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Out of darkness

Rebuilding Ukraine’s research sector can spark a brighter future

One year ago, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine appalled the world, and left Ukraine’s people facing a devastating new reality. Since then, thousands of researchers have fled the country, many continuing their work elsewhere. Others have stayed, working or defending their institutions and country.

On P8 of this issue, four Ukrainian researchers recount their experiences of the past 12 months. Their stories—from the chemist living day and night in his lab to guard it from attack, to the professor who fled the country with her nine-year-old daughter—speak of terror, courage and a passion for their work and their country. They also express hope in a future where Ukrainian research is rebuilt as a bigger part of an international research effort, underpinned by a renewed commitment to academic freedom.

Ukraine’s researchers have expressed deep gratitude for the international support they have received since Russia’s invasion. At EU, country and institutional levels, there have been numerous schemes to resettle researchers and enable them to continue their work, while those who stayed have been helped with grants, equipment and resources. Sergey Kolotilov, a chemist from Kyiv, says: “I don’t know of anybody who looked for a position abroad and could not find one in a short period of time.” 

In a world where bureaucracy and money are often shameful obstacles to humanitarian action, the speed and thoroughness of the response could not be taken for granted, even given the widespread condemnation of Russia.

Now Ukraine’s researchers are uniting in a renewed plea to the international research community: to help their country rebuild its research base as a cornerstone of a rebuilt Ukraine. As many Ukrainians look for EU membership, researchers hope their world can be reshaped with European values, and be a bigger contributor to the international research endeavour.

A path to this future is already being paved through relationships brought about or renewed by war. With Ukrainian researchers continuing their work in institutions across Europe, connections are being forged which can outlast the conflict, however long it may continue. 

On a more strategic level, too, there is a growing shift in focus. On P11, Oksana Seumenicht, co-founder of the German-Ukrainian society Ukrainet, details efforts already under way to prevent long-term brain drain: EU-funded fellowships; distance learning programmes; and a recently issued joint funding call from the national research foundations of Ukraine and Switzerland.

These steps are hugely welcome, but rebuilding Ukraine’s research base—especially as envisaged by those who are part of it—will require many more. Fellowships will be needed to support return, and as Seumenicht outlines, plans to create centres of excellence in cooperation with international partners could offer a model to “help Ukraine find its niche in the world of global science”. 

The initial support for Ukrainian researchers was, by necessity, delivered in haste. As the EU starts planning for its next R&D framework programme, its officials must grasp the chance to take a long-term view of the assistance Ukraine may need. Doing so will benefit not only the country and its researchers, but also European research as a whole. 

This article also appeared in Research Europe