Boycotting Russian Scientists Is a Hollow Victory

“What shall we do What about our Russian colleagues?” asked the senior scientist in the audience. It’s early summer and 100 degrees in Chicago. He was giving a lecture at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), the main facility of ‘US particle physics research and my former workplace. My talk focused on the Asian-American experience and the impact of deteriorating US-China relations on science, but for many in the audience, the Russian invasion of Ukraine imposed greater urgency.

Days after the conflict began on February 24, CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, Fermilab’s longtime partner, halted all new collaborations with institutions and individuals in Russia and Belarus. The organization announced in June that it intends to cut ties with both countries after their current cooperation agreements expire in 2024. Other international organizations have taken similar or more drastic actions. The Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum of eight Arctic states, halted work in March and is resuming limited research this summer without Russia’s participation, a potentially devastating setback for climate science. The European Space Agency has ended its cooperation with Russia, grounding Europe’s first Mars rover, which was expected to board a Russian rocket to the red planet later this year. For a moment, it appeared that the International Space Station would withstand seismic events on Earth. That hope was dashed at the end of July, when the head of Russia’s space agency declared that his country would leave the project in 2024.

From the icy caps of Earth to the edge of space, the sharp blade of war has split across academic alliances that were already fraying under the strains of pandemic and geopolitics, exposing a burning question without an easy answer. In conversations with friends and colleagues in the United States and Europe, I have sensed a collective frustration bordering on helplessness. Everyone regrets the invasion and agrees on the need to do so something to help Ukraine, and that maintaining business as usual in the face of such a calamity would be morally indefensible. But aside from issuing statements and offering aid, what concrete actions can academia and the scientific community take regarding Russia?

Many tell me that the decision is out of their hands: “It’s politics.” Labs and their staff must comply with government sanctions and funding agency rules, some of which prohibit collaborating with colleagues in Russia or crediting Russian institutions on co-authored papers. Some lament that Russian scientists who do not actively support the invasion are unfairly ostracized. One scientist, who grew up in the former Soviet Union before emigrating to the West, made a compelling case that people in democracies should not help advance science in authoritarian regimes; it would only strengthen dictators, who use technology for destructive purposes. The scientist has not visited his country of birth for years and urges all his Chinese students to never return to China either.

Thousands of scientists, science journalists and students in Russia, as well as many more in the Russian diaspora, have signed open letters condemning the conflict. Among those jailed for his opposition is the politician and journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, whose father refused a formal job in Soviet Russia as a repudiation of the totalitarian regime. These brave acts are to ignite hope in the long nights of war and oppression; they also puncture the illusion that ordinary people are not to blame for the actions of the state. To dismiss responsibility is to deny agency. In an unfair world, compromise is often a condition of survival.

Western scientists’ varied views of their Russian counterparts—relying on official guidelines, pretending the Russian people are powerless, or evoking a total shutdown—emanate from a shared position: the innocence of the bystander. Bombs, prisons, and purges are attributed to an abstract state and take place in a foreign location, despite the fact that German cities run on Russian gas, Swiss banks are safe havens for Putin cronies, and ostensibly democratic governments also use technology to hurt. including the numerous armed conflicts initiated by the United States. The insistence on innocence prevents a clear understanding of the overlapping systems of violence and injustice that are never limited to one war, one country, or one model of government. As the world fractures along political divides and academia straddles fault lines, how we perceive and react to the designated other is ultimately up to us: who we are, where we stand and what kind of future we strive for.

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