The Ukraine conflict hurts Russian science, as Western funding pulls

Arctic Permafrost. – Photo via Brocken Inaglory / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

LONDON – Dozens of international scientists have visited Russia’s Northeast Science Center on the Siberian Kolima River every year since 2000 to study climate change in the Arctic environment.

Although not this year.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Germany suspended funding to pay staff and maintain equipment that measures how quickly climate change is melting the Arctic permafrost and how much methane – a powerful planetary warming gas – is. Releasing

The suspension of funding is likely to hamper continued measurements at the station in 2013, with scientists compromising their understanding of global warming trends, said Peter Hargersberg, a spokesman for the German-funded Max Planck Society.

“[Russian] Colleagues at the Northeast Science Station try to keep the station running, “said Mr. Hargersberg. He declined to say how many funds were withheld.

Reuters spoke to more than two dozen scientists about the impact of the Ukraine conflict on Russian science. Many have expressed concern about the future of Russian science, following the suspension of millions of dollars in Western funding for Russian science in the wake of European sanctions.

Hundreds of partnerships between Russian and Western institutions have been suspended unless completely abolished, scientists say.

Many communication channels have been shut down and research trips have been suspended indefinitely.

Western-suspended projects include the construction of high-tech research facilities in Russia, such as an ion collider and a neutron reactor for which Europe has pledged 25 million euros ($ 27.4 million).

Such technology would unlock a generation of research that could contribute to everything from basic physics to the creation of new materials, fuels and pharmaceuticals, scientists say.

The European Union also froze another 15 million euros ($ 16.7 million) in contributions to the design of low-carbon materials and battery technology needed to tackle climate change, following the closure of all cooperation with Russian companies last month.

“Emotionally, I understand this suspension,” said Dmitry Schapashchenko, a Russian environmental scientist who has studied global forest cover and has been with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria since 2007.

But for science as a whole, he said: “It’s a lost solution. Global problems like climate change and biodiversity … can hardly be solved without the expertise of the Russian region and Russian scientists.”

Frozen means

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian spending on science dwindled, and thousands of scientists emigrated or abandoned their fields altogether.

“As a scientist, we felt our work was not appreciated,” said Vladimir Romanovsky, a permafrost scientist who moved his work to Fairbanks, Alaska in the 1990s. “There was virtually no funding, especially for field work.”

Russian funds have improved since then, but have remained much lower than in the West. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in 2019, Russia spent 1% of its GDP on research and development – or about $ 39 billion, adjusted for currency and price changes.

Most of that money has been spent on physics, such as space technology and nuclear power.

By comparison, Germany, Japan, and the United States each spend about 3% of their GDP. For the United States, that amount was $ 612 billion in 2019.

Russian science has received an incentive, though, from partnering in projects with scientists abroad. Russia and the United States, for example, led the International Consortium to launch the International Space Station in 1998.

The head of Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, said earlier this month that it would suspend its participation in the space station until sanctions against Ukraine were lifted.

Russian scientists also helped build the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, at the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland, known as CERN. In 2012, the conflicting elusive Higgs discovered the epicenter of the boson, which until then was only theoretical.

After Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, scientific friendship with Europe continued uninterrupted. But CERN’s governing council announced last month that it was suspending any new cooperation with Russia.

Germany alone has paid about 110 million euros ($ 122 million) for more than 300 German-Russian projects in the last three years. A further 12.6 million euros ($ 14 million) was provided by the European Union to Russian companies for 18 more projects focusing on everything from infectious animal diseases to Arctic climate monitoring.

Chemist Pavel Troshin recently won Russian state funding for his part in a Russian-German effort to build next-generation solar cells into power communications satellites. But, with the German side now suspended, the project is in the air.

The joint venture “is supposed to be for the benefit of the whole world, and cutting off Russian scientists … is really counterproductive,” said Mr Troshin, who works at Russia’s Institute for the Problem of Chemical Physics.

“I would never expect such a thing. It’s shocking to me. I’m very upset. “

Arctic Blackout

More urgent research efforts are underway, including a project to study climate change in the Russian Arctic.

“Two-thirds of the permafrost area is in Russia, so the data from there is very important,” said Ted Schuer, an environmentalist at the University of Northern Arizona at Permafrost Carbon Network.

“If you leave out your perspective on the permafrost transformation in Russia, you are really closing our understanding of global change on the permafrost.”

This is of concern to scientists because global warming is melting long-frozen land that contains approximately 1.5 trillion metric tons of organic carbon – twice the amount currently present in the atmosphere.

When permafrost melts, the organic matter trapped in the ice is eroded and emits more planet-warming gases such as methane and carbon dioxide. Scientists fear that such emissions could spiral out of control of climate change.

Scientists can use satellites to monitor landscape changes due to melting, but cannot pick up what is happening underground, which requires on-site research, Mr Schuer said.

Russian scientists have been collecting and sharing permafrost field data for years, but Western researchers are unsure whether these communication channels will remain open. Those datasets were also complex due to limited funding to cover large areas.

Suu Kyi, an Arctic ecologist at the US Woodwell Climate Research Center, says plans for her project to augment Russian observation capabilities are stuck.

“The instrumentation that was supposed to come out this year has been postponed,” he said, adding that travel plans for his colleagues have been canceled.

The US government has not issued any clear instructions on how to deal with Russian institutions, as opposed to the European position.

A State Department spokesman told Reuters: “We do not blame the Russian people. [for the conflict]And I believe that continued direct engagement with the Russian people is essential – including in the field of science and technology. “

Science as parallel damage

Projects under the 2021 budget with state funding of 22.9 billion rubles ($ 213 million) from the Russian Science Foundation relied on partnerships with India, China, Japan, France, Austria and Germany.

A spokesman for Reuters did not answer questions about how the stagnation in European cooperation would affect his work, saying only that the foundation would “continue to support leading researchers and their research projects.”

European scientists are helping to build Russian research sites near St. Petersburg, including neutron reactors and ion colliers, said Martin Sandhop, coordinator of the EU-funded effort called KremlinPlus.

The facilities will help conduct research in areas such as high-energy physics, biochemistry and physics.

But plans to expand the 25-million-euro project have now been put on hold, and Mr Sandhop’s team is redirecting experts and equipment to European institutions.

The Kremlin’s neutron detectors are needed for the planned reactor, for example, now in Lund, Sweden.

Even if Russia manages to complete the expansion work, it is not clear how valuable the work would be without the suite of equipment in Western institutions for data analysis.

Efim Khazanov, a physicist at the Nizhny Novgorod Institute of Applied Physics near Moscow, says that without access to European instruments, using high-power lasers to study things like space-time structures in space would be detrimental to our work, which could expand us. Perception of the universe.

Mr Khazanov was among thousands of Russian scientists who signed an open letter, posted on the independent online science publication Trotsky Variant, saying Russia had “destroyed itself for international isolation” with its invasion of Ukraine.

Alexander Sergei, head of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said many Russian scientists had fled the country, according to the state-run Interfax news agency.

The protest letter was temporarily removed from the site after Russia on March 4 passed a law criminalizing “fake news” in Ukraine’s campaign.

On that day, a letter in support of the Russian aggression was published on the website of the state Russian Rectors Union and signed by more than 300 leading scientists, who have since been suspended from membership of the European University Association.

Although foreign funds represent only a small fraction of Russia’s scientific spending, its scientists relied on that money to keep projects and careers afloat.

“These joint research grants helped many Russians,” said Dmitry Streletsky, a Russian geographer at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. – Gloria Dickey and Dasha Afanasiva / Reuters

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