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Ukraine crisis: Standing with Ukraine

Images (clockwise from top left): Alisdare Hickson, Catholic Chirch England and Wales , martin_vmorris, Loco Steve, [CC BY-SA 2.0] and [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr


As war escalates, UK institutions and researchers are questioning their Russian links

Squeezed alongside each other on the famous green benches of the House of Commons, MPs from across the political divide stared up at two large TV screens last week. Wearing identical clunky, black headphones to listen to a translator, their eyes were on the figure addressing the UK’s unusually silent centre of power.

As Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky spoke, he pleaded with MPs for support. “We will continue fighting for our land, whatever the cost,” he said on 8 March. “Please make sure that you do what needs to be done, and what is stipulated by the greatness of your country.”

“What needs to be done” is a question without an easy answer. Since Russian tanks drove into Ukraine on 24 February, western countries including the UK have put financial sanctions in place that are designed to hobble the Russian economy and isolate the country on the world stage.

For some researchers, that’s not enough. Ukrainian organisations including the National Research Foundation of Ukraine and the National Agency for Higher Education Quality Assurance have urged colleagues across the world to cut their ties with Russian institutions in protest.

In the UK and internationally, many organisations have promised to show support and freeze their links with Russia. But others have warned against severing all scientific ties with Russian researchers.

Existing links

Although the UK has not yet announced direct sanctions on science and research with Russia, science minister George Freeman said on 27 February that he had ordered a “rapid” review designed to determine which Russian organisations benefited from UK funding for innovation, science and research.

As part of this, UK Research and Innovation, the UK’s national funding agency, has said it is “reviewing its active research projects with Russian partners”.

It is still unclear what the full scope of Freeman’s review will be, but the UK has plenty of Russian research ties to work through.

An analysis of articles and reviews indexed in 20,000 journals in the Web of Science reveals that the UK is Russia’s fifth most frequent bilateral partner, although collaboration has stagnated in recent years. (Web of Science and Research Professional News are both owned by Clarivate.)

Jointly authored papers between the two nations went from a handful in the 1990s to just over 400 in 2017, 2018 and 2019.


Those ties look unlikely to last, as academies and representative bodies grapple with how they can support peers in Ukraine who are suffering from Russian aggression.

Major international research facilities and funders, including the Cern physics lab near Geneva and the European Commission, have already cut ties with Russia.

Some universities have said that they will freeze relations with Russian organisations as part of their support for Ukraine. Stuart Croft, vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick, said on 28 February that his university had “agreed to review all our relations with Russian state institutions, with a view to terminating relations and contracts where possible”, including student exchanges.

At the University of Reading, vice-chancellor Robert Van de Noort said that his university—which has a strategic partnership with the Moscow State Institute of International Relations—would “review any activities that might support the government of Russia”, although he stressed that he would support the 1,000 students and staff at the Moscow institute who had signed an open letter calling for an end to the war.

Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, has advised its members to step back from their Russian relationships. In a statement on 3 March, it told universities to “review current and planned activities involving Russian partners”, using its guidance on managing risks in international partnerships.

But it cautioned against scrapping all links with Russian scholars, arguing that research links “are often based on academic peer-to-peer relationships” and that “many Russian students and academics, at great personal peril, have publicly criticised this invasion”.

It also said that institutions should not set “blanket academic boycotts” that would stop collaboration between researchers, and it cautioned universities to make decisions about collaboration on a case-by-case basis.

This position has been taken by other groups, too.

On 2 March, the Royal Society and other academies from the G7 states labelled the Russian invasion of Ukraine “an assault on the fundamental principles of freedom” and a “blatant violation of international law and of core values of humanity”.

“We are determined to support the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine,” they said. “We stand in solidarity with the scientific community and the scientists in Ukraine.”

But they stopped short of calling for a block on Russian participation in projects, saying that they wanted to “acknowledge the Russian scientists and citizens who are ashamed of this attack and speak out against the war”.

In a separate statement, Julia Black, president of the British Academy, said the academy stood “in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and its community of students and researchers experiencing this attack on their human rights, democracy and freedom”. But she also highlighted “the courage that many Russian researchers are showing in speaking out against this invasion”.

Support for students

There are other ways that scientists are showing their support for Ukraine, without severing their relationships with Russia. Researchers and students based in institutions across Europe have come together to detail what support is available for Ukrainian academics and students.

Their website—Science for Ukraine—already lists a number of funded positions at UK universities for Ukrainians fleeing the war.

Universities in the UK are also trying their best to support their Ukrainian and Russian students. The two countries send a small but significant number of international students to the UK: there were 870 Ukrainians studying at UK institutions in 2020-21 and 3,380 students from Russia.

University College London has said that it will be “flexible” when it comes to tuition fees, as some students from the countries affected by the conflict could have trouble paying, and the University of Cambridge has asked alumni to contribute to a hardship fund for students affected by the war.

Lack of detail

Much more support is still needed, though, and when it comes to visas for Ukrainians forced to flee their country, there has been little clear information from the UK government. 

The Home Office has said that students can either extend their leave to remain, switch to a graduate visa or switch to a different type of visa—providing they meet the requirements. It has not given details on how long students can extend their leave for.

Although disappointing to many, this has not come as a surprise. Despite more than two million people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine since 24 February, data published by the government on 7 March showed that of 17,700 applications opened through its Ukraine Family Scheme, just 300 visas had been issued.

Universities are trying to heed president Zelensky’s call for the UK to do “what is stipulated by the greatness of your country”. But if the research world is to fully support those hit by the conflict, there is much more still to do.

UK-Ukraine links

The UK’s scientific links to Ukraine have grown slowly over the past decade. According to a Web of Science analysis, in 2012 there were 391 papers with co-authors from the two nations. By 2021, this reached 592 papers.

Imperial College London was the most frequent UK co-authoring institution, followed by the University of Bristol. The other UK collaborators in the top five are UK Research and Innovation, the Science and Technology Facilities Council and the STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

The Universities of Oxford, Birmingham, Southampton and Warwick, together with Brunel University, make up the rest of the top 10 collaborators, followed by the Universities of Manchester, Edinburgh, Cambridge and Glasgow. 

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight