Sunday, March 20, 2022

Avoiding scientific McCarthyism: reversing the recent call to punish Russian scientists


A recent call for punishing individual Russian scientists, instead of institutions and political power holders, is a wrong-headed and mean-spirited response to the atrocities of the Russian war on Ukraine.





Russia’s illegal war against Ukraine is an abomination of any ethical or moral norm, and Russia deserves to be held accountable and liable for the resulting humanitarian and economic costs. One powerfully employed punishment has been severe and expansive sanctions meant to ply direct pressure on Russia’s economic and political elite.


A group of scientists have published an open letter in Nature and are requesting signatories for a call to end scientific cooperation with Russian scientists. This appeal requests that international funders, publishers, societies and individual scientists should immediately endeavour:


1.     to block access to all scientometric databases and materials of scientific

publishers for citizens and institutions of the Russian Federation and Belarus;

2.     to make it impossible for researchers affiliated with institutions and scientific

institutions of the Russian Federation and Belarus to participate in international grant programs funded by the European Union and other partners;

3.     to suspend participation of researchers, students and institutions from the

Russian Federation and Belarus in current international academic mobility programs;

4.     to boycott attempts at holding scientific events on the territory of the Russian

Federation and Belarus (in particular, scientific conferences, symposiums, etc.);

5.     to suspend indexing of scientific materials published in the Russian Federation

and Belarus in all scientometric databases;

6.     to prohibit citizens of the Russian Federation and Belarus from being

editors/co-editors/reviewers of international publications.


To be clear, these actions will do harm, and are unlikely to effect change in Russian policy. These measures are meant to be punitive. Only number 4 on the list above makes sense.


I have Russian scientific collaborators and I have been in contact with them. They use subtle language to communicate their disagreement with Russia's war and that they hope for an end to it. They write e-mails as if someone is watching. Because someone is watching.


The political climate in Russia is one that is extremely dangerous for internationally connected Russians and for those who do not agree with or support Putin. Putin recently opined that Russia needed a cleansing and traitors to be spit out like flies. Countless Russians died in previous political cleansings. To demand that scientists renounce the Russian war in order to participate in global funding and information exchange, as the appeal does, is oblivious to the risks individuals face in Russia for expressing views that counter political decrees. This appeal comes across as insensitive and, quite frankly, ignorant.


As an Editor of a journal, I strive to ensure that information is disseminated broadly and that we are as inclusive as possible by assembling diverse teams of editors. As the head of a lab, I endeavour to provide opportunities to a diverse group of students and researchers. I have supported and worked with students and researchers from many countries, including some from countries controlled by repressive and authoritarian regimes. I prioritize these types of engagement because I believe that this promotes global inclusion and expands the worldviews of people that can help turn the political tide in their own countries, or to provide leadership when dictators finally fall. 


What should we be doing as scientists? We should support Ukraine and Ukrainians, and we should pressure our own governments to do more, including creating a no-fly zone in Ukraine. Further, we should maintain our ties to those inside of Russia and keep the lines of communication open, and let those who are disheartened by what their country is doing that they are still part of the wider world. These international ties might be important for what comes next in Russia.