Berlin Wall 2

Boycott of Russian scientists will not help to weaken military aggression

Earlier in March 2023, the Nature website featured an open letter from scientists of Ukraine and diaspora appealing to their colleagues around the world to boycott Russian science in order to weaken the aggressive Russian state. The collection of signatures under the open letter began on February 13, and by the time of Nature’s publication, the number of signatories — mostly from scientists in Ukraine and the Ukrainian diaspora — had surpassed two thousand.

The authors of the open letter came up with two main arguments. First, «in war, science itself becomes a weapon,» and therefore the enemy’s science must be weakened in the same way as the economy. Second, since «the media component of science plays a very important role» the aggressor must be deprived of the opportunity to report anything positive about itself in order to win the war «for the hearts and minds of the people.»

Despite the compassion towards the motives of the authors of the letter, there are other arguments that should be taken into account before using a scientific boycott as a tool of politics and warfare.

1. A year ago, the Russian state launched a full-scale invasion to Ukraine, and it has no justification. Despite the fact that propaganda provided a high level of support for the war in Russia, the same day as the February attack, Russian scientists published an open letter against the war, which soon gathered more than 8,000 signatures. Similar letters were published by a number of Russian professional scientific communities. Most of the signatories were from Russian universities and research institutes, associated themselves with Russian culture, had Russian citizenship, and lived in Russia. Of course, there are those among Russian scientists who hailed the war; yet, the scientific community in Russia proved to be one of the most anti-war-minded segments of the Russian population and actively and openly opposed the war. In response the Russian government started criminally prosecuting Russians for any anti-war statement.

2. Over the last year, many scientists have left Russia. However, just as a century ago, not everyone who held an anti-war position was able and willing to leave. Some Russian scholars feel that it is their duty to stay close to their students, even though this threatens their reputation abroad and puts them in danger of persecution at home. They believe that in troubled times it is especially important to maintain high standards of science, common sense, and humanistic principles, and for this purpose it is vital for scientists to maintain personal and professional ties with the outside world, and with their foreign colleagues.

3. Access to world science — the tools of scientific communication, databases, and experimental facilities — is a necessary component of modern higher education. A scientific boycott of Russia will deprive a generation of students of the right of access to an adequate education, and this directly contradicts Article 1 of the UN Convention Against Discrimination in Education, adopted in 1960. Here it is important to emphasize that irreparable damage will be caused to young people, who have barely reached the voting age and who cannot be held responsible for the political crimes of the country’s rulers.

4. The widespread practice of refusing scientific publications to Russians solely on the basis of the author’s citizenship or place of work is also controversial in the context of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1950). Article 10 of this basic international human rights document ensures the right to freely receive and impart information and ideas, and this right can be restricted only by law. Article 14 prohibits discrimination with regard to the rights and freedoms enshrined in the document, in particular on the grounds of «political or other opinion, national … origin, … birth or any other grounds.» Even in the case of war, such restrictions may only be imposed on behalf of a government with notification to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe and stating when these restrictions will cease (Article 15). Thus, without appropriate government decisions, the boycott of Russian scientists raises formal legal questions, especially when it comes to those who, under a repressive authoritarian regime, openly opposed the war.

5. For many European and American scientific organizations the grounds for severing ties with Russian universities was the appeal of the Rectors’ Union in support of the war. It is also mentioned in a letter of Ukrainian scientists. With this appeal, the rectors, under pressure from the authorities, made their universities complicit in the aggression, and cooperation with them became incompatible with scientific ethics. It is important to keep in mind, however, that rectors in Russia do not express the position of the scientific community, since they are usually nominated not by academics, but by the bureaucratic authorities. Breaking up relationships with Russian scientific groups because of the demarche of their assigned superiors actually plays into the hands of the authoritarian Russian regime. At the same time, the requirement of the Ukrainian scientific community not to indicate affiliation of authors with Russian state institutions in the publications and not to disclose information about Russian sources of funding is quite reasonable. Such information serves to promote Russian scientific brands, which in wartime is inappropriate. Likewise, of course, research groups involved in military developments should not be supported (including through publications).

6. The process of boycotting Russian scientists unfolds in parallel with the tightening of visa regimes in Europe and the United States, and it affects those who, rejecting the war, no longer want to work in Russian academic institutions and strive to leave the country. Russian opponents of the war are often not allowed into Western countries, even when local universities advocate for them, and are under a ban on collaboration while they are still in Russia. Thus, the victims of the boycott are precisely those who oppose the war in Ukraine. Their desperate situation can in no way weaken the current Russian power.

7. The letter of Ukrainian scientists equates science with weapons because its achievements can be used for military purposes. However, the majority of scientific works, especially those presented at the international level, are purely civilian research. Therefore, it is incorrect to equate them with weapons. On the contrary, science is a pivotal civilizational element of the free democratic world. Disconnecting Russia from world science will only lead to a further strengthening of the archaic forces in the country that are responsible for unleashing the war.

8. Military propaganda in Russia daily reinforces the barriers separating the country from the world. The free world should not assist in building a new «Berlin Wall,» from its own side. On the contrary, it is better to facilitate its fall. Building a dialogue with Russia’s anti-war scientific community on an equal footing is part of this great important work.

9. Science has no nationality. The knowledge gained about the nature of reality belongs to all. In the current circumstances, it is especially important to preserve our universal and common cultural values, which are above states and nations. The Russian-Ukrainian war is part of the great confrontation between the forces of development and the forces of archaism, law and oppression, ethics and outrage. Science, by its very nature, has always been on the side of development and progress. To overcome the archaic forces, it is important to support the scientists who oppose them, not to help the Russian authorities to bury the country in the Dark Ages.

We understand the motivations behind the Ukrainian scientists’ letter, empathize with them, and will try to bring their vision to our audience, although we believe that directly joining the boycott they propose may be in conflict with important ethical and legal principles and could have negative consequences for the further development of science itself.

In conclusion, we would like to express our support to the people of Ukraine and its scientists, who are resisting the evil that Russian citizens have failed to curb in their homeland.

    T‑invariant editorial

    This text is an editorial column and may not reflect the positions
    of the members of the T‑invariant Coordinating Council