (like open access to an article) or any other services I was using: Overleaf, Zoom, or Google Drive. You can’t do research without access to databases. If you’re unaware of what your colleagues are doing and what results they’ve obtained, you’re out of context. So the most you can do is keep processing outdated and irrelevant bullshit. Fresh results are being published more or less continuously. As I prepare an article and finalize my results, it’s common practice (and even a must for some publications) to examine the most recent results, indicating how your results correlate to those of your peers over the recent years. Research results without context are generally irrelevant.

The most you can do is keep processing outdated and irrelevant bullshit

Russian science, which was already the worse for wear, has now been exterminated. Russia’s academic community has been cut off from the rest of the world, which is fatal for scientific research. Studies are only possible within the international context, which has become inaccessible. Since foreign publications are no longer mandatory for Russian researchers, we're in for a barrage of articles in Russian journals, which no one abroad will ever read – not because of the Russophobia but due to the abysmal quality of reviews and articles in these publications (except for a few top-ranking Russian journals). Besides, researchers will be required to publish more, which will result in even bigger numbers of papers. Whereas international citation platforms guaranteed at least a certain quality of published papers, the quality of domestic articles will now plummet.

This will affect Russia in general but will of course be a drop in the bucket compared to the impending economic collapse. In the overall academic landscape, I expect a spike in quasi-scientific, Lysenko-style theories by “patriotically-minded” scientists. I also expect a mass exodus of highly qualified researchers and recent graduates – which is already ongoing. The majority of promising bachelors and masters will take off as soon as they get their degrees.

This will be a drop in the bucket compared to the impending economic collapse

I’ll also add that researchers’ and academics’ income levels, moderate at best, will nosedive. Many grant programs will most likely be terminated, and salary growth will have a hard time catching up with the inflation rate (let alone the currency exchange rate). As we say in Russia, «We've never lived well, so there's no use in starting now.” While professors and scientists were lower middle class, they’ll be downright penniless. Most research projects in Russia will fail in the absence of foreign chemicals, equipment, or technologies.

Consequently, as I’ve said, Russian science will collapse. Russia as an economy will face rapid technological decline across all industries.

The sanctions are a sensible, hygienic measure. Interacting with a state that takes demonstrative, unabashed steps no one can interpret otherwise than war crimes is unacceptable by European standards. All the more so because Russian academic establishments didn’t bring much to the table in such collaborations. Their contribution was hardly ever decisive or irreplaceable. Russia has long lost its true leadership in this regard.

Russian academic establishments didn’t bring much to the table in such collaborations

As to the Western scientists’ letter in support of their Russian peers published in Science, I’m very grateful to its signatories for thinking so highly of Russia’s academic community (probably too highly). Russian anti-war letters gathered a dozen thousand signatures at the most, while research associates and professors are far more numerous. Admittedly, most of my colleagues of standing have signed them.

In all, my conclusion is as follows: Ukrainian scholars, scientists, and students at least have the hope of restoring and rebuilding their universities, renewing their research activities, and moving forwards. In Russia, we don't have such hopes anymore.

«Unless Russia closes its borders, scientists will be leaving in droves»

Junior research associate, Skoltech:

Once MIT terminated its cooperation with Skoltech, all joint grant-funded projects were suspended too. The projects were ambitious and costly, so we can't complete them without financial assistance or input from our U.S. colleagues. MIT was already distancing itself from Skoltech in the wake of the 2014 events, but now Skoltech’s geographic location has driven the final nail in the coffin of its reputation.

Russian scientists got “canceled” by the FEBS conference despite having paid the registration fee. Hopefully, as the event draws closer, the situation will be resolved at least legally because for the moment it looks like swindling and discrimination.

On another note, a few manufacturers of research equipment and chemicals have withdrawn from Russia. We're reviewing our logistics, switching to Chinese analogs, or buying from domestic suppliers at exorbitant prices due to increased shipping costs.

Most scientists working at Russia’s high-ranking research institutes belong to the class of liberal “intelligentsia”. Amongst ourselves, we call the war what it is and abhor totalitarianism. As much as getting “canceled” may hurt, we realize that the murderous political regime is to blame. If the regime takes an even more repressive turn, many will have to take a conformist stance to continue doing research and teaching. This shouldn’t be confused with supporting the authorities. One day the regime will fall, and someone will have to build a new Russia.

Amongst ourselves, we call the war what it is and abhor totalitarianism

I don’t view Putin as a legitimate president and have been participating in rallies since 2012, so facing sanctions from my foreign colleagues feels weird and ridiculous. It's like canceling Greenpeace for global warming. Another opinion is that of my more seasoned “revolutionary” colleagues: we have deserved our fate by being passive. They might have a point.

Absolutely all of my colleagues and friends are considering emigration. My boss says everyone should leave, especially young people who don’t have kids, sick parents, or mortgage loans. I don't think all of them will up and leave, though. Someone is bound to stay because Russian liberals still hope for a bright future.

Unless Russia closes its borders, scientists will be leaving in droves. There is no Russian or American science; it's an international endeavor. Everything will deteriorate but not disintegrate. We’ve already been through this in Soviet times when scientists and scholars made some discoveries but fewer than they would have in a more free-spirited environment.

All my numerous acquaintances abroad have nothing but sympathy for me in terms of the war. The discrimination against us, Russians, inside the country is more nuanced. Hopefully, the allegations against us were purely emotional, and with time, people will understand that a country’s nationals aren’t responsible for their president's actions. And that discrimination against abstract academic institutions always leads to discrimination against specific individuals, who tend to take offense when treated unfairly.

«Everyone who could afford to leave left»

Psychologist, post-graduate student, Higher School of Economics:

How have the sanctions impacted my work? I can't pay for my subscription at DataCamp, an educational platform for programmers. The programs of cooperation and academic exchange between HSE and Tel Aviv University, the University of Helsinki, and the Aalto University have been called off. International cooperation has been put on a long, ponderous pause.

International cooperation has been put on a long, ponderous pause

Naturally, this won’t do any good for Russian research, as many studies will be suspended. Equipment maintenance is costly, and we’ll be out of parts. We won't be able to buy state-of-the-art equipment or learn to work with it. If many valuable specialists leave, they’ll stop teaching, which means the quality of psychological education will deteriorate.

It's crucial to distinguish between those supporting the current events and those opposed to them. It's important to see behind a scholar’s nationality. Otherwise, whenever a researcher gets rejected because of their passport, it reinforces what the propaganda will have us believe. Most of my colleagues don’t support what's happening. Everyone who could afford to leave left. Others are looking for options to follow them.

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