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War: the impact on academics and research

War: the impact on academics and research

[Photo: / Ritaanisimova]

Shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine began at the end of February, Viola Lynne, a prominent historian of Stalin's reign of terror, completed a project involving colleagues from both sides of the conflict. Within weeks, however, like many other scholars, she felt she had to take a stance, and quit her position at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "With the war," says Lynne, Professor at the University of Toronto's Department of History, whose work has frequently taken her to once-closed archives in the former Soviet Union, "I found it untenable to continue on in that position."

Since then, Lynne has watched how the war ricocheted through academe, in the form of boycotts, cancelled post-doctoral offers to young Russian academics, and the targeting of academic programs and collections, such as a former KGB archive in Kyiv. In Ukraine, she says, "I don't think anyone's doing historical work at this point." As for her collaborators in Russia, Lynne adds, communication is now highly circumspect. "I have regressed to Soviet-style writing."

Besides the most visible and horrifying aspects of the war, the Russian invasion has had a dramatic impact on academic life and research work involving both countries, while triggering a wide range of responses from universities and colleges, scholarly organizations, funding bodies and government departments involved in research activity. Thousands of academics and students have been forced to flee while many foreign students in Ukraine have been trapped.

Meanwhile, multi-lateral scientific initiatives focused on everything from the Arctic to the International Space Station have essentially stopped. Canadian researchers participate in many of these.

The condemnation from the global education sector has been clear. "Educators from all over the world call on the international community to stop the bloodshed in Ukraine and do their utmost to avoid a catastrophic humanitarian crisis in Europe," wrote David Edwards, general secretary of Education International, the global federation of teacher unions, in a tweet early in the war. CAUT has joined with Education International in standing in solidarity with students, teachers, academics, and the people of Ukraine to condemn Russia’s invasion and direct resources to the growing number of Ukrainian refugees.

Karly Kehoe, a Saint Mary’s University historian who has worked extensively with displaced academics, notes the crisis in the Ukraine is a reminder that scholars in other war zones have faced the same kinds of violence, dislocation and professional collapse, often with far less attention from the media and the West. "One thing that is important to recognize is while the crisis in Ukraine is hitting now, we are still dealing with the crisis in Afghanistan. We're still dealing with Syria. We are still dealing with Turkey. So this is a really, really big issue."

Most universities have issued statements of support for Ukraine and, in some cases, freed up funding or spaces for international students. The University of Manitoba, for example, set up a $1 million emergency bursary fund.

The federal government also announced a short-term "special response" fund specifically for Ukrainian research trainees, which provides support of up to $20,000 for masters students, $25,000 for PhDs, and $45,000 for post-docs. The objective, according to Ottawa, "is to initiate or maintain the employment or financial support — via stipend or salary — of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers who are directly impacted by the crisis in Ukraine."

While such moves are welcome, Kehoe argues that Canadian governments, institutions and academic staff associations need to think about longer-term solutions for displaced scholars. One-or two-year stints are not sufficient for academics who have been forced to flee their homes and may never return. "That is not how you support scholars at risk who have lost everything," she says. "You can't just say, ‘we've given you a year or two and that's all we can do.'"

Meanwhile, the academic community is debating whether to sever ties with Russian universities and researchers. Canada's federal research granting bodies announced in early March that they were putting a moratorium on funding partnerships with Russia, following a similar move by the United Kingdom and the EU.

Kehoe feels the academic community's concern should extend to Russian scholars who oppose the war. "I'm very worried about them," she says. "If they speak out, they're going to be in a lot of trouble. If they keep quiet, they're going to be criticized for keeping quiet."

There's no doubt that scholarly relationships between Canadian and Russian academics have become extremely strained, especially in cases where Russian scholars have spoken up in favour of Vladimir Putin's regime or had relationships with Kremlin-affiliated groups.

The question is, how far should the sense of enmity extend. "Organizations like the American Historical Association are suggesting cutting links with institutions rather than individuals," says Lynne. "If you still have a contact with an individual, why should you stop?"

University of British Columbia anthropologist Alexia Bloch, whose work has focused on Siberia, says she's remained in close contact with her counterparts in Russia, whom she knows are against the war. Still, she always takes care to connect via WhatsApp. "I can't email people and ask them what they're really thinking about what's happening."

Western University biologist Jeremy McNeil, who is president of the Royal Society, adds that in his experience working with researchers from abroad, it's typically prudent to avoid discussing politics.

Beyond off-the-clock conversation, McNeil and others express grave concerns about how the war will affect ongoing research, especially multi-site, multi-disciplinary work that includes partnerships with Russian and Ukraine scholars. "These collaborations increase our knowledge," he says, pointing out that in many domains, like biology, knowledge production has nothing to do with geopolitics, but is directly undermined by interruptions to activities such as field research and systematic data gathering.

Given the sanctions, Bloch knows that research travel to Russia, which has become increasingly difficult to organize in the past decade, is now out of the question. She adds that other types of interactions, such as sending payments to researchers or participants has also become impossible. More broadly, Bloch worries that the war has turned Russia into a black box in terms of social science research, which, she notes, is problematic for Canada, with its large shared northern border. "It feels like the end of the 1930s."

Others also fear the broader consequences of the severed research ties. Terry Callaghan, a British Arctic ecology expert told Science Business that the pausing of the work of the Arctic Council, to which Canada belongs, will reverberate in global debates over climate change. “If we cut Russia off now, there’s an extremely high volume of research that the West will not get to see for the foreseeable future," he said. "The impact of that and the impacts of climate change on Siberia could be felt all around the world.”

Between the delays related to COVID-19 and now the war, McNeil warns that the disruptions to ongoing research could inflict permanent damage. "Your science is going to die on the spot," he says. "These people who are in their labs and aren't able to progress, it won't be just [that] they can just pick up where they finished.... If you're working in the field or have certain experiments, you've missed that time. It's gone."

Despite substantive questions about the impact of world events on the creation of new knowledge, Bloch feels that it's simply no longer ethically appropriate to carry on research. And, as she adds, these dilemmas are "minor concerns" in comparison to what academics and students in Ukraine are enduring.

Kehoe, citing initiatives in Europe (see below), says that Canadian higher education institutions need to do more to support displaced academics from Ukraine, other war zones, and those who have pulled up stakes and left Russia. Academic staff associations, she adds, should be looking for funds to provide displaced scholars with three or four years of certainty as well as lobbying university presidents to ante up more funding.

"We are really, really comfortable in Canada,” Kehoe notes. "We might have problems with our system. But we are very, very privileged here, and I think sometimes it's easy to forget that the academic freedom that we can take for granted doesn't exist elsewhere."








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