What Will Happen to Real Science in a Fake State

“Reforum” gathered major Russian scientists to talk about the present and future of Russian science.

You can see the video of the discussion here.

Olga Orlova, academic journalist, discussion moderator

Russian academia and higher education schools felt the changes as soon as the war began: for example, in the very first week after February 24th, the international mathematical congress in Saint-Petersburg, one of the most spectacular events in the international mathematics community, one that has been in preparations for quite a long time, was canceled. Many other events of a similar nature took place. What changed in your fields or in academia as a whole after the events of this February?

Ivan Kurilla, PhD in History, Professor in the European University of Saint-Petersburg

Almost instantly all of our international students have vanished. All collaboration in terms of conferences, spring and summer schools – anything that required international contact with others – has collapsed.

Several of the country’s important humanities institutions found themselves in a difficult situation. Attacks on some began last year – many are following the fate of Shaninka, the situation is complicated in the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANHiGS), the exodus of scholars from the Higher School of Economics has been taking place for a few years now. This spring, several people important to the Russian academia left both the Higher School of Economics and the country, which seriously compromised the continuation of some academic disciplines which were taught in these universities. Russia is home to individual academics of a global level, but there are few coalitions, and the loss of each group, each school is a devastating blow to humanities as a whole. The quick departure and massacre of disciplines were first and foremost provoked by the university administrators themselves; the war only sped the processes up.

Many academics are pondering whether we are to expect an onset of harsh censorship. The desire to speak and write as they did before pushed many to leave during the first few weeks of the conflict. The incitements to censorship and removal of certains books and authors from public sales are already actively heard.

Sergey Popov, PhD in Physical and Mathematical Sciences, Professor in the Lomonosov Moscow State University

First I’d like to mention a personal, but quite illustrative event: during the first few days, a German colleague refused to forward an article we’ve collaborated on. They have accepted a very harsh document that forbade all forms of personal contact. I was astonished by this absurd situation: if I was in his shoes, I would have forwarded the article anyway.

Second, there is the sheer number of letters from deans, academic counsels and others in support of what’s taking place, which have instantly put all academics in the country in a very bizarre situation, as from that point on, this was the first thing our foreign colleagues reacted to. This is one of the main reasons that so many supporters of a total boycott of Russian academia have emerged, including on a personal level.

The third example I’d like to mention is an illustration from our own field: Germans have turned off the eROSITA X-ray telescope which was stationed on a Russian satellite. This is a huge blow for Germany, I know many people whose careers and lives revolved around that particular appliance.

Mikhail Gelfand, Professor, Vice President of biomedical research of Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technologies

The deans’ letter in support of the president, signed by the chairman of the Dean’s Council Victor Sadovnichiy (the country should know its heroes) did play quite a destructive role. However, it would be useful to remind readers that, prior to this, an anti-war letter, signed by 8,000 academics, was published and constrained the first wave of negativity towards Russia. It was after this letter that the stylistics have changed, that universities began making statements that, while they will not interact with Russian establishments, they will not refuse and moreover, are ready to maintain personal contacts.

Not only the international students have left; some Russian students did too, and those were the academically strong and active ones. During the first few days, the district police officer would pay someone a visit, and then a friend of his would leave, knowing that tomorrow the officer will come to him. The foreign professors have left as well. That was especially noticeable in Skoltech: it was structured as a university actively involved in international collaboration. The concept in itself was sabotaged. While all others rushed to stock up on buckwheat and sugar, the biologists swept up all the chemical agents they could get their hands on. Supplies should last through the summer, although entire chemical agent exchange stock markets have already emerged, the inventory will run out by mid-fall, then devices will start to malfunction, and it’s unclear how we are supposed to get them fixed or purchase new ones.

While all others rushed to stock up on buckwheat and sugar, the biologists swept up all the chemical agents they could get their hands on

Some devices and supplies fall under sanctions, but the main problem lies in the fact that the logistics have been completely disrupted: let’s say that a certain enzyme has to be transported at -60 degrees Celsius, which has caused problems even before, and now the providers do not order or transport such goods, as they are simply unable to maintain the logistics chain. Institutes and their mediators are experiencing payment difficulties. And nobody knows what is going to happen next.

Yuri Kovalev, correspondent member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, director of laboratories of the astrocosmic center at the P.N. Lebedev Physics Institute

Almost instantly, several rejections of articles authored by Russian academics took place, but this was quickly processed, and a huge list of journals and editors stated that no nationality-based discrimination will be taking place. More than three months have passed – and I, in fact, am not seeing any problems.

Institutional connections are put on hiatus or stopped, but personal connections between academics and collaborations at such a level continue. This leads to certain problems.

