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Is Russia facing an academic exodus over Ukraine?


Early evidence indicates a significant increase in the number of researchers fleeing Russia

By the time his country invaded Ukraine on 24 February, Russian researcher Arthur Zalevsky had spent about a year looking for a postdoctoral position in the United States to advance his career.

The bioinformatician suddenly feared that international travel restrictions might hamper his movement, so he accelerated his hunt. In the first week of March, he found his current position at the University of California, San Francisco. The next day, he used personal savings to fly to Turkey and later Serbia, where he applied for a United States visa. “I didn’t worry about money, only about the new ‘iron curtain’,” he tells Research Professional News.

Zalevsky is far from the only researcher in Russia whose career has been affected by the invasion. With Russian missiles raining down on Ukrainian cities, politicians and academic organisations around the world have focused their support on those whose lives and careers in Ukraine have been torn apart. But researchers in Russia, who may not support the war, are also feeling its effects.

Western countries and the EU have hit Russia with sanctions, which have limited access to funding, equipment and collaborators. Researchers and others in Russia also face the prospect of imprisonment for criticising their country’s actions.

Now, data from universities, law firms and groups that arrange placements abroad for scholars seeking refuge indicate a dramatic increase in the number of researchers trying to leave Russia since the invasion, which entered a new stage on 21 September when Russia’s president announced a partial mobilisation of reservists, the first call-up since World War II. Reuters reported that flight prices had skyrocketed and some flights sold out following the announcement.

Surveys of migrants who departed in the weeks after 24 February have recorded motivations ranging from concern about politics and the economy to threats against individuals. Although national research funding agencies have not seen drops in competition, and the complete picture of changes in migration since February remains unclear, research leaders worry that Russia is facing an academic exodus.

“We can only observe the increasing size of emigration but cannot give any numbers,” says Andrei Lodkin, secretary of the St Petersburg Maths Society, who plans to stay in Russia because of his age.

Increasing demand

In recent months, some universities and groups that arrange placements abroad for scholars seeking refuge have started to see an increase in the number of applications from those with ties to Russia.

Between 1 February and 1 August, Lund University in Sweden received applications from 66 Russian citizens, up 29 per cent from the same period in 2021. The number of people applying for positions in the faculty of natural sciences rose from 12 to 20. The US-based nonprofit Scholars at Risk has received about 50 applications from Russia for placements abroad in the months since the invasion, while in the six months before the attack it received fewer than five.

Some lawyers are also receiving more emigration enquiries from Russian researchers. Katya Stelmakh, an immigration lawyer in Seattle, Washington, says her firm received one or two US immigration enquiries a month from Russian researchers before the invasion, but that has risen to three or four. Similarly, Rakhmad Sobirov, an immigration lawyer in Toronto, Canada, says that before the invasion, his firm had received no immigration enquiries for Canada from Russian academics, whereas it has since received between 15 and 20.

Surveys of post-invasion Russian emigrants suggest the war has helped to drive up the number of departures. One survey carried out in March and April found that about 11 per cent of 217 people who had worked in science or education left for political reasons; about another 11 per cent for economic reasons; and 10 per cent because of threats. “Moral outrage, expected isolation, associated reputational costs, and subsequent decrease in pay and career perspectives played a big role,” says Margarita Zavadskaya, a political scientist at the University of Helsinki, who worked on the survey.

Another survey, conducted between March and May, of people who emigrated to Armenia and Georgia after the invasion, which included 27 researchers, found that the main reason for their departure was a “difficult psychological situation”, followed by the “threat of political persecution”, lack of prospects for the researchers or their children, censorship, technological barriers to work, departures of others, a sense of “powerlessness” and the threat of “hostilities”.

Uncertain scale

Academic emigration from Russia is not a new phenomenon, and some people think it may be too early to determine the impact of the invasion. Publication data show a circulation of scholars into and out of Russia before the Covid-19 pandemic. A 2021 study of location information for researchers who published between 1996 and 2020 with a Russian affiliation found there was net migration into Russia, or roughly balanced circulation, in the years since 2009.

Increases in university job-application data might also be due to changes in opportunity rather than demand. At Lund University in Sweden, there were drops in 2022 of applications from Russian citizens in the faculties of engineering, social sciences and law. “Research is a highly specialised field; a relevant position might only be available once in every fourth or 10th year,” says Ulrika Steidler, a system manager in the university’s academic support unit.

At the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia, researchers continue to arrive from overseas. Since February, fewer researchers have been arriving in the lab from JINR member states in the EU, but this is “perhaps partially compensated [for] by the increased number of researchers from other countries”, says Richard Lednický, chief researcher of the Laboratory of High Energy Physics in Dubna and a former vice-director of JINR. Lednický adds that he does not intend to break his contract with JINR because the loss of contact between people “can escalate the conflict to a much worse global one”.

JINR and ministries in Russia responsible for science and foreign affairs did not respond to a request for comment, but national research funding agencies say they have not seen less demand for calls. The Russian Science Foundation told Research Professional News that it “did not notice any decrease in the interest of researchers in its competitions”, with data on this set to be published in March 2023.

Long-term outlook

Although the scale of the apparent emigration of researchers is unknown, trade union leaders are concerned. Andronick Arutyunov, a mathematician at Free Moscow University, who co-chairs the Russian higher education staff union University Solidarity, says he intends to stay to support domestic research and education unless he faces criminal prosecution. But he knows of about 50 to 70 academics who left in the first six months after the invasion and says most others he talks to have thought about leaving because of opposition to the invasion, “political repression” or financial problems.

Environmental researcher Hannah Skyrhan moved to Russia from Belarus for a research position in 2021 and does not intend to return to Belarus in the near future. But friends have advised her to leave Russia and she has been searching for a new job elsewhere in Europe since the invasion began. She says she “understand[s] everything from the Ukrainian side” and is open to positions outside of science and academia. “I continue efforts to leave Russia because I personally can’t live among zombies,” she says.

For those outside of Russia, the plight of researchers and others who have fled Ukraine—or remain there trying to make the best of a nightmare situation—remains the chief concern. Within Russia, the prospects for their country also look bleak to academics.

Even when the conflict ends, Arutyunov is pessimistic about the near-term outlook for Russian research. International sanctions and lost ties have significantly affected the economy, grant opportunities, research projects, and the availability to source or repair hardware and software. The continuing loss of scientists is just one more problem for the profession. “First, finish the war,” then “change the Russian government and all areas of politics”, and “then, in perhaps seven or 10 years, we will start repairing Russian research and education”, he says.