31.03.23 Review

The War on Science: the decades-long attempt to modernise Russian science and higher education has been virtually wiped out in a single year of the war

The war in Ukraine has led to a rapid degradation of Russian science and higher education. The achievements of more than a decade’s worth of efforts to integrate Russian science into the global science community and to modernise standards within higher education are being deliberately obliterated. Western scientists are terminating their cooperation with Russian universities and research institutions, and the exodus of Russian scientists can be measured in the hundreds, if not most likely in the thousands. Over 250 scientists have been able to relocate from Russia with support from international foundations; approximately 6,000 people can be found in chat rooms devoted to ‘scientific’ relocation. In just two of Russia’s leading universities, over 200 employees have been dismissed or reassigned to civil contracts in response to their lack of support for the war on the part of the employees. Entire fields of research have come to a standstill, and many scientific and educational institutions have virtually ceased to exist. Censorship is rampant within the social sciences, and a doctrine of ‘official patriotism’ is being enforced.

The war in Ukraine has proven to be a real disaster for Russian science. Since the early 2010s, there have been significant efforts to modernise science and higher education in Russia, and to integrate these fields into the global system of scientific knowledge. For example, between 2013 and 2021, almost 80 billion rubles were spent on the ambitious ‘5×100’ programme, which was launched with the aim of propelling at least five Russian universities to the top 100 of the world's university rankings. This target was not achieved, but nonetheless, many internationally recognised laboratories were established in Russia over the years, while more advanced standards in higher education, as well as avenues for its integration with global science, were actively pursued.

However, the invasion of Ukraine has negated many of these efforts and achievements. Russian science and the country’s universities are undergoing a process of rapid degradation. Most cooperation programmes have been terminated or suspended, Russian universities have lost access to international digital libraries, teachers and scientists who oppose the war have been fired or forced to resign, censorship in the social sciences and humanities is rampant, and scientists themselves are fleeing the country. We are yet to see the full extent of this process. The publication ‘Project’ has attempted to piece together some of its details.

An open letter from Russian scientists who stood against the war was published on the second day of the invasion and was subsequently signed by 8,500 people. At the same time, an exodus of scientists from the country began, is still ongoing to this day, and is far from over. It is unknown just how many scientists have left Russia. Project has identified 29 prominent academics who have left the country in protest against the war, but this list is very tentative and by no means exhaustive. Scholars at Risk, an international organisation, has helped 200 scientists to leave Russia, while an additional 62 researchers have been assisted in their departure by the German Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. There are over 6,000 members of Telegram chats dedicated to discussing the relocation of staff from science and education organisations.

Teaching staff from various leading universities have been the target for layoffs as a result of their views: as Project notes, this type of retaliation has affected employees of the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, the Higher School of Economics, and Moscow State University. The publication estimates that 20 professors who openly opposed the war have been fired. Others voluntarily resigned their posts. For example, according to former HSE Vice Rector Konstantin Sonin, the Higher School of Economics, which was the most forward-thinking Russian university of the previous decade, lost at least 150 faculty staff since the full-scale invasion. The A. V. Poletaev Institute for Humanitarian Historical and Theoretical Studies has lost 60 per cent of its staff, while the institute itself lost its international laboratory status at the beginning of 2023. Other international laboratories, which had been among HSE's major achievements in the 2010s, have virtually ceased to function. Shaninka (Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences), a subdivision of RANEPA, was rendered bankrupt. The damage inflicted on the natural sciences by the war is less visible in the media, but they are also the most competitive disciplines and, therefore, the most dependent on international cooperation. ‘Entire scientific fields have been brought to a halt; research is simply not being carried out. We have been set back years,’ said astrophysicist and RAS professor Sergei Popov in his comment to Project. Popov received the state prize ‘For Fidelity to Science’ in 2016 and left the country in 2022.

Censorship is increasingly evident at all levels of education — it pervades curricula, libraries, and even scientific publications. The once-liberal HSE issued official recommendations to its library staff that literature that ‘promotes homosexual relations’ should be removed from their collections. Under pressure from the new political agenda, academic journals have withdrawn articles relating to feminism and LGBT issues from publication, and universities have closed educational programmes related to human rights, political journalism, and democratic freedoms.

Propaganda concerning ‘official patriotism’ is taking a central place in the new agenda of social knowledge. Project’s journalists surveyed the applications of those who had won various grant competitions and found that the topic of ‘patriotism’ was present in 70% of all successful applications (358 out of 503). The Russian Science Foundation (RSF) is particularly notable in this regard. Within the 2022 RNF competition in the field of ‘Humanities and Social Sciences’, four winners received at least 16 million rubles for projects engaged in the development of a ‘transit of power in post-Ukraine’ and a ‘new system of law’ for the self-proclaimed DNR and LNR.