Astronomers, astrophysicists, experimentators – those are international sciences in themselves, we have telescope networks which we are granted access to when we apply for observation time. The European radio telescope network has stated that Russian academics may continue applying for observation permits, and, in case they are granted, their European colleagues will perform the observation for them. In the meanwhile, the three Russian telescopes that are part of the network will no longer be performing their functions. Everyone suffers.

There have been mass requests to Russian academics to stop placing Russian affiliations in co-authored publications, which violates the basic ethical norms of academia. Some began publishing articles with footnotes stating that a collaboration with authors does not necessarily mean a collaboration with the institution. It is now difficult for me to invite someone to my seminar, since such invitations are formatted as institutional collaborations. It is quite interesting to observe how difficult decisions are difficultly implemented.

The White House took it further and said that even collaborations with academics who have some sort of a Russian affiliation should be wrapped up, but all projects that started before February 24th may continue. The first reactions of my American colleagues were quite complicated.

Ivan Kurilla

The effectiveness of sanctions against academia in terms of attempts to influence politics are not proven. They just needed to close off Russia as a whole – and academics felt the blow.

The Russian document on the cancellation of cultural, academic and educational connections with the USA is quite significant. Let me remind you that the first document that signified the end of the first Cold War in the beginning of the 1950s was the Lacy-Zarubin Agreement on Exchanges in Cultural, Technical and Educational Fields. Culture and academia were the paths taken to an eventual mutual understanding. And now they’ve been closed off on both the Russian and the Western sides.

Sergey Popov

The decision on sanctions was made quickly, and two things were thrown in one pile: the influence on the academic establishment and on academics themselves. These two must be separated: the Dean of the Moscow State University is not elected by professors, staff, or students, and, while the RANHiGS president is elected, there are a lot of details involved. There is barely any feedback going towards the top of the establishment.

The reduction of all measures to a person to person level is harmful in the sense that no government, foundation or university is able to make an adequate decision. It would seem feasible to trust your own academics and provide them with recommendations and good wishes instead of bans.

Mikhail Gelfand

As I’ve read recently, out of all countries that have imposed sanctions on Russian academia, Russia is especially prominent.

What are the possible consequences for Russian academia in the next 3-5 years

Sergey Popov

I will concentrate on a much larger scale – at least that makes some things certainly predictable.

Due to all the events taking place, not just due to sanctions themselves, there are colossal reputational losses taking place. For 25 years, there has been a growing sentiment that you can live a normal life in Russia, that you can have an academic career here, the feelings of predictability were becoming commonplace. Now it is destroyed in a single blow. If just a year ago PhD candidates could consider a development of their careers here, now that is not possible. There will be another lost generation, a series of new demographic gaps in academia, and a mass departure while one is still possible. It will become much more difficult to attract partners into lengthy projects with Russian participation: people will massively avoid that.

There will be more theorists, more success in theoretical fields, since the worst thing you can lose here is access to the Internet. You don’t need large funds, prominent collaborations, sometimes you get your result in a year, and sometimes in six months. But people won’t be as motivated to participate in large-scale projects. I know people who have dedicated 20 years of their lives to cosmic projects – and I forecast that these projects will never fly. For different reasons: inability to purchase equipment because of sanctions, departure of foreign partners, and simply the budget cuts to fundamental sciences (and those will certainly take place).

Yuri Kovalev

I work with a large number of students and PhD candidates, and we have rather heart-to-heart conversations on how they see their lives and future. Before February, a fraction of them told me that Russia has strong academia, and, at least for the next few years, they will be working here (for Post-Doc, I personally attempt to push groups to an international level, because this is how academic careers are built). After the end of February, 100% of all boys and girls give me the same answer. To me, this sounds like a grave sentence that has been given to Russia for the nearest future years.

Ivan Kurilla

I hope that no one, having listened to us, decides to leave these brilliant minds in Russia forcibly.

History and political sciences are suffering and will suffer from state intervention, from the ideology that the state is now constructing anew. We have already seen announcements on the increases in history teaching curriculums in all universities, even in departments that are not related to the field; and historians have nothing to cheer, since it is obviously implied that the subjects taught will look like the History of the Communistic Party of the Soviet Union, propaganda under the guise of history. This will harm history both as a discipline and as a part of compulsory education: historians that teach propaganda will be in demand. This is one of the problems that took historial science a long time to get rid of. Political scientists, who are, in fact, propagandists, will breed uncontrollably.

People who were published in the West will still get published, no one will unfold our articles. We will suffer from internal pressure. Actual political science and sociology in the country may be simply liquidated: you can’t force everyone to leave, but leaving everyone jobless is pretty easy. This scenario is bad, but not impossible.

And the youth is trying to leave. Master’s degree graduates are doing their research all as one: they were just about to believe that it was possible to have an academic career in Russia, but their hopes now have been crushed.

Mikhail Gelfand

The theorists are not going to be great; they’re just going to be better off than others. I felt that in the 1990s as a bioinformatician: all I needed to stay afloat was the Internet. We may have problems with it as well, it is unclear whether we will be able to load large quantities of data – we may end up like China.

