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Europe’s universities reach out to Ukraine


Governments under pressure to support fleeing academics as conflict strains Russian research relations

Universities across Europe are mobilising to help researchers, students and university staff fleeing the war in Ukraine, amid calls for politicians to release money to help.

In parallel, Russia is being increasingly ostracised from the research community due to its invasion, and universities and other academic organisations are walking a line between strongly condemning the state and keeping channels open with individual Russian researchers.

“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,” said EU research commissioner Mariya Gabriel.

The European Commission is halting the agreement of any new collaboration with Russian organisations through EU programmes, blocking EU payments to Russian entities and reviewing all existing research projects involving Russia, with similar moves underway at national level in several European countries.

Since the start of the invasion on 24 February, more than 2 million people have fled Ukraine, according to the UN Refugee Agency. 

Sinead O’Gorman, the European director of Scholars at Risk—an organisation that supports researchers and students under threat—told Research Europe she expects the modest number of requests for help that her organisation has received so far from Ukrainians to increase dramatically in coming weeks.

On 4 March ministers from EU member states activated for the first time the bloc’s Temporary Protection Directive, giving additional legal rights to those who have fled Ukraine for the EU, including the right to work and medical assistance. O’Gorman said this removed a “major hurdle” for scholars fleeing Ukraine. 

Institutions across Europe are already offering support ranging from student accommodation to long-term job offers. O’Gorman said Scholars at Risk has been approached by a large number of universities offering to provide positions for refugees. “What’s been very notable is the response from the higher education community in the neighbouring countries in Eastern Europe,” she said.

Scholars at Risk is now pushing national governments and the EU to provide fellowship schemes enabling displaced researchers to find their feet before they apply for permanent positions or return home.

O’Gorman said proposals for such schemes have been made in countries including Austria, Ireland and Italy.

“It’s very clear now that this additional need is helping to leverage extra funds, not only from governments and universities but also from philanthropic foundations,” she said.

A pan-EU scheme may also be forthcoming.

The MEP Christian Ehler is submitting a proposal for a pilot EU fellowship scheme to support displaced researchers under the bloc’s 2023 budget, Research Europe has confirmed. A similar
 proposal was made after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan but was received too late to be accepted under the 2022 budget.

While focusing on what support can be provided to Ukraine, many research and higher education organisations are also having to make decisions on whether to maintain links with Russia.

On 7 March the European University Association announced it was suspending the membership of 12 Russian universities whose rectors had signed a statement supporting the invasion. Europe’s flagship organisation for nuclear research, Cern, has suspended Russia’s observer status.

University groups in several countries have also issued statements condemning Russia. But many are keen that collaborations should be assessed on a case-by-case basis, with institutional-level partnerships treated differently to individual research collaborations.

“We don’t want a situation where individual academic exchange is stopped or hampered because of the situation,” EUA secretary general Amanda Crowfoot told Research Europe.

Matthias Girod, secretary general of the researcher association EuroScience, also said individual academic exchange should continue and that Russia should not be frozen out of the international research community.

Girod said EuroScience is intending to keep invitations to its flagship July conference open to Russian individuals but will “have to evaluate institutional contributions”.

“Russia is too big and too important to be treated, for a long time, like North Korea,” Girod said.

This article also appeared in Research Europe and a version also appeared in Research Fortnight