Thierry j.-L. Courvoisier

March 2022



There is no justification, societal, historical, political, ideological, religious or whatever, for the suffering inflicted by the Russian state and army to the inhabitants of Ukraine. Nobody may 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 caused worldwide.

I’m aware that Russians in Ukraine do not have the monopoly of inacceptable violence during the last decades. Western action in Iraq, to quote just one example, also caused suffering that civilization condemns firmly.

I’m aware that the European reaction to the invasion of Ukraine is qualitatively different to that of events elsewhere in the world. We measure this difference by the rapidity and level of sanctions imposed on Russia, as well as by the hospitality towards the population of refugees. Geographical, societal, cultural and religious proximity, as well as many personal relationships between Europeans, Ukrainians and Russians, most probably explain this difference. While this may be an explanation, it is not an excuse.

European and Western reactions to the Russian invasion of Ukraine include military aspects, economic sanctions, cessation of collaborations in art, technology and sport. The effect of these sanctions will be measured in the coming days, weeks and months.

Science is a prestigious activity in Russia. It has been so for many decades. It is therefore legitimate to consider how the scientific community ought to react to the present state of affairs. Knowledge once acquired is understandable by all[1], 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 is there that sanctions can be applied in order to contribute to the isolation of Russia. Discontinuing institutional collaborations between western and Russian prestigious science establishments is a contribution of the science community to the effort to stop the Russian exactions in Ukraine. This action will have consequences in Europe. To give one illustrative example, it may be necessary to adapt a spacecraft to launch on a European or US rocket rather than the foreseen Russian one and to increase the European cost 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 are critical of the action 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.


[1] Note that 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.