The Russian government’s invasion of Ukraine is roaring through the local and global research community. Academic activity in Ukraine has been essentially shut down until further notice. Serhiy Kvit, the head of the Ukrainian National Agency for Higher Education Quality Assurance and former minister of education and science, is also calling for academics around the world to take a stand against the war.
The flames of war
War between two states in Europe was, arguably, not something many people expected to see, despite the mounting tensions between Ukraine and Russia since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. But this is exactly what we are witnessing today. Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, resounds with gunfire and bombs as I write these lines.
As a science journalist, I never expected (or desired) to write about an ongoing war; you, our readers, probably never expected to read about one here on ZME Science. But an event of such magnitude swallows everything in its wake, even the world of science and research. Following Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declaring martial law in the country in the aftermath of the invasion, higher education in the country has been put on indefinite hold.
Science, it turns out, is not spared of the flames of war.
“[The] academic community can’t keep silence on this unheard-of war. You, academics, know Europe’s history of the 20th century the best, the history of the Second World War and its consequences for Europe and the world,” Kvit told University World News. “We call on universities, academic institutions in Europe and around the world to stand up with Ukraine against Putin’s regime, against ruining the fundamentals of peace, security and democracy in Europe and in the world.”
“It is our joint task – to defend democracy.”
Students and staff at universities across Ukraine have been told to stay at home, and their activity suspended, until further notice. School activity is also heavily disturbed, as families and teachers flee the hostilities. Kvit said that the fighting will invariably involve the death of Ukrainian civilians, from those fighting the invasion to children. Such reports are already coming in, unfortunately.
The suspension of academic life is meant to give civilians the opportunity to keep themselves safe. Kvit explains that the situation is dire, a “real war, the shelling of military infrastructure, airports and multiple peaceful cities around Ukraine […] Putin’s soldiers seizing Ukrainian cities and towns”. Under these circumstances, academic life in Ukraine cannot continue as normal.
He calls on researchers around the world to take a stand and issue messages to international organizations, representatives of governments, other researchers, and the wide public against the Russian government’s invasion.
Ukraine’s plea is already being answered in some regrds. Germany’s Foreign Office has “recommended” Universities in the country freeze relations with Russia, “in particular scientific projects”, says Peter-André Alt, president of the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK).
“This is a deeply depressing day. Our solidarity applies to the entire Ukrainian population and, above all, to our university partners,” he said for University World News. “We are very concerned about the life and well-being of Ukrainian scientists and students. The German universities will assist them within the limits of their possibilities.”
“It is also foreseeable that these developments will inflict severe damage on German-Russian scientific relations. We will have to examine the consequences accordingly.”
The European Union as a whole is also discussing whether to exclude Russia from every and all research networks and associated infrastructure, according to Science|Business. An extraordinary European Council meeting is set for later today to discuss this alongside other measures. However, Ukrainian high-ranking officials accuse the rest of Europe of not doing nearly enough.
Germany is host to over 8,200 Ukrainian-native students — it represents one of the most important countries of origin for higher education students in Germany. Authorities are now working out how to best care for these students as they face the prospect of their families embroiled in the conflict at home. At present, there are 257 collaborative projects between the two countries, which see the collaboration of 113 German and 89 Ukrainian universities; how these projects evolve in the future hinges on the developments in the current war.
“The Russian attack against Ukraine has serious consequences for our relations in science and academia, which had been built with confidence and hope for two decades and are now threatened by illegitimate assaults against international law,” said Alt.
Some universities have been preparing for such a scenario over the last few weeks. The Igor Sikorsky Polytechnic Institute in Kyiv has been preparing video materials informing students of evacuation routes and shelters on campus and releasing fresh instructions from their emergency management committee. Other educational institutions in less-affected areas of Ukraine seem to be continuing their activity remotely. One example is in the city of Lviv, very close to the Polish-Ukrainian border.
“The educational process at the university continues remotely,” Volodymyr Melnyk, the rector of the Ivan Franko National University of Lviv said in a statement today. “Our task is to act in an organized and responsible manner, consolidate efforts and maintain order”.
Academic institutions in countries bordering Ukraine have also offered their support. The Latvian students association urged their government to help students fleeing Ukraine to continue their studies in Latvia. The rectors of Romania’s two largest universities have also released statements in support of Ukrainian refugees and offering support to protect the assets and heritage of Ukrainian universities.
“I think it is our duty to show solidarity and come up with concrete proposals to support students, professors, and their families,” said Marian Preda, the rector of the University of Bucharest.
Preda says universities and educational centers in Romania should help safeguard the documents and books of their Ukrainian counterparts from the destruction caused by war. Meanwhile, Daniel David, rector of Babeș-Bolyai University in the city of Cluj-Napoca urged all rectors in Romania to coordinate efforts to integrate academics feeling Ukraine into higher education and research institutions in Romania. He adds that the university received multiple cooperation requests over the past weeks from researchers in Ukraine.
“Those researchers, as well as Romania and our universities could transform this unfortunate brain drain from Ukraine,” he said.
As a Romanian, I can attest that refugees from Ukraine are already crossing the border, fleeing the war. Local authorities in several cities have already offered their support, and there is an impressive (and heartwarming) level of effort in the public sphere to welcome house and help these refugees. The response at the level of the government is so far disappointing, however. Other countries neighboring Ukraine, such as Poland, are also working hard to accommodate the sudden influx of people; according to my (few) friends there, there is a similar effort by the common people to help Ukrainians crossing the border with food, lodging, and guidance, as well as a much more robust effort from the government.
As a journalist and someone who has been passionate about science and knowledge my whole life, I can only applaud international efforts to safeguard Ukrainian researchers and their work. These are dark days we are living, but they will only become brighter if we help those in need, and fight for what’s right.