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Ukraine conflict: Global research community reviews links with Russia

BMJ 2022; 376 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.o637 (Published 10 March 2022) Cite this as: BMJ 2022;376:o637
  1. Jacqui Wise
  1. Kent

Universities and academic journals around the world are urgently reviewing their links with Russian scientists after the invasion of Ukraine, although views differ on whether collaboration and publishing should be banned outright.

Scientists from Ukraine have called for a complete boycott of the Russian academic community including banning Russian citizens from being authors or reviewers on international journals, as well as suspending all funding of and international collaboration with Russian institutions. An open letter, signed by more than 6000 scientists from Ukraine and worldwide, calls on the scientific community to institute wide ranging academic sanctions including blocking access to science databases and materials and banning Russian scientists from conferences.1

On 4 March the European Commission suspended cooperation with Russian institutions involved in EU funded research and innovation projects.2 The commission announced that it would not conclude any new contracts or any new agreements with Russian organisations under the Horizon Europe programme—the EU’s key funding programme.

Mariya Gabriel, European commissioner for innovation, research, culture, education and youth, said, “Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine is an attack on freedom, democracy and self-determination, on which cultural expression, academic and scientific freedom and scientific cooperation are based. As a result, we have decided not to engage into further cooperation projects in research and innovation with Russian entities.”

Germany was the first EU country to announce a blanket ban on research cooperation with Russia.3 The Alliance of German Science Organisations said that Germany’s research funds would no longer benefit Russia, no joint scientific events would take place, and no new collaborations would begin.

Denmark has followed Germany’s example, as its research minister wrote to universities urging them to “suspend any research and innovation cooperation” with institutions in Russia and Belarus. Norway said that all agreements between Norwegian and Russian research and educational institutions were now put on hold. In Boston, USA, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology terminated its 11 year partnership with Skolkovo, the innovation hub near Moscow.

Preserving academic ties

In contrast, others have called for academic ties to be preserved. The Belgian Rectors Conference published a statement urging governments to “make sure that academic cooperation can continue as much as possible as it allows the free flow of thoughts even during the darkest hours of armed conflict.”4 And Ghent University defended its Russia Platform, which organises research collaborations.

Other countries are still considering what action to take. The UK government has said that its Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is carrying out a “rapid review” of Russian beneficiaries of funding.

A statement by Universities UK, which represents 140 UK universities, said, “We do not support the application of blanket academic boycotts that prevent academics collaborating with other academics as a means of protest against the actions of their governments. We are therefore advising our members to make decisions about whether to continue collaborations on a case-by-case basis, informed both by UK government guidance and appropriate due diligence.”5

It added that education and research partnerships were often based on academic peer-to-peer relationships and noted that many Russian students and academics, at great personal peril, had publicly criticised the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

Several thousand scientists in Russia signed an open letter opposing the invasion despite the career risks and possible imprisonment.6 The letter says, “Having unleashed the war, Russia doomed itself to international isolation, to the position of a pariah country. This means that we, scientists, will no longer be able to do our job normally: after all, conducting scientific research is unthinkable without full cooperation with colleagues from other countries.”

Journals

There are also a range of responses within academia. The editorial board of the Journal of Molecular Structure decided to temporarily ban the publication of studies from Russian institutions, although it has no ban on individual Russian scientists inside or outside Russia.78

Many other journals, including Nature and The BMJ, have said that they will continue to consider manuscripts from researchers anywhere in the world. A Nature editorial said, “We think at this time that such a boycott would do more harm than good. It would divide the global research community and restrict the exchange of scholarly knowledge—both of which have the potential to damage the health and wellbeing of humanity and the planet.”9

In an editorial published this week The BMJ’s editor in chief, Kamran Abbasi, wrote, “Science and health have the potential to bring people together in common purpose to improve understanding, cooperation, and relationships. By boycotting Russian research . . . we risk further marginalising Russian scientists already bravely speaking for peace. We also potentially do harm to Russian civilians, a number of whom are, again bravely, protesting the war.”10

Commenting on the decision by some publishers to reject submissions from Russia, Vasiliy Vlassov, an epidemiologist at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, told The BMJ, “Of course, it is met with disappointment, but many scientists understand the reasoning. Most scientists are pleased to see that while institutional collaborations are stopped, many universities and labs continue to support individual collaborations.”

Vlassov said that over the past 15 years the Russian government had promoted the integration of Russian science with the rest of the world and had encouraged publication in international journals.

“Many indicators of the success of research institutes and universities were connected to publications in international journals,” he said. “It is obvious that this benchmarking will not work in the coming years. Despite the quality of Russian journals improving in the last 10 years, it is a road to the reduction of the quality of research and visibility of Russian science.”

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