Without Russia, science goes solo on world woes, climate



PARIS—Without Russian help, climatologists worry about how they will continue their important work of documenting Arctic warming.

The European space agency wonders how its future Mars rover could survive freezing nights on the Red Planet without its Russian heating unit.

And what of the global quest for carbon-free energy if 35 countries cooperating on an experimental fusion power reactor in France cannot ship vital components from Russia?

In scientific fields with profound implications for the future and the knowledge of humanity, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine is causing a rapid and wide breakdown of the relations and projects that united Moscow and the West.

Science’s post-Cold War bridge-building is collapsing as Western nations seek to punish and isolate the Kremlin by drying up support for science programs involving Russia.

The costs of this decoupling, scientists say, could be high on both sides. Tackling climate change and other issues will be more difficult without collaboration and time will be wasted.

Russian and Western scientists have become dependent on each other’s expertise as they have worked together on puzzles ranging from unleashing the power of atoms to launching probes into space.

Separating the dense web of relationships will be complicated.

The Mars rover planned by the European Space Agency (ESA) with Russia is an example. Russian sensor arrays to sniff, scan and study the planet’s environment may need to be unlocked and replaced, and a non-Russian launcher rocket found if the suspension of their collaboration becomes a lasting break.

In this case, the launch, already canceled for this year, could not take place before 2026.

“We have to sort out all this cooperation that we’ve had, and it’s a very complex, painful process, I can tell you that too,” ESA director Josef Aschbacher said in an interview with The Associated. Press.

“Dependence on each other, of course, also creates stability and, to some extent, trust. And that’s something we’re going to lose, and we’ve lost now, because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” Aschbacher said.

International outrage and sanctions against Russia make formal collaborations difficult or impossible. The scientists who have become friends keep in touch informally, but their projects, large and small, are unplugged.

The European Union blocks Russian entities from its main 95 billion euro ($105 billion) fund for research, suspends payments and says they won’t get any new contracts.

In Germany, Britain and elsewhere, funding and support are also withdrawn for projects involving Russia.

In the United States, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has severed ties with a research university it helped establish in Moscow.

The oldest and largest university in Estonia will not accept new students from Russia and allied Belarus. President of the Estonian Academy of Sciences Tarmo Soomere said breaking scientific ties is necessary but also hurtful.

“We risk losing much of the momentum that drives our world towards better solutions, [a] better future,” he told The Associated Press (AP).

“Globally, we risk losing the heart of science, which is about getting new and essential information and communicating it to others,” he added.

Russian scientists are preparing for painful isolation. An online petition by Russian scientists and scientists opposed to the war says it now has more than 8,000 signatories.

They warn that by invading Ukraine, Russia has turned into a pariah state, which “means that we cannot normally do our work as scientists, because conducting research is impossible without full cooperation with foreign colleagues”.

The growing estrangement is also being pushed by the Russian authorities. A Science Ministry order suggested scientists no longer need to worry about getting their research published in scientific journals, saying it would no longer be used as benchmarks for the quality of their work.

Lev Zelenyi, a top physicist at the Moscow Space Research Institute who was involved in the now-suspended collaboration on the ExoMars rover, called the situation “tragic” and told the AP by email that he and other Russian scientists now had to “learn to live and work in this new non-enabling environment”.

On some major collaborations, the future is unclear. Work continues on the 35-nation ITER fusion energy project in southern France, with Russia still among the seven founders sharing the costs and results of the experiment.

ITER spokesman Laban Coblentz said the project remained “a deliberate attempt by countries with different ideologies to physically build something together”.

Among the critical components supplied by Russia is a massive superconducting magnet awaiting testing in St. Petersburg before shipment, expected in several years.

Researchers in search of elusive dark matter hope not to lose more than 1,000 Russian scientists who contribute to experiments at CERN, the European organization for nuclear research. PA

Joachim Mnich, director of research and IT, said the punishment should be reserved for the Russian government, not Russian colleagues.

CERN has already suspended Russia’s observer status with the organization, but “we’re not sending anyone home,” Mnich told the AP.

In other areas too, scientists say we will miss Russian expertise.

Adrian Muxworthy, a professor at Imperial College London, explains that in his research on the Earth’s magnetic field, instruments made in Russia “can make the kinds of measurements that other commercial instruments made in the West cannot.”

Muxworthy is no longer waiting for Russia to deliver 250-million-year-old Siberian rocks he had planned to study.

In Germany, atmospheric scientist Markus Rex said the year-long international mission he led in the Arctic in 2019-2020 would have been impossible without powerful Russian ships crossing the ice to ensure the supplying their research vessel with food, fuel and other essentials.

The invasion of Ukraine ends this “very close collaboration”, as well as future joint efforts to study the impact of climate change, he told the AP.

“It will harm science. We are going to lose things,” Rex said. “Just draw a map and look at the Arctic. It is extremely difficult to do meaningful research in the Arctic if you ignore this big thing over there which is Russia.

“It really is a nightmare because the Arctic is changing rapidly,” he added. “It will not wait for us to resolve all our political conflicts or our ambitions to simply conquer other countries.” PA

Image credits: AP/Daniel Cole