The invasion of Ukraine is not only a large-scale humanitarian disaster, but also a catastrophe for students and for development and progress worldwide. Zahra, an Iranian medical student in Kyiv, asked, “if they want to continue this war, what will happen with the students?”
By: Tobias Lindström Battle
Until recently, Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv was buzzing with the energy of students and academics. Victoriia, a PhD candidate in Antarctic virology, was just finishing up her dissertation when the fighting broke out and she was forced to abandon her laboratory. In an email, she wrote, “…as a scientist, I can lose everything that was done in these seven years and it is very difficult for me now, I lose a part of my life.” The many samples she painstakingly collected over the past years are at risk, as are the viruses she has managed to isolate. An extended power cut or a single piece of artillery ammunition would be enough to destroy the huge potential of this knowledge forever.
Daryana, who is in the second year of her PhD studies at the Institute of Biology and Medicine of the same university, is investigating the cause of blood clot formation in critically ill COVID-19 patients. Her work has the potential to help thousands of patients experiencing COVID-19 complications. Yet, she is stuck at home, unable to get to her laboratory. While she still teaches undergraduates via zoom, the bulk of her work involves a set of samples which will likely have expired by the time she can get back to them, resulting in vast amounts of lost work. “The biggest loss for me is time stolen from my research, discovering something new for us and helping humanity cope faster with COVID-19,” she said.
War disrupts the very basis of science
The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has been ongoing for two months. Destruction on a massive scale has been seen in cities from Mariupol to Kharkiv. Civilians have been not only killed, but targeted. Infrastructure, hospitals, universities and research facilities have been damaged, in many cases beyond repair. Indeed, all wars are humanitarian disasters. However, war does more than just destroy human lives and physical property.
War disrupts the very basis of science, and therefore our societal progress. “War is scary, scary for science,” Victoriia said. By forcing researchers away from their experiments, destroying precious research data, disrupting threads of thought, corridors of communication and exchange of ideas, it means that advances and efforts to make the world a better place are not only stalled, but reversed. For many students, it means hours spent in a lab with nothing to show, as well as a canceled exchange programme or eagerly awaited graduation in the summer. For others, it means fleeing the country, losing a loved one, shattering dreams and carrying a baggage of trauma throughout life.
Re-establishing academic momentum is difficult
Study abroad is a key component of academia, to the huge benefit of universities and students alike. Zahra is from Iran and was in her fifth year studying medicine in Kyiv before fleeing back home. “I left maybe a few days before the war. It was very stressful, fearful”, she recounted of her experience. She thought of those who could not make it out and lamented the hole in her education that the conflict has blown. Zahra’s experience of studying abroad, however, has made her confident in the values of student exchange. “That was amazing because I have learned to communicate with different cultures,” she said. Cultural exchange brings people from different places together and allows us to celebrate each other’s differences, nurturing tolerance.
Importantly for science, international travel has allowed the exchange of ideas and viewpoints to be easier than ever. Zahra argued that “knowledge can be transferred”, resulting in a richer and more dynamic scientific environment, open to collaborations and important discoveries. “Humanity can benefit from this because you will not care about the nationality of that person. We will learn to help each other regardless,” she said. Now, the war shut these opportunities down. Foreign students have had to leave Ukraine, foregoing vast numbers of connections and chances of collaboration. This is a huge step backward.
We must also not forget the effects of the isolation of Russia from the Western world and what this means for both societal and scientific progress. The barrage of sanctions against Russia by Western countries has resulted in withdrawal of research funding, exclusion of Russian nationals from boards and collaborations, and the crumbling of interpersonal relationships between students and researchers on different sides of the conflict. The stigma associated with the country means that relations, and therefore academic momentum, will take a long time to re-establish. Meanwhile, the further dismantling of democracy and freedom of speech imply not only the loss of students’ academic freedom, but also of foreign scientific literature, opportunities to study abroad, and the formation of crucial connections and friends. Indeed, the loss of Russian students, scientists and research for the Western world is a tragedy, and one which will only increase our differences.
We must help students from Ukraine continue their education
Picture science as thousands of threads waiting to be weaved together in the shape of progress and prosperity in our societies. Each student, each project, is one of those threads. It is clear: we must catch these threads before they fall to the ground and continue to integrate them into the lattice that makes up human development. How can this be done? By receiving students from Ukraine and allowing them to continue their education in our institutions, inviting doctoral candidates to share our laboratory space and resources, and acting with compassion and solidarity. In this way we mitigate the loss of knowledge and keep scientific networks alive and flowing. The ambition and expertise of our Ukrainian counterparts will benefit not only our countries, but humanity in general.
The SIGHT Student Organisations Network calls for solidarity with students and researchers in war-torn regions across the world, including Ukraine, Ethiopia, Syria, and others. In line with the Lancet-SIGHT commission on Peaceful Societies Through Health and Gender Equality, we appeal to policy-makers for policies and actions which centre on creating and maintaining peace through decreased health and gender inequities. We join the commission in condemning the Russian aggression on not only a sovereign state, but also on knowledge and free speech. Indeed, we wish to stress the crucial importance of avoiding conflict in the first place. It is the task of not only our leaders, but the responsibility of each and every citizen, in both democracies and autocracies, to do what is in their power to work against violence and towards global cooperation. Only in this way can human progress and prosperity be achieved for all.
Written by Tobias Lindström Battle, presented on behalf of the SIGHT Student Organisations Network (https://sight.nu/student-organisations-network/)