‘Science sanctions on Russia should not stop exchanges between scientists’ 

Beam and luminosity monitoring detectors at CERN's Large Hadron Collider, of which Russia was until recently an observer member. (Credit: 2022 CERN)

Western science institutions, including CERN in Geneva, are severing relations with their Russian counterparts as part of escalating sanctions against Moscow.  But individual scientists should continue to foster ties and could well offer one of the first paths to peace, argues Thierry Courvoisier, astrophysicist, emeritus professor at the University of Geneva,  and former president of the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC).

There’s no justification, societal, historical, political, ideological, religious or whatever, for the suffering inflicted by the Russian state and army on the inhabitants of Ukraine. No one, and no nation, has the right to put millions of people on the roads and destroy their livelihood and their lives. European and Western reactions to the Russian invasion of Ukraine is commensurate with the outrage that this barbaric action has caused worldwide.

That said, it’s clear that Russians in Ukraine do not have the monopoly of unacceptable violence during the last decades. Western action in Iraq, to quote just one example, also caused suffering that civilisation condemns firmly.

The west’s response has been to impose widespread economic sanctions and to sever ties in the arts, technology, sport, and now in science too, with CERN last week becoming one of the latest institutions to suspend Russia and halt all new collaborations.

Science is a prestigious activity in Russia and has been for many decades. It’s therefore legitimate to consider how the scientific community ought to react to the present state of affairs. Knowledge once acquired is understandable by all*, even if it may require an effort that only few invest. This gives scientific knowledge a special position in human culture. This knowledge does not depend on ethnic, national or cultural backgrounds, and can be shared worldwide. But science is also at the origin of all, absolutely all, technological progress. It is at the root of economic and military power. Science has also been a geopolitical tool, for example in many aspects of space endeavours.

It is natural, when attempting to weaken the Russian state, to stop all scientific collaborations linked directly to technological progress. Finding the limit between research that is technologically relevant and that which is deemed fundamental is always a delicate matter. This difficulty notwithstanding, the line of action is clear.

In fundamental research, particle physics for example, scientists have kept east-west collaborations open during the whole duration of the Cold War. western and Soviet colleagues have been able to meet and discuss results, albeit often in presence of state observation. This was deemed an important channel, and a contribution of scientists to world peace.

Today, fundamental research is often the result of very large collaborations. As a result, institutions like universities, research organisations (CERN, ESA, ESO, for example) have a very visible position on the international scene, while individual scientists are less prominent. These organisations are nowadays the carrier of the geopolitical and prestige aspects of science. It’s here that sanctions can be applied in order to contribute to the isolation of Russia. But personal relationships and research collaborations between western and Russian scientists is another thing.

Discontinuing institutional collaborations between western and Russian prestigious science establishments is the science community’s contribution to  efforts to put pressure on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. This action will have consequences in Europe. To give one example, it may be necessary to adapt a spacecraft to launch on a European or US rocket rather than the foreseen Russian one. Europe may have to shoulder a bigger share of the costs of a mission to compensate for a planned Russian contribution. The missions remain, however, in principle possible. Remembering that Europe is the first economic power in the world gives us confidence that large science projects can be conducted within Europe even if Russian elements must be replaced at a financial cost and with inevitable delays.  Whether such scientific projects will be implemented or not is a question of political prioritisation and will.

Knowledge remains, however, in the heads of individual scientists. The exchange between scientists is therefore always possible and should be sought. While expressing official reprobation at the institutional level may well have an effect on the Russian state, a different approach should be adopted with regard to individual scientists. Many of them, in and outside of Russia, are critical of the actions of the Russian government. Expressing such opinions in Russia now implies being exposed to harsh repression reminiscent of the dark times of Soviet repression. Cutting links with colleagues struggling within their system to attempt to influence its positions in the face of fierce repression would be counterproductive at all levels.

Keeping collegial links, using the universal value of scientific knowledge to provide a common ground, should remain a goal for all scientists at all times. The longer the present crisis lasts the more important these considerations will become. Scientific relations may also be one of the first bridges available when circumstances will allow a rebuilding of a peaceful future.

*While acquired knowledge is accessible to all humans irrespective of origin, the pursuit of knowledge has a strong cultural aspect, first of all in the selection of the questions investigated.

Thierry Courvoisier is an astrophysicist and professor emeritus at the University of Geneva. He is the former president of the Swiss Academy of Natural Sciences (2012-2015) and of the Swiss Academies of Sciences. He was also president of the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) until 2019.