In early February, as the clouds of war were gathering over Ukraine, a personal darkness fell upon Yulia Kosminska. Her 11-month-old daughter, Alyona, stumbled into their house—”just a little fall, but she wasn’t feeling well,” says Kosminska, a gentle physicist at Sumy State University in the northeast. Soon, tests revealed an aggressive form of leukemia, and Alyona was taken to the children’s cancer clinic in Kyiv. “It was all so fast,” she says, her voice striking. On February 24 – the same day the Russians invaded – she received a call that she was afraid that Alina had died of her illness.
The work was a salve for her grief, but it was not safe to return to Sumi. “We found ourselves far from home with almost nothing,” Kosminska says. She found a glimmer of hope through an emergency aid program run by the Wolfgang Pauli Institute (WPI), a mathematics and physics research center in Austria. The program awards scholars in Ukraine €2000 and a Ph.D. Students 1,500 euros – without restrictions – to maintain their lives and work. Kosminska, one of the first 26 recipients, used some of the money to buy a laptop to set up an online course on nanomaterials. “You must understand,” she says, “I must do something.”
Laboratories around the world have helped hundreds of Ukrainian scientists who fled their war-torn country. Far less aid is available to those who stay by choice or by necessity. Many have seen their salaries cut or halted as institutes divert their resources to the defense of the nation; Some had to flee their homes. They had no one to turn to—until WPI and a few other groups started shedding their lifelines. The amounts are small. WPI’s initial budget is only €50,000. Anatoly Zagorodny, president of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (NASU), says the initiatives are “of critical importance for providing basic and applied sciences in Ukraine.” Such efforts could help stem the brain drain that many fear will drain Ukraine long after the war. “We understand that many of these refugees will not return,” says Sergei Ryabchenko of the Institute of Physics.
Bigger rescue packages await post-war Ukraine. The US government began discussing the outlines of the Marshall Plan, which is reminiscent of the massive American effort to rebuild Europe after World War II. Science will not be left out, says Kenneth Myers, president of CRDF Global, the US non-profit organization that runs science aid programs in countries of the former Soviet Union. “The idea is not just to get them back to pre-invasion levels, but to invest in areas where they can leapfrog to become leaders in science,” Myers says.
For now, the focus is on staying. The most vulnerable, says Zagorodny, are scientists stranded in conflict zones. With Russian forces massing for a renewed offensive on eastern Ukraine, NASU intends to channel 20,000 euros in aid from the French Academy of Sciences to researchers in eastern science strongholds such as Kharkiv and Sumy.
The WPI project is already keeping 17 scientists in those cities afloat. Ihor Shabtni, an experimental physicist in Sumy Prefecture, remained when his fellow residents were evacuated. “My job was to find and buy medicines for my parents,” he says. Treating his mother for pulmonary hypertension costs 500 euros per month. With his salary cut in half to €220 a month, he says, WPI’s money has been a lifesaver.
The WPI scholarship was a career provision for Mykhaylo Mykhaylov. At the end of last year, a solid-state physicist had just finished renovating his laboratory at the Ferkin Institute of Low Temperature Physics and Engineering in Kharkiv. Barely two months later, with Kharkiv under siege, Mikhailov took his wife and 10-year-old son on a 6-day trip to Uzhhorod, on the border with Slovakia. He had to say goodbye, as most men under the age of 60 are prohibited from leaving Ukraine in anticipation of being called up to fight. “We visited a notary and made a will. Then I gave my wife all our savings.”
The Mikhailov family reached a sanctuary in Holland. He went home to an apartment destroyed by the bombing, with 300 euros in his pocket. “I was thinking of leaving the search,” he says. A grant from the Institute of Applied Sciences (WPI) gave him enough money to rent an apartment outside Kharkiv – and stick to science. The bombing destroyed the windows of his institute. He doesn’t know how his lab was doing because it’s too risky to visit. For now, he’s writing a research paper and “keen to get back to experimental work, once normalcy is restored.”
Other organizations are joining the rescue effort. The Polish Science Foundation will fund at least six collaborations in the field of social sciences between scientists in Poland and Ukraine this year; Each team will receive €58,000 over one year for stipends and research expenses. The Krzysztof Skubiszewski Foundation, also in Poland, plans to disburse at least 240,000 euros to researchers in Ukraine and refugees in Poland, most of which goes to those in Ukraine. The French Academy of Sciences is seeking funding for NASU from French institutions, and the Austrian Ministry of Science has just contributed €50,000 to WPI, which will enable it to support twenty or so researchers.
The sooner the war ends, the sooner Ukraine will switch from flag survival to revival. “The diplomacy is really happening,” says Tom Callahan, vice president of strategy and innovation at CRDF Global. One of the main assets that Zagorodny wants to recover is a neutron source at the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology that was damaged in a missile attack last month. “In terms of our ambitious desires to have the latest equipment, we’ll talk about this after our victory,” he says.
First, Ukraine must bear all that Russia hides in the East. In Kharkiv and Sumy, frequent sirens break the circadian rhythms. “The Russians can come back at any time,” says Kosminska, who returned to Sumy with her husband in early April to bury Alyona. Teaching and planning for future experiences helps her cope, as does empathy for friends and colleagues who have also endured hardship and loss. “I can say, for now, I’m fine,” she says.