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Europe must step up for scholars at risk

Image: Pascal Deloche, via Getty Images

Support must evolve to meet growing threats to academic freedom, says Maike Didero

The number of scholars who face repression and risk in their home countries, as well as the number of these scholars who apply for support opportunities in Europe, has risen substantially in the past few years. 

A study published in December 2023 found that up to 18 per cent of all Ukrainian researchers have left the country since Russia‘s full-scale invasion in 2022. But the surge in scholars seeking support started earlier. 

The Scholars at Risk (SAR) network has seen an exceptional rise in applications since 2021, with 1,400 coming from Afghanistan in that year alone. Today, SAR still receives a high number of applications from that country, along with from Palestine, Ukraine, Sudan and Iran. 

This surge is connected to the recent wave of war and armed conflict in Ukraine, Africa and the Middle East. More broadly, however, the Free to Think report 2023 and the Academic Freedom Index update 2024 show that academic freedom is declining in many countries, related to a global rise in authoritarianism. Researchers are a key target for governments attempting to suppress open intellectual discourse and civil liberties. 

Support programmes for researchers at risk are working hard to respond to these worrying trends. There is a wide range of approaches, including government-backed programmes such as the Philipp  Schwartz Initiative funded by the German Federal Foreign Office and the PAUSE programme for scientists and artists in exile run by the Collège de France. 

Other support structures are provided through individual higher education institutions or national sections of the SAR in cooperation with national research funding or development agencies. The Scholar Rescue Fund, SAR, and the Council for At-Risk Academics in the UK (Cara) each place significant numbers of scholars at European universities.

A report published last month on national-level activities in Europe, compiled by the Humboldt Foundation and the Pause programme, reflects on these programmes’ achievements and efforts across the continent. The new report was written on behalf of the EU-funded Inspireurope+ Consortium, which helps different support schemes for at-risk scholars coordinate their activities and learning. 

Despite differences in programme setup, stakeholders agree on several crucial points for successful support initiatives. There needs to be a good fit between the researcher at risk and his or her academic host, along with academic mentoring, administrative and social support, and opportunities and financial resources for continued professional development. Lastly, displaced researchers need time to adapt and integrate into a new, highly competitive academic environment. 

Many exiled researchers aim to return to their home country. However, wars and authoritarian regimes often persist for longer than expected. Sustainable support therefore needs to consider long-term perspectives. 

Solidarity and support

At the national level, solidarity and support opportunities have mushroomed, particularly since Russia invaded Ukraine. Initiatives and programmes have been set up for Afghan, Iranian and Ukrainian researchers, including some at a more local level that complement longstanding schemes administered by national bodies. 

On an EU level, the MSCA4Ukraine scheme, established as a crisis response within Horizon Europe’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, has recently received additional funding. Last year, the Commission also called for proposals for a broader European fellowship scheme for researchers at risk from non-EU countries. Both initiatives are part of a trend towards stronger commitments to academic freedom at the European level. Unfortunately, many crisis-response programmes are limited in their resources and duration. Some have been discontinued, while other have narrowed to specific recipients.

To be sustainable, support for at-risk scholars must be reliable and long-term, while also meeting the need for flexible schemes offering emergency support during crises.

Support programmes, funders, policymakers and institutions should continue to coordinate efforts to ensure a streamlined approach to support services, joining forces in defence of academic freedom and to meet the needs of researchers at risk. 

 Researchers at risk bring skills and attributes that can enhance research and innovation in Europe. If Europe gave them the support they need, on the scale that the world’s crises demand, it would be a milestone. 

Maike Didero is programme director for Inspireurope+, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation

This article also appeared in Research Europe