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Unpicking the guidance on assisting at-risk academics

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, universities across Europe have been looking at how to help academics who are fleeing the conflict.

Organisations that work with academics in trouble have already promised help. The Scholars at Risk network, an international group of institutions working to protect researchers who find themselves in dangerous circumstances, has called for measures including “arranging temporary positions for as many scholars displaced from or otherwise unable to work safely in Ukraine as possible”.

The network has had some practice in responding to such crises. In August last year, after the Taliban recaptured Afghanistan, Scholars at Risk was one organisation issuing similar calls to jolt universities into helping.

Last month, the network welcomed guidelines for institutions published by the European Commission. These detail how to make funding calls for schemes under the Commission’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programme more inclusive for scholars at risk. 

The guidelines were developed with input from Inspireurope, an alliance of 10 organisations that creates coordination between EU-wide and national initiatives to support academics at risk. The Commission says the recommendations “go beyond MSCA and may be implemented by the higher education community more generally”.


According to the guidelines, researchers at risk are those “who are experiencing threats to their life, liberty or research career, and those who are forced to flee or have been displaced”.

Academics might face personal threats over the content of their work, or they could be at risk because of a conflict in their home country. While some of those in dangerous situations will have recognised refugee status or similar protections, others will be trying to get to safety outside the refugee process. This could involve securing temporary visas to hold visiting researcher positions at universities.

Sinead O’Gorman, European director of Scholars at Risk at Maynooth University in Ireland, which is coordinating the Inspireurope initiative, explains that academics at risk are competing with those who “have worked within stable institutions or stable countries for their whole lives. There’s an accumulation and intersection of a number of hurdles or disadvantages, which means there isn’t an even playing field with other competitors.” 


The guidance relates to “the dissemination, recruitment and selection of researchers, and career guidance and training of recruited researchers”. It looks at how to word calls to attract scholars at risk, what to do during recruitment and how to support researchers when they arrive.

One recommendation is that universities should explicitly mention that calls are open to academics at risk, while another suggests offering a dedicated webpage for researchers who are in or have fled from dangerous situations.

Once at-risk scholars are part of a programme, the guidance suggests that institutions could designate academic and administrative mentors to help them when they arrive. Ongoing security risks could be another major worry, and the guidance points out that some academics may have concerns about family or colleagues they left behind. “It is important, therefore, that the researcher’s confidentiality be protected at all times during the evaluation and selection process,” the guidelines say.

The guidance also offers examples of good practice where institutions already have a system in place that works well. O’Gorman says that the examples show “universities don’t have to reinvent the wheel in this respect. There are a lot of good practices and organisations that are working in this field that are available to help them set up any new initiatives.”


The Inspireurope collective itself is funded through the MSCA as a coordination and support action. The 10 partners won around €1.5 million to run Inspireurope as a consortium in 2018.

The initiative is scheduled to run until August this year but has applied for further funding to extend it until 2025. O’Gorman says the guidance published so far is “still rather modest” and is “not going to result in widening access to very large numbers of researchers at risk”.

“The reason that researchers at risk are not accessing existing European funding like the MSCA fellowships, it’s not only about awareness about these programmes—it goes much deeper than that,” she says, citing breaks on academics’ CVs where they have been fleeing conflict, or a lack of published articles as they could be scared to put their name to some work.

O’Gorman explains that the Inspireurope initiative is looking for ways to make the MSCA fellowships more inclusive for scholars at risk, which will involve disseminating more examples of best practice to universities.

For now, she hopes the guidelines will raise awareness of what universities can do themselves: “These guidelines are not going to solve all of the access problems, but I think that they will begin to open more doors for researchers at risk.”  

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com