Boycotting Russian scientists is a hollow victory

” What should we to do with our Russian colleagues? asked the senior scientist in the audience. It’s early summer and 100 degrees in Chicago. I was giving a talk at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), the premier particle physics research center in the United States and my former workplace. My speech focused on the Asian-American experience and the impact of deteriorating US-China relations on science, but for many in the auditorium, the Russian invasion of Ukraine commanded a more acute urgency. .

A few days after the start of the conflict, on February 24, CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, a long-time partner of Fermilab, interrupted all new collaboration with institutions and individuals in Russia and Belarus. The organization announced in June its intention to sever ties with the two countries once their current cooperation agreements expire in 2024. Other international organizations have taken similar or more drastic measures. The Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum of eight Arctic states, suspended work in March and resumes limited research this summer without Russian participation, a potentially devastating setback for climate science. The European Space Agency has ended its cooperation with Russia, grounding Europe’s first Mars rover, which was due to board a Russian rocket to the Red Planet later this year. For a moment, it looked like the International Space Station would withstand seismic events on Earth. That hope was dashed in late July, when the head of Russia’s space agency said his country would leave the project in 2024.

From the ice caps of Earth to the far reaches of space, the sharp blade of war has slit through university alliances already frayed under the strains of the pandemic and geopolitics, exposing a burning question with no easy answer. In conversations with friends and colleagues in the United States and Europe, I felt a collective frustration bordering on helplessness. Everyone deplores the invasion and agrees on the need to Something to help Ukraine, and that continuing to act as if nothing had happened in the face of such a calamity would be morally indefensible. But apart from issuing statements and providing assistance, what concrete actions can the academic and scientific community take vis-à-vis Russia?

Many tell me that the decision is not in their hands: “It’s politics. Laboratories and their staff must abide by government sanctions and funding agency rules, some of which prohibit collaborating with colleagues in Russia or accrediting Russian institutions in co-authored articles. Some lament that Russian scientists who do not actively support the invasion are being unfairly ostracized. A scientist, who grew up in the former Soviet Union before emigrating to the West, made a compelling argument that people in democracies shouldn’t help advance science in authoritarian regimes; it would only empower dictators, who use technology for destructive purposes. The scientist has not visited his native country for years and urges all his Chinese students never to return to China either.

Thousands of scientists, science journalists and students in Russia, as well as many other members of the Russian diaspora, have signed open letters condemning the conflict. Among those imprisoned for their opposition is politician and journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, whose father notoriously refused formal employment in Soviet Russia as a sign of repudiation against totalitarian rule. These courageous acts are sparks of hope in the long nights of war and oppression; they also shatter the illusion that ordinary people are not guilty of state actions. To deny responsibility is to deny agency. In an unjust world, compromise is often a condition of survival.

The varied views towards their Russian counterparts from Western scientists – relying on official guidelines, claiming that the Russian people are helpless, or talking about a complete cutoff – all emanate from a common position: the innocence of the beholder. Bombs, jails and purges are blamed on an abstract state and dumped in a foreign place, despite German cities being fueled by Russian gas, Swiss banks being havens for Putin cronies and seemingly democratic governments also use technology to harm, including the many armed conflicts initiated by the United States. The insistence on innocence prevents a clear understanding of overlapping systems of violence and injustice that are never confined to one war, one country or one model of government. As the world fractures along political divides and academia finds itself on the fault lines, how we perceive and respond to the designated other is ultimately about ourselves: who we are, where we are and what kind of future we are looking for.

About Eleanor Blackburn

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