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Ukrainian research is bloodied but unbowed

Image: Valentyn Kuzan/scienceatrisk.org

Science has restarted in retaken territory and international ties are stronger, says Svitlana Galata

From April 2022, Russian forces occupied the Braude Radio Astronomy Observatory near Kharkiv in Ukraine for six months. They destroyed buildings and stole equipment. 

The observatory (pictured above) remains in range of Russian missiles and a significant part of its antenna fields are yet to be cleared of mines. Most of its 250 staff are working remotely, about 100 have moved to other regions of Ukraine, and several dozen are abroad. Its servers were moved to Poland in March 2022.

Even so, since the institute was liberated, employees who remained have patched the roof of the observatory’s main building and installed a solar power station. The observatory recently conducted its first observations since the Russian invasion.

In the two years since Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukrainian research and researchers have paid a heavy price. According to the country’s Ministry of Education and Science, as of 1 September 2023, more than 700 laboratories and research complexes had been damaged or destroyed. The ministry estimates that rebuilding them will cost $1.2 billion (€1.1bn). 

The loss of people is arguably even greater. Over 90 of Ukraine’s scientists are estimated to have been killed. More than 6,000—roughly one in seven—are abroad, and nearly 40 per cent are internally displaced.

Through necessity, though, the war has also accelerated the internationalisation of Ukrainian research. As well as funds from the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, the Braude Observatory received funds for restoring scientific equipment from the French National Centre for Scientific Research, the Paris Observatory and others. A Polish fundraising effort collected enough to buy a generator.

The observatory’s leadership has applied for a grant from the EU’s Horizon Europe R&D programme to repair telescopes, integrate them into the European low-frequency array, and upgrade the facility, including constructing an additional section of the Giant Ukrainian Radio Telescope.

Many other institutions have used a similar mix of formal and grassroots efforts. Sumy National Agrarian University, for example, engaged its alumni networks as well as staff forced to move abroad to assist in identifying international projects and grants. This led to a grant from a UK university for a research project into understanding and reversing the impact of military activity on soil conditions.

“We realised there would be a shortage of funds in the state budget and immediately bet on international cooperation. The calculation was correct,” says Yuriy Danko, the university’s vice-rector for research and international activities.

Many of these international initiatives built on collaborations that predate the 2022 invasion. For example, Kyiv Academic University was able to build on a materials science project with the Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Materials Research in Dresden to win a grant from the German government to create a centre for research on quantum materials. Students will intern at the centre, and scientists will receive decent salaries.

Fundraising efforts

In 2022, when the National Research Foundation of Ukraine’s funding was reallocated to the country’s defence needs, the foundation turned its fundraising efforts outwards, securing support from Cambridge University, the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Dutch Research Council, US National Science Foundation, and others. This allowed it to give grants to scientists affected by the war.

Since the foundation’s government funding was restored in 2023, it has allocated grants for helping Ukraine recover from the war. The winners include a project run by the Institute of Hydrobiology of the National Academy of Sciences for restoring the Irpin River, which formed a natural barrier that helped stop Russian tanks from reaching Kyiv.

The foundation also has the equivalent of about $8 million for projects aimed at strengthening Ukraine’s defence capabilities. Proposals submitted include technologies for humanitarian demining, automatic object-detection systems, and mitigating the effects of attacks on civilian populations and infrastructure in combat conditions. The winners will be announced in July.

Ukraine’s defence and security needs mean that domestic research funds remain tight. Ukrainian researchers need to remain proactive, telling the world about what they need not just to keep going but to grow and develop their work, and about the opportunities they have to offer. 

For their part, while the international response has been generous, foreigners wanting to help do not always understand the needs of Ukrainian scientists and the situation in the country. All initiatives should be designed with Ukrainian input. 

Svitlana Galata is a Ukrainian science journalist working with the Science at Risk project

This article also appeared in Research Europe