Should scientists cut ties with their Russian colleagues? (Opinion)


Publisher’s note: Don Lincoln is a senior scientist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. He is the author of several science books for the general public, including the best-selling audiobook “The Theory of Everything: The Quest to Explain All Reality.” He also produces a series of science education videos. Follow him on Facebook. The opinions expressed in this comment are solely yours.

(CNN) — There are crucial moments in life when there are no good options and people must choose between the lesser of two evils. The world scientific community is facing such a situation. Russian scientists are major contributors to some of the most exciting international research going on. However, the Russian army has invaded the neighboring country of Ukraine.

There’s a african proverb very successful: “When the elephants dance, it is the grass that is trampled.” When nation states fight, people suffer. And while it is Ukraine’s population that suffers the most, others are caught up in the clash of the titans, and this includes expatriate Russians who not only do not participate in the war but condemn it. Some of them are scientists and friends of mine, and they are certainly not agents of the Russian government. How should a respectable and moral non-Russian scientist respond to the biggest European war since World War II?

On the one hand, any compassionate human being must be horrified by the unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation. The news is filled with images of shattered buildings and families who have become desperate refugees fleeing the carnage that only modern warfare can bring. Scientists like myself, along with the international community, condemn the fighting in the strongest possible terms.

And the voice of the international community has been resounding and emphatic. Countries have imposed sanctions as a result of the invasion. Companies have suspended their operations in Russia, from some oil companies such as Halliburton to a wide swath of the airline industry, including McDonald’s and Starbucks. It is clear that the world economic and political community disapproves of the events in Ukraine.

What challenges does Putin’s new military strategy in Ukraine bring? 1:32

Perhaps scientists should follow the example of others and also refuse to work with Russian colleagues?

On the other hand, academic researchers are, in general, internationalists. We ask ourselves difficult questions and try to solve complicated problems, and the intellect does not respect race or ethnicity, let alone borders. Scientists work together to push the frontiers of knowledge, often without concern for the national origin of our colleagues.

International scientific collaboration is common; for example, the International Space Station, where Russian rockets have carried American astronauts into orbit; or ITER, a multinational effort to achieve controlled nuclear fusion, where allies and geopolitical rivals work together for the good of humanity.

My own experience has to do with physical research, carried out in two international particle physics laboratories: Fermilab, near Chicago, and the CERN laboratory, on the Franco-Swiss border. For more than three decades, I have worked on large projects involving hundreds or even thousands of scientists; Researchers from every continent except Antarctica have worked side by side, side by side, to make some of the most difficult scientific discoveries ever made. We have created conditions so short-lived that they were last common a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. In a real sense, we are exploring the origins of the universe.

These achievements are an integral part of global scientific progress, a unique and invaluable tool for turning the dial on our understanding of the world around us. And they would not have been possible without the contributions of everyone involved, including the Russian researchers. If scientists prohibited Russian participation in these great scientific projects, we would not achieve these advances. Although no individual or nation is indispensable, they are all important, and each pulls its weight.

For international science, there are two significant reactions to the Russian invasion of Ukraine affecting the field: that of national science funding agencies and that of individual scientists. The reaction of the funding agencies will be governed by the policies determined by the governments of the countries involved.

In the United States, science-focused organizations such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and NASA will execute the policies established by the current administration. This is reasonable, since these institutions must adjust to geopolitical realities. If the legal, commercial and diplomatic world must respond forcefully to the Russian invasion, so must the scientific world. When this war ends, the different governments will fix things as each one sees fit.

The question is more complicated for individual scientists. In the research project in which I am currently involved, thousands of individuals—including people working in Russian and Ukrainian research institutes—have collaborated harmoniously for decades, developing instruments and making measurements that have taught the world much about the ultimate laws of nature.

But what now? Should the scientific community ostracize Russian researchers for their government’s policies or for their support of their nation’s leader? Should the sins of the father fall on his sons and daughters? It is a question that scientists must grapple with and debate.

Certainly, refusing to work with Russian colleagues for the duration of the invasion would be a strong statement. And it may be a reasonable reaction to any Russian scientist who approves of the raid. Personally, I would be in favor of refusing to work with someone who actively supports this brutal war. However, most Russian scientists are innocent of the geopolitical turmoil, and turning away such colleagues is unlikely to have any effect on the war in Ukraine.

In fact, many Russian scientists are opposed to the war. More than 8,000 of them have signed an open letter condemning the invasion. More than 7,000 Russians affiliated with Moscow State University have signed another letter with a similar message. Should these people be punished when they already know their government is wrong and have taken a brave stand?

Zelensky Warns of Major Russian Offensive in Eastern Ukraine 3:25

Meanwhile, nearly 9,000 scientists — many of them Ukrainian — have signed another letter calling for academic sanctions on Russian institutions. They have a compelling argument: these are exceptional times that require action.

But institutions are not people. Scientists have not invaded anyone. My guess is that many in the Russian scientific community would probably stop Putin’s invasion if they could. But can not.

The nations of the world should support both Ukrainian and Russian scientists already within their borders, extending visas where necessary and offering financial support to expatriate scientists left without their home institutions. Although their suffering does not compare to that of the Ukrainians trapped in the combat zones, these scientists are also victims of this monstrous war.

And regardless of how the scientific community decides to respond to the Ukrainian war, scientists like me look forward to better days, when researchers from all nations can once again work together in harmony to better understand the laws of nature and make the world a better place.



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