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Helping Ukraine recover means supporting its research now


International cooperation and solidarity can give postwar reconstruction sound foundations, says Oksana Seumenicht

Earlier this month, more tragic news arrived from Kyiv: DNA tests confirmed that Bizhan Sharopov, a PhD neurobiologist at the Bogomoletz Intstitute of Physiology in Kyiv, had been killed. He is one of many researchers to die in the Russian Federation’s war against Ukraine. 

As the war rages into a second year, Russian rockets continue to destroy critical infrastructure. More than 2,500 educational institutions have been damaged and 437 razed to the ground, according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science. 

An online poll last October found that more than two-thirds of European researchers support sanctions on scientific relations with Russia. On the invasion’s first anniversary—and in the ninth year of Russian aggression—Ukrainian researchers are calling on the academic community to reassess the role of Russian science in supporting the war. 

This is not just an emotional stance. Freedom of speech, research, teaching and learning are severely compromised in Russia. The country ranks in the bottom 20-30 per cent of the Academic Freedom Index compiled by Friedrich-Alexander University in Erlangen, Germany, and the V-Dem institute. Cooperation with Russian institutions could pose a security threat and would violate academic values and freedoms. 

Ukrainian researchers and educators remain incredibly resilient and are convinced that science and research will be key to rebuilding their country after the war. International cooperation and solidarity in research and higher education are crucial to giving post-war reconstruction sound foundations to build upon. 

Access to education

One priority is to give Ukraine’s students education now, so that they can become the next generation of researchers. Encouraging examples range from the University of Würzburg’s bachelor programme for displaced mathematics students, taught in Ukrainian, to the partnership between the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the Kyiv School of Economics

The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) is in its second round of support for German-Ukrainian university partnerships. And the Ukraine Global Faculty, coordinated by the Ukrainian non-profit organisation K.FUND and supported by the country’s government, aims to provide Ukrainian students and professionals with online lectures.

Ukraine’s current generation of researchers also needs support and training. At the EU-level and nationally, there is a range of programmes aimed at displaced Ukrainian researchers

Preventing a brain drain means thinking now about how to help people return home once conditions are safe. The EU-funded MSCA4Ukraine fellowship programme aims to address this via secondments. Dedicated fellowships to support return and reintegration, similar to those offered by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation to fellows from certain countries, could be another useful option. 

Many researchers remain in Ukraine, creating an urgent need for non-residential support schemes, such as those offered by the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna or the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies. Distance-learning programmes, such as the Executive Leadership Academy for Ukrainian University Leaders offered by the University of California, Berkeley, can fill the gap when no research is possible. 

Ukraine’s research and innovation ecosystem must also be strengthened. This could be done through long-term grants, such as those offered by Scientists and Engineers in Exile or Displaced, a programme run by the US National Academy of Sciences in collaboration with the Polish Academy of Sciences. The national research foundations of Ukraine and Switzerland have also agreed a joint funding call

Another inspiring initiative is the plan to establish an International Centre for Mathematics in Ukraine, spearheaded by four Fields Medal winners, including Ukraine-born Vladimir Drinfeld and Maryna Viazovska. Creating focused centres of excellence in cooperation with international partners, rather than trying to rebuild destroyed universities, could help Ukraine find its niche in the world of global science. 

A dedicated network group recently initiated by the Council of Young Scientists at Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science aims to build ties between Ukrainian scientists at home and abroad. Part of this will be a Ukrainian Science Diaspora online platform, under development in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology.

A commitment to research integrity and academic freedom means continued support for Ukraine. Its science and innovation base must not just survive; it must become an integral part of global research, and serve as a motor for rebuilding Ukraine as an equal member of the European family. 

Oksana Seumenicht is programme director of MSCA4Ukraine at the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Berlin and co-founder of the German-Ukrainian Academic Society and the Ukrainian Academic International Network. She writes in a personal capacity.

This article also appeared in Research Europe