The Ukraine War: How Western Sanctions on Russia Harm Science and Climate Change Research

Every year since 2000, dozens of international scientists have arrived at Russia’s remote Northeastern Science Station on the Kolyma River in Siberia to study climate change in the Arctic environment.

But not this year.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry has frozen funding used to pay research station employees and to preserve tools that measure how quickly climate change is melting permafrost in the Arctic and how much methane – a powerful gas that warms the planet. – Release him.

Peter Hergersberg, a spokesman for the Max Planck Society, which is funded by the German state, said the funding freeze will likely lead to an interruption of continuous measurements at the station dating back to 2013, to the detriment of scientists’ understanding of the warming trend.

“(Russian) colleagues at the Northeast Science Station are trying to keep the station running,” Hergersberg said. He declined to reveal the amount of funding that was withheld.

Reuters spoke with more than two dozen scholars about the impact of the conflict in Ukraine on Russian science. Many expressed concern about his future after tens of millions of dollars in Western funding for Russian science were suspended in the wake of European sanctions on Moscow.

stop cooperation

Scholars said hundreds of partnerships between Russian and Western institutions have been paused, if not completely canceled, as the invasion unraveled years spent building international cooperation after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Several channels of communication have been closed and research trips postponed indefinitely.

Projects affected by the suspension of Western aid include building high-tech research facilities in Russia, such as the ion collider and the neutron reactor for which Europe has pledged €25 million.

The scientists said such technology would unlock a generation of research that could contribute to everything from basic physics to the development of new materials, fuels and medicines.

Another €15 million contribution to designing low-carbon materials and battery technologies needed for energy transition to combat climate change was also frozen, after the European Union suspended all cooperation with Russian entities last month.

“Emotionally speaking, I can understand this comment,” said Dmitriy Shepashenko, a Russian ecologist who studies global forest cover and who has joined the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria since 2007.

But for science in general, he said: “This is a lose-lose solution. Global issues such as climate change and biodiversity (…) cannot be resolved without Russian territory. [and] Experience of Russian scientists.

frozen money

When the Soviet Union disintegrated, Russian spending on science declined, and thousands of scientists moved abroad or abandoned their fields altogether.

“We as scientists felt that our work was underappreciated,” said permafrost scientist Vladimir Romanovsky, who moved his work to Fairbanks, Alaska, in the 1990s. “There was practically no funding, especially for fieldwork.”

Russian funding has improved since then, but it’s still far less than Western funding. In 2019, Russia spent 1 percent of its GDP on research and development – or about $39 billion (€36 billion), adjusted for currency and price changes – according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Most of this money was spent in areas of physical sciences, such as space technology and nuclear energy.

By comparison, Germany, Japan, and the United States each spend about 3 percent of their GDP. For the United States, that amounted to $612 billion (563 billion euros) in 2019.

However, Russian science has received a boost from project partnerships with scientists abroad. Russia and the United States, for example, led the international consortium that launched the International Space Station (ISS) in 1998.

The head of Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, said this month that it would suspend its participation in the space station until sanctions linked to the invasion of Ukraine are lifted.

Russian scientists also helped build the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, at the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland, known as CERN. In 2012, the collider made a remarkable discovery of the elusive Higgs boson, which until then had been just a theory.

Scientific friendship with Europe continued uninterrupted after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. But CERN’s board of directors announced last month that Suspend any new cooperation with Russia.

Germany alone has provided around 110 million euros to more than 300 German-Russian projects over the past three years.

Another €12.6 million in EU funding has been given to Russian organizations for 18 other projects focusing on everything from Arctic climate monitoring to infectious animal diseases.

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

Troshin, who works at Russia’s Institute of Chemical Physics Problems, said the joint projects “are supposed to be carried out for the benefit of the whole world, and laying off Russian scientists … is really counterproductive.”

“I never expected anything like this. It’s shocking to me. I’m so upset.”

Arctic power outage

Among the most urgent research efforts that have been put on hold are projects to study climate change in the Russian Arctic.

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

“If you cut off your view of changing permafrost in Russia, you are really interrupting our understanding of global permafrost changes.”

This is alarming to scientists as global warming is thawing long-frozen land ice that contains an estimated 1.5 trillion metric tons of organic carbon – twice the amount already in the atmosphere today.

When the permafrost thaws, the organic matter trapped within the ice decomposes and releases more greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide. Scientists fear that such emissions could cause climate change to spiral out of control.

Shore said scientists can use satellites to monitor changes in the landscape due to melting ice, but they can’t capture what’s going on underground, which would require on-site research.

Russian scientists have been collecting and sharing permafrost field data for years, but Western researchers aren’t sure if these communication channels will remain open. These data sets were also incomplete, due to limited funding to cover the vast area.

Arctic ecologist Sue Natalie, at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in the United States, said plans for her project to bolster Russia’s monitoring capacity are pending.

“The hardware that was supposed to go out this year has been discontinued,” she said, as her colleagues’ travel plans were cancelled.

The US government has not issued any clear guidance on dealing with Russian institutions, contrary to the European position.

“We do not hold the people of Russia responsible,” a foreign ministry spokesman told Reuters [for the conflict]We believe that continuous direct communication with the Russian people is essential – including in the areas of science and technology.”

Science as collateral damage

Projects under the state-funded 2021 budget of the Russian Science Foundation amounting to 22.9 billion rubles (262 million euros) relied on partnerships with India, China, Japan, France, Austria, Germany and others.

A Reuters spokesperson did not respond to questions about how the suspension of European cooperation would affect its work, saying only that the foundation would “continue to support leading teams of researchers and their research projects”.

European scientists have been helping build Russian research sites including the neutron reactor and ion collider near Saint Petersburg, said Martin Sandhope, coordinator of the EU-funded effort called CremlinPlus.

The facilities will help advance research in areas such as high energy physics, biochemistry and materials science.

But plans to extend the €25 million project have now been put on hold, and the Sandhop team is redirecting experts and equipment towards European institutions.

The Kremlin neutron detectors needed for the planned reactor, for example, are now going to a facility in Lund, Sweden.

Even if Russia manages to complete the expansion work, it is unclear how important it is to work without the toolkit in Western data analytics institutions.

The lack of access to European equipment would harm his work with high-energy lasers to study topics such as the structure of space-time in a vacuum, which could expand us, said physicist Efim Khazanov from the Institute of Applied Physics in Nizhny Novgorod, near Moscow. Understanding the universe.

Khazanov was among thousands of Russian scientists who signed an open letter, published on the independent online science publication Troitskiy Variant, saying that Russia had “doomed itself to international isolation” with its invasion of Ukraine.

Alexander Sergeev, president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, was quoted by the official Interfax news agency as saying that many Russian scientists had also fled the country.

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

On that day, a letter was published on the state Russian Mayors Union website In support of the Russian invasion and its signature over 300 prominent scholars, they have since been suspended from membership in the Association of European Universities.

While foreign funding represents only a small part of Russia’s scientific spending, its scientists have relied on that money to keep projects and careers afloat.

“These joint research grants have been helping a lot of Russians,” lamented Russian geographer Dmitry Streltsky, at George Washington University in Washington, DC.

“I am amazed that the European Union is targeting scientists, and this is not the right audience to target.”

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