Russian academics want to punish their colleagues who supported the invasion of Ukraine

Some university researchers in Russia are working quietly to prevent colleagues who supported their country’s invasion of Ukraine from being elected to the Russian Academy of Sciences this month.

If they succeed, they will deprive those who support the war of a valuable degree that lends prestige to Russian institutions of higher learning. Their campaign could also show that some acts of protest remain possible despite a government crackdown on dissent.

The Russian Academy of Sciences is a non-profit network of research institutes in various disciplines across the Russian Federation. It has just under 1,900 members in Russia and almost 450 non-voting foreign members.

The academy elects new members every three years. The upcoming ballot, starting Monday, is for 309 seats, including 92 for senior academicians and 217 for corresponding members. The competition is fierce: more than 1,700 candidates applied.

This month, a group of Russian researchers began circulating a list of dozens of candidates who publicly supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by signing pro-war statements or letters published by their universities or institutions or by making such declarations themselves.

Hundreds of senior Russian university officials, most of whom were administrators rather than prominent scientists, also signed a letter of support for the war in March.

But many academic researchers have taken an anti-war stance. More than 8,000 Russian scientists and science journalists have signed an open letter opposing the invasion since it was first published in February.

Three university researchers – who have not been identified because they risk losing their jobs, being imprisoned and ensuring their safety by publicly opposing the war – said in interviews that they helped create the list of those who supported the war to prevent them from being elected to the academy.

Members of the Russian Academy of Sciences leadership did not respond to a request for comment.

Some voters think the list could make a difference in the election.

“Most of the scientific community is definitely anti-war,” said Alexander Nozik, a physicist at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology who was not involved in creating the list. “Being on such a list could significantly reduce the chances of being elected.”

Some outside observers say the Russian Academy is no longer as powerful as it once was.

“It used to be a vast network of research institutes containing the best scientists in the country,” said Loren Graham, a historian specializing in Russian science, with emeritus positions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. “These institutes have now been stripped by the Putin government, given to the Ministry of Education and leaving the academy as an honorary society with no real weight in science.”

Members of the academy have also been implicated in ethical breaches in recent years. In 2020, a commission appointed by the body found that Russian academic journals and research publications were riddled with plagiarism, self-plagiarism and freebie authorship, where scientists were listed as co-authors of manuscripts without contribute to the work. As a result of the report, Russian journals withdrew more than 800 research articles in which the authors were suspected of having committed ethical violations.

A separate 2020 expose by the same academy commission found several rectors and other senior university officials guilty of publishing papers in questionable journals, listing false contributors, and plagiarism.

And some say such issues diminish the importance of the upcoming academy elections.

“Many Russian scientists still believe that the academy is the oldest structure capable of doing something, not because it is good, but because others are worse,” Dr Nozik said.

This is not the first time that the Russian Academy of Sciences has found itself embroiled in disputes over the invasion of Ukraine. On March 7, he released a statement on the war. Some observers saw it as the country’s closest official institution to condemning Russia’s aggression, but critics felt it was not as explicitly anti-war as it should have been.

But the statement addressed the repercussions of the war and how the international response to it would affect Russian science, a concern shared by Russian scholars.

“We condemn any attempt to exert political pressure on researchers, teachers, graduate students and students on the basis of nationality or citizenship,” the academy said in its statement.

Some researchers fled Russia as a result of the war. Universities and institutions around the world have awarded positions to scholars from Russia and Ukraine through programs such as Scholars At Risk. Anna Abalkina, a Russian-born sociologist at the Free University of Berlin, said she knows of some who have moved to her university.

Another problem is the growing isolation of scientists who remain in Russia, with many barred from participating in certain projects, working with international collaborators and attending certain conferences.

Another factor, Dr. Albakina said, is the decision of influential international databases, including Web of Science and Scopus, to stop offering their services in Russia.

“That means the quality of posts will drop immediately,” she said.

Ultimately, the future of Russian science depends on whether President Vladimir V. Putin remains in power, Dr Nozik added.

“I am convinced that it is not possible to do modern science in Russia under Putin’s regime,” he said.

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