Academia uncoupled as isolated Russia moves into China bloc

But one expert suggests closer ties with Beijing may not be as straightforward as Kremlin thinks

三月 3, 2022
A man walks in front of a destroyed building after a Russian missile attack in the town of  Vasylkiv, near Kyiv, to illustrate Russia faces ‘devastating’ research isolation
Source: Getty

Russia’s political and economic isolation in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine will have a “devastating effect” on its future research links and push it further towards relying on China as a scientific partner, experts have predicted.

As academics around the world, including in Russia, rallied to condemn Vladimir Putin’s military action and offer support to Ukrainian scholars, there have already been signs that Russian research could rapidly become isolated from the West.

Within 48 hours of the invasion, Germany – which along with the US is Russia’s most important partner in terms of collaborative research volume – pledged to freeze all joint projects. Individual institutions are also severing ties, with a notable example being the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s decision to end its involvement with an institute of science and technology in Russia.

In addition to the ending of such formal ties involving Russian institutions, academics around the globe are also weighing up whether they can continue to work with partners in the country.

Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, said that the Russian government’s actions would “trigger a significant reduction in active collaborations between Russian academics and Western academics. Breaking ties does not change anything much but many will feel the need to protest,” he said.

Maia Chankseliani, associate professor of comparative and international education at Oxford and an expert on higher education and research in post-Soviet states, said it may be that strong individual ties between academics built up over many years would survive, unless Russia itself clamped down on them.

But the crisis would still have “a devastating effect on the establishment of new ties between Russian and Western academics”, while Russian scholars could also face major problems in attending conferences and publishing in journals.

Igor Chirikov, a senior researcher at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley, and former vice-rector of HSE University in Moscow, said Russia’s isolation was likely to hit science, technology, engineering and maths disciplines most acutely, depending on the Western sanctions imposed.

“Some sanctions could completely halt cross-border mobility, import of technologies and equipment for research, and international academic events in Russia,” he added, although stressing “all of it is nothing compared to the devastation and distress that this war brings to Ukraine”.

Dr Chirikov added that there was evidence that Russia’s international standing had already been on a downward trend, both in terms of joint publications and government initiatives.

Despite the progress made by schemes like Russia’s 5-100 programme to boost institutional performance through cross-border links, recent initiatives had been more “inward-looking”, he said.

Dr Chankseliani said that at the same time, research links between Russia and China were “very likely to continue or even strengthen in future” given that it would become “politically safer for Russian academics” than collaborations with the West.

Even before the Ukraine crisis, Russia and China were openly pursuing much closer research ties, leading to warnings about wider implications for the global research ecosystem.

Data on research collaboration also appear to bear out a shift in recent years towards closer scientific cooperation between the two powers, with their overall co-authored publications more than quadrupling between 2011 and 2020 – a much higher growth rate than any other major nation working with Russia.

However, Anatoly Oleksiyenko, associate professor in higher education at the University of Hong Kong and an expert on post-Soviet higher education, said although Russia-China links were likely to increase as a result of the war, it may not be as straightforward as the Kremlin may hope.

“Russian institutions have already been building stronger relations with Chinese counterparts. These will most likely continue to grow but not the way Russia would like them to grow,” he said.

“China has strategic plans of its own, and those are not to empower Russia, which had been a manipulative partner.”

Philipp Ivanov, chief executive of the Asia Society of Australia, meanwhile said that the “lines have not yet been drawn distinctly” around which research areas could see a complete schism between the West and any Russian-Chinese research bloc, except “in some sectors like sensitive technologies”.

“I suspect that will accelerate to other sectors. But it will be a fairly long-term process because of the interconnectivity of the knowledge economy.”

He said it was also unclear the extent to which countries, let alone researchers and technological suppliers, would be willing to accept a “strict” decoupling of international work in some areas. “How enforceable those things will be – it’s really too early to say.”



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