Must war have consequences for scientists?

The Journal of Molecular Structure has temporarily banned manuscript submissions from scientists working at state science institutes in Russia. The decision extends the consequences of war beyond the realm of politics, albeit to persons who have played no role in Putin’s invasion and might even have opposed it at great risk to themselves. Such reactions have been common in sports, for example, but much less so in science.

The SESAME synchrotron radiation facility in Jordan, operated by CERN and the Jordan atomic energy agency and with support from UNESCO, takes pride in promoting peace among its founding members (Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey). CERN in Europe, born in the aftermath of World War II, has a similar goal.

In fact, in the science-adjacent enterprise of spaceflight, the corresponding US and Russian agencies have cooperated against the shared backdrop of the International Space Station even when their respective heads of state have been at odds with each other on other issues. But as Pradeep Mohandas wrote recently, Roscosmos’s response to sanctions against Russia have disrupted space science to an unprecedented degree, including the ExoMars and the Venera D missions. Update, March 8, 2022, 7:14 pm: CERN also seems to have suspended Russia’s ‘observer’ status in the organisation and has said it will cooperate with international sanctions against the country.

Such virtues are in line with contemporary science’s aspiration to be ‘apolitical’, irrespective of whether that is humanitarian, and ‘objective’ in all respects. This is of course misguided, yet the aspiration itself persists and is often considered desirable. In this context, the decision of the editor of the Journal of Molecular Structure, Rui Fausto, to impose sanctions on scientists working at institutions funded by the Russian government for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine comes across as enlightened (even though Fausto himself calls his decision “apolitical”). But it is not.

Science in the 21st century is of course a reason of state. In various conflicts around the world, both communities and nation-states have frequently but not explicitly appropriated the fruits of civilian enterprise, especially science, to fuel and/or sustain conflicts. Nation-states have done this by vouchsafing the outcomes of scientific innovation to certain sections of the population to directly deploying such innovation on battlefields. Certain communities, such as the casteist Brahmins of Silicon Valley, misogynistic academics in big universities and even those united by their latent queerphobia, have used the structural privileges that come with participating in the scientific, or the adjacent technological, enterprise to perpetrate violence against members of “lower” castes, female students and genderqueer persons, for reasons that have nothing to do with the latter’s academic credentials.

However, the decision of the Journal of Molecular Structure is undermined by two problems with Fausto’s reasoning. First, the Russia-Ukraine conflict may be the most prominent in the world right now but it isn’t the only one. Others include the conflict in the Kashmir Valley, Israel’s occupation of Palestine, the Yemeni civil war and the oppression of Uyghur and Rohingya Muslims in South and Southeast Asia. Why haven’t Fausto et al. banned submissions from scientists working at state-sponsored institutes in India, Israel, Saudi Arabia and China? The journal’s editorial board doesn’t include any scientists affiliated with institutes in Russia or Ukraine – which suggests both that there was no nationalistic stake to ban scientists in Russia alone and that there could have been a nationalistic stake that kept the board from extending the ban to other hegemons around the world. Either way, this glaring oversight reduces the journal’s decision to grandstanding.

The second reason, and also really why Fausto’s decision shouldn’t be extended to scientists labouring in other aggressor nations, is that Russia’s president Vladimir Putin is an autocrat – as are the political leaders of the countries listed above (with the exception of Israel). As I wrote recently in an (unpublished) essay:

… we have all come across many stories in the last two  years in which reporters quoted unnamed healthcare workers and government officials to uncover important details of the Government of India’s response to the country’s COVID-19 epidemic. Without presuming to know the nature of relationships between these ‘sources’ and the respective reporters, we can say they all likely share a conflict of ethics: they are on the frontline and they are needed there, but if they speak up, they may lose their ability to stay there.

Indeed, India’s Narendra Modi government itself has refused to listen to experts or expertise, and has in fact often preempted or sought to punish scientists whom it perceives to be capable of contradicting the government’s narratives. Modi’s BJP enjoys an absolute majority in Parliament, allowing it a free hand in lawmaking, and as an authoritarian state it has also progressively weakened the country’s democratic institutions. In all, the party has absolute power in the country, which it often uses to roll over the rights of minorities and health and ecological safeguards based on science as much as to enable industrial development and public administration on its own terms. In this milieu, speaking up and out is important, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves about how much we can expect our comments to achieve.

Similarly, in Putin’s Russia, more than 4,700 scientists and science journalists recently signed an open letter protesting the invasion of Ukraine, potentially opening themselves up to persecution (the Russian government has already arrested more than 5,000 protestors). But how much of a damn does Putin give for scientists studying molecular structure in the country’s state-funded research facilities? In an ideal scenario, pinching the careers of certain people only makes sense if the country’s leader can be expected to heed their words. Otherwise, sanctions such as that being imposed by the Journal of Molecular Chemistry will have no effect except on the scientists’ work – scientists who are now caught between a despot and an inconsiderate journal.

Ultimately, Fausto’s decision would seem to be apolitical, but in a bad way. Would that it had been political, it would also have been good.Modern science surely has a difficult place in society. But in autocratic setups, there arises a pronounced difference between a science practised by the élite and the powerful, in proximity to the state and with privileged access to political power, and which would deserve sanctions such as those extended by the Journal of Molecular Structure. Then there is the science more removed from that power, still potentially being a reason of state but at the same time less “open to co-optation by the powerful and the wealthy” (source).