Russian academia depends on the fate of Russia as a whole. Academia cannot exist apart from the state, especially such as Russian academia

The question on what is the fate of Russian academia depends on the fate of Russia as a whole. Academia cannot exist apart from the state, especially such as Russian academia.

How academics with different political views interact today

Sergey Popov

If just six months ago, we could harmlessly tease each other (I mean those colleagues who were, on the whole, normal people), all jokes ended 110 days ago. We’re better off discussing neutron stars*, otherwise everything can collapse in a single moment.

Yuri Kovalev

We’ve learned to talk to each other back in 2014: the schism has divided many families back then, and survival of the family is much more important than the survival of an academic team. Everybody got hurt by the key element of it and instantly applied this experience in the situation that took place at the end of February. Right now, the legacy of 2014 is clearly visible in how some people quickly stop mid-sentence or wisely avoid certain topics.

Ivan Kurilla

I had certain doubts in the beginning, when I learned that a fraction of my colleagues held certain beliefs I did not share, but elements of the workplace still remained. There is not enough of us in the work environment to cancel anybody. I can’t say that this was easy for me.

Academics are the last social group to preserve horizontal contacts. Academia cannot exist without horizontal contacts, it cannot live within separate individuals. That’s why academics were the first to sign anti-war letters. This is what we are discussing – whether we will be able to preserve solidarity not just inside the country, but with our foreign colleagues as well, will the connections that we’ve nurtured for the past 30 years, survive at all.

Mikhail Gelfand

Luckily, I personally never experienced this problem – maybe because I have voiced harsh statements before. I have some colleagues who were not deeply interested in the political aspects, but, once it became the daily agenda, it turned out that we hold similar beliefs.

I write reviews for students and PhD candidates of people I dislike, but I myself would not reach out.

Is there a way to work professionally while remaining in Russia

Sergey Popov

This will be very difficult to achieve – if everything remains as it is, the Russian academia will undergo a “provincialization”.

The theoreticians, as Mikhail mentioned, will be better off than others, as well as STEM as a whole. I think one of the reasons I chose astrophysics as my field back in the late Soviet times was that I was not aware that such interesting subjects as political science or philosophy of law even exist. Now people will once again be unaware that there are fascinating aspects to social sciences and humanities, those fields will be drawn-out and dreary – so they will choose STEM and natural science specialties if their heads are not completely empty.

It’s difficult to find positive moments. If only one can fantasize about certain sanctuary fields that no one in the world studies (due to their utter lack of potential); one can study them in Russia, and perhaps one out of a million will break through. However, experience shows that the development of such fundamentals happens in places where academia works effectively and on a large scale.

Yuri Kovalev

Astrophysicists work with enormous and expensive appliances, and many, if not most, are awarded in the aftermath of grand competitions. We’ve given our telescopes to others before – and while we continue giving them, there are no limits, symmetrically many Western devices will remain available to us as well. However, there is a “but”: in order to use such appliances, you must understand how these things work, what they are capable of, and generate appropriate ideas. If academia will waste away and halt, these things will become closed off simply because you won’t be able to reach a certain level.

Ivan Kurilla

The strange theories, which Sergey mentioned and which quickly deflect when held against global academia, are widespread in the humanities. My colleague Mikhail Sokolov called isolated academia (as he did provincial and local) “aboriginal”. Now, independent aboriginal concepts of social development may emerge. Those are not perspectives for the next year, or even the next three years, but if we stay in the present situation for a while – it will come back.

There are a lot of people in the humanities who have decided to stay: such sciences are strongly connected to the location, the history, the language. Academics don’t want to leave.

In the early 1990s, Russian academia was able to mine for and provide academics abroad with raw material on what has been taking place in the country. This practice may return, but not quickly: we’ve learned a lot since then.

Mikhail Gelfand

I once suggested (and my non-attributed quote, however strange it may seem, ended up in Strategy-2020) that tragedy will happen not when there will be no one to write an article for Nature, but when there will be no one to read an article in Nature.

There is only one mechanism that allows people to continue working here – we’ve touched upon it in different ways. In the situation wherein the people who remain, actively work, and, at the same time, understand what is academia, how does it work, and have a grasp on the complexity of real science existing in a fake state – those people have to communicate with each other. The role of reputations and reputational mechanisms is growing, as well as the understanding of what we are and are not allowed to do. For example, under no circumstances may you snitch on a colleague. Yes, Russian academia exists almost entirely on state money (i.e., taxpayer money, the state inserts itself as the intermediate instance). The question on how to interact with the state is a difficult one, but some things should not be allowed to happen in interpersonal relationships.

Today, entire academic fields may be used malevolently not just in theory, but here and now. This concerns not just political sciences, but the natural sciences as well, and, especially, technical.