24.01 Review

Chronicles of Devastation: Russian higher education is losing thousands of academics as a result of the war in Ukraine and a wave of obscurantism in Russia

The war in Ukraine has dealt a powerful blow to Russian science: the number of scientists who have left and are leaving Russia, according to estimates, may be measured in thousands. The most prestigious Moscow universities, such as the Higher School of Economics, Moscow State University, and Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology have suffered the most from this brain drain. Scientists leaving Russia are heading not only to the United States and Germany but also in a southeastern direction: to China, the UAE, Israel, as well as to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Armenia, where scientific emigration was previously very low or nonexistent. A more complete picture of this 'stream' of scientists will become visible from the affiliations in publications in international scientific journals after a few years. However, a significant reduction in such publications by Russian authors (by almost a quarter) has already been seen in the data from 2022. As a result of the war and the wave of military obscurantism and isolationism that Russia is experiencing today, in the next two to three years the country will completely lose the scientific potential that it managed to build up during the 2010s, which were very successful for Russian science.

The number of scientists leaving Russia since the start of the war is estimated to be in the thousands. According to the assessment of Novaya Gazeta Europe, based on an analysis of the ORCID database, which brings together information on 20 million scientists worldwide, at least 2500 researchers and university faculty members may have left Russia in the past two years.

According to Novaya Gazeta's calculations, from 2012 to 2021, about 10% of Russian scientists registered on ORCID changed their affiliation from Russian to a foreign institution annually; in 2022, this percentage increased to 30%. The publication managed to identify 600 researchers who changed their place of work from Russian to foreign, i.e. left Russia. Considering that users typically update information in their ORCID profiles with some delay, and extrapolating the trend, Novaya's data analysts estimate that the total size of the outflow since the beginning of the war may be 1600 individuals. To this figure, they added those who changed their country of residence in ORCID without specifying a new place of work and those who deleted the record of Russian employment in the database, thus arriving at the final number.

The complexity of such calculations is primarily determined by the question of who should be considered an academic: should it include all academic and university faculty members, or only those with high levels of publishing and international scientific activity. For example, one of the scientists who left, Dmitry Dubrovsky, now an employee of Charles University in Prague, estimates the exodus of academics and university professors to be 2-3% of their total number, i.e. 7-8000 people. These figures look plausible, or even understated, if we are talking about a broad definition of science and higher education workers. The current wave of Russian emigration has reached, according to Re:Russia estimates, 700-800,000 people and has a very high educational profile. According to a survey conducted in March 2022 by the OutRush project, 80% of those who have moved abroad had higher education or a degree in science, and 14% had worked in education and academia before leaving. While the figures from the early March emigration cannot be extrapolated to the entire migration wave, the estimate by Dubrovsky, who believes that academics and higher education teachers make up about 1-2% of the newly emigrated adults, appears to be conservative. 

Some idea of the scale of the outflow of highly qualified academics is given by the calculations of Mikhail Sokolov, a current employee of the University of Wisconsin, based on data on allowances to HSE employees for publications in foreign peer-reviewed journals, i.e. Russian scientists integrated into global academia. According to these calculations, about 30% of the 855 people who received such bonuses have left the country (a significant proportion of these, however, are humanities scholars, who are traditionally much more politicised than natural scientists).

According to Novaya Gazeta, approximately 23% of the losses occurred at Moscow universities, including 10% at the Higher School of Economics, 5% at Moscow State University, 4% at Skoltech and 3% at MIPT. St. Petersburg University and St. Petersburg Institute of Precision Mechanics and Optics also accounted for 3% each. 

The presence of ORCID records about a new place of work also allows an assessment of the geography of the migration of Russian academics (bearing in mind that this data reflects only a part of the actual population that has left). In this sample, Germany was the leader in terms of receiving these academics (15% of those who left), overtaking the traditional champion in 'absorbing foreign brains' - the USA (11%). And the most impressive leap was made by Israel (7% compared to the pre-war 2.5%). However, this is explained more by the conditions of aliyah than by the attitudes of the Israeli authorities or the attractiveness of its scientific community. The main beneficiaries of the academics fleeing the war and military obscurantism were China and Kazakhstan, as well as Uzbekistan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and the UAE — countries that before the war Russian were not usually considered by academics as possible places of work. At the same time, as Dmitry Dubrovsky notes, while some countries benefit from attracting Russian scientists, others such as the Baltic States and some Eastern European countries, are, on the contrary, hindering the flow of researchers and scientists from Russia.

However, the scale of the 'wartime' brain drain will only become fully clear in a few years, when data on affiliations in scientific publications become available, as Novaya Gazeta Europe rightly points out. Moreover, these changes will reflect two factors: the actual relocation of academics and the growing obscurantism and isolationism of the remaining scientific environment in the country. The Institute for Statistical Research and Knowledge Economics at the Higher School of Economics reported in December that the publication activity of Russian scientists, which had doubled in the decade before the war — from 1.9% to 3.9% of publications in all Scopus-indexed publications — fell by a quarter (to 3%) in 2022, returning to the level of 2015. According to calculations by Science/Business, also based on data from Scopus, the number of publications resulting from conferences with at least one Russian-affiliated author fell from 35,000 in 2021 to 20,000 in 2022 and was down to 10,600 as of November 2023.

The ongoing political persecution of academics in Russia (monitored, in particular, by the T-variant project) and the growing spymania, isolationism and obscurantism leave no doubt that the flow of Russian academics abroad will continue. However, it will be significantly regulated by the opportunities provided by Western universities and scientific programs to Russian academics. If these opportunities are limited, the outflow will continue in the direction of China and other Asian countries. In the next two to three years, Russia will lose the scientific potential that it managed to build up during the 2010s which were very productive for Russian science.