When the Russian army invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, it was a turning point in contemporary history. While millions of Ukrainians remain in their country, millions of others have fled. Also Oleksiy Kolezhuk.
The theoretical physicist is not only a professor, he is also the Chairman of the Scientific Committee of the National Council of Ukraine for the Development of Science and Technology. He is currently working at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz.
Spektrum.de: You are currently working from Mainz. What do you hear from your students and colleagues in Ukraine about the situation there?
Oleksiy Kolezhuk: Everything is difficult – from teaching to experiments. My colleagues and I have been teaching online for a long time, but the fact that the power supply is repeatedly interrupted makes even that complicated. In the laboratory, on the other hand, they can only carry out limited experiments without electricity. Storing and retrieving data is also impossible without computers and the Internet. In a way, the war shows how vulnerable not only science but also modern civilization is.
Do you know how many students and teachers have left the universities?
Thanks to Covid, many universities were already geared up for online classes and students from different locations have tuned in. That’s why the numbers are stable in Kyiv. In any case, it is less about the number of students and teachers than about the quality of teaching. It has clearly suffered, and that is sad.
Because you have to interrupt the lesson again and again or because it is difficult to concentrate?
Both. And because we’re never all together. If you have a group of 15 students, you often only see 3 or 5 people on Zoom. We record the courses and provide the link so that those who are experiencing an airstrike can also join later. But it is difficult to determine how much knowledge has reached the students and whether it is possible to stimulate them to think and research.
Do you talk about the situation in your class?
We try to focus on the content. If we started talking about the war, we would spend all our time on it. The classes help to stay sane and still feel reasonably normal in these extraordinary times. That applies not only to me, but also to the students. The war depresses. They have a hard time committing to the lessons, but at least they try and it helps them deal with the situation.
Do you know students and scientists who gave up their jobs and joined the army?
Yes, I know some people. Among other things, my doctoral student has voluntarily decided to join the military. As you may know, students and teachers have not yet been convened. However, he wanted to make himself useful, and he is now. Luckily he’s with a special unit to program drones and not just a soldier with a gun. That would have been a waste.
Do you still have contact?
I try to keep in touch via a secure messenger. Soldiers are rarely allowed to turn on their phones because the signal could give the enemy your position and risk being shot. The last time I heard from him was a few days ago. But I saw that he was online again afterwards.
How does it feel to know that others are fighting in the war?
That’s a difficult question because I’m safe here in Germany. Although I was already abroad for a teaching assignment when the war started, I still feel a bit ashamed that I am in a safe place here while others are suffering. Not only those who joined the army, but also those who now have to survive in much harsher conditions.
You worked in Germany many years ago. In 2009 you returned to Ukraine and became a professor. At the beginning of this year you went to the USA to teach there. Then the war started, and instead of going back to Ukraine, you came back to Germany, thanks to the help of former colleagues. How can I imagine that: Research in Ukraine is abandoned from one day to the next and then resumed somewhere else?
For me it wasn’t that complicated. The group in Mainz conducts research quite close to my original field. It’s about magnetism. Some former colleagues even work there. As a result, it’s been a pretty smooth transition work-wise.
Those who carry out experiments and field research have it much more difficult. Often you don’t work alone, but in a group. Everyone has their tasks. When the team is no longer in one place – what do you do then? In addition, certain equipment is required in some cases, which not every laboratory has. For example, in Kharkiv there was an experimental facility for generating neutrons. It’s destroyed now. The device was unique.
And still other experiments are planned for a long time, run for specific periods of time and are based on repetitions.
Exactly. Interrupting them means starting over. You have to get paid for that first.
You are a Philipp Schwartz scholarship holder. With the help of this program, scientists who are at risk in their home countries can continue their work at German universities and research institutions. Other initiatives have this claim. MSCA4Ukraine for example, Scholars at Risk Europe or
Many programs are of great help. They offer short-term support and thus many possibilities. But it’s unclear what will happen to the people if the war continues. Numerous projects are not designed for long-term funding.
How many researchers are we talking about?
There are no official numbers. The Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences estimates that up to 10 percent of its people have gone abroad. Different independent surveys give similar numbers, ten to fifteen percent, but it remains a rough estimate. In absolute numbers, it should be 5,000 to 10,000 researchers who emigrated – that’s a lot, even if most stay in Ukraine.
Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, German scientific organizations, among others, imposed an embargo on Russia. This has noticeable effects on research. What do you think of the decision to exclude Russian scientists?
It was the only right one. However, we should clearly define who we mean by “Russian scientists”. Certainly not those who are of Russian origin and work in the USA or Germany, for example. I’m talking about those officially affiliated with Russian institutes. A science embargo, like any other, is a valid war measure aimed at weakening Russia as a state. Meet Russian science, meet Russian technology and with it the Russian military. Certainly, such an embargo also affects innocent people. People who don’t support Putin’s war. I don’t know how many that is. To be honest, I don’t care either. Because hitting people with an embargo is still better than hitting them with rockets.
One could argue that science is above politics, as a model for a world that thrives on knowledge sharing rather than individuals or nations fighting for themselves…
This is a view that was very popular after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, the events of the past months, even years, show very clearly that this is not true. We live in geopolitically tense times, polarization is taking place. USA, China, Russia, Europe. In a way, there is a new cold war – may it stay cold. In such times, there can be no neutral layer of science, because science is closely related to technologies such as chips, software, high-performance materials and so on, and can always benefit the military as well.
But what about, for example, vaccine development, field research by biologists or Antarctic research – i.e. specialist areas far removed from the military?
At first glance, it would actually make a difference. But institutional cooperation, even in such supposedly harmless specialist areas, is immediately instrumentalized in order to set a political signal that Russia is accepted as a partner by the West and that there is no real isolation, but “business as usual”. It is suggested that other forms of cooperation with Russia, such as gas and oil deals, are also acceptable. But you don’t go to the opera with a mass murderer to enjoy music, no matter how harmless it may seem.
Ukrainian and Russian scientists have collaborated in some areas. Will that be possible again?
Not in the foreseeable future.
The war goes on. How long, no one can say. After the end, it will be about the reconstruction of Ukraine. In an opinion piece for Science Business, you wrote: “Before the war, Ukrainian science suffered from many problems while at the same time disappearing under the radar of politicians and civil society.” You explain that a reshaping of the system, a transformation , is required. Before we get into the how, let’s talk about the past and your goal. What was the status of science in Ukraine before the war?
This is a big topic, I’ll summarize it as briefly as possible. Science in Ukraine was considered more of a decorative art. Like a picture that you hang on the wall because that’s what you do. It was not seen as a need for progress and innovation. But now that the war is over, it shows how important research findings are in order to survive.
For good research in Ukraine, however, some things have to change. Our scientific system was more or less a legacy of the Soviet Union. Much of the research back then was funded by the military. They worked far away from industry and civil applications. However, this did not change with the end of the Soviet Union, but rather the system was preserved for decades. Change has only begun in recent years. Universities, for example, which used to focus primarily on teaching, increasingly began to develop research capacities. A new science funding instrument, National Research Foundation, independent of both the Ministry and the Academy of Sciences, was established.
Another problem you mention in your post is the lack of funding.
The overall average science budget in Ukraine before the war was smaller than that of a single major US university like Harvard or Stanford. Some people in Ukraine ask: Where are our Nobel laureates? I always have to laugh at that. It’s so expensive to do research like this. People have no idea.
So what should the Ukrainian research and innovation system look like in the future? Is there something for which you would take Germany as a role model?
There are some elements that I like. For example, I like that there are Max Planck, Helmholtz and Fraunhofer institutes that do different types of research and are financed differently. It is also good that you can work as a researcher at an institute and hold a professorship at the same time, or that you can work closely with industry as a researcher and thus develop products with a clear purpose. It is also important that there are many funding opportunities in every career phase, from different sources.
In the Ukraine, these areas were previously strictly separated, that has to change. This also means evaluating which working groups make sense. Ukraine cannot afford to conduct research in all fields, so we must preserve existing clusters of excellence, dissolve inefficient groups and create new strong groups.
How is this supposed to become reality?
It needs reforms, blatant upheavals and trust that the approaches will lead to the better. It won’t work without support from abroad, both financial and personal. At the same time, it is important that our politicians significantly increase the budget to strengthen the importance of science, and Ukrainian scientists actively participate in the restructuring. That we are witnessing a war of technology, not a war of men with guns, might help get that message across.
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The original of this post “Ukrainian professor in Germany: I’m a bit ashamed to be in a safe place” comes from Spektrum.de.