Special Report
lone birch tree growing sideways in a field
Special Report
lone birch tree growing sideways in a field

Amid the Terror of War, Efforts to Keep Science Alive in Ukraine

Ukrainian scientists and universities face extraordinary challenges as the Russian invasion continues.

katya katarina zimmer
Katarina Zimmer

After a year teaching an algorithm to differentiate between the echolocation calls of different bat species, Katarina decided she was simply too greedy to focus on one field. Following an internship with The Scientist in 2017, she has been happily freelancing for a number of publications, covering everything from climate change to oncology.

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Mar 28, 2022

ABOVE: A field site in Ukraine used for studying birch trees, which some researchers fear may have suffered damage from military activity Andrii Tarieiev

When a humanitarian corridor opened on March 8, offering a path out of the northeastern Ukrainian city of Sumy, environmental scientist Olena Melnyk and her family fled. The city had been among the first to be attacked by Russian forces in the invasion that began on February 24. Sumy endured days of shelling, forcing Melnyk, her husband, and two children to crowd in their bathroom for safety. She says the decision to leave wasn’t easy, but the night before, a Russian bomb destroyed six houses about a kilometer away from her house—killing 22 people, according to local officials

The family reached the Romanian border after a difficult seven-day journey, says Melnyk. She and her children—five and nine years old—are now in Samsun, Turkey; her husband was required by law to stay behind. Through an app that tracks air raid alerts and social media channels, Melnyk says she’s constantly checking for updates on Sumy and her institution, Sumy National Agrarian University, and is trying to organize help for colleagues and students. 

“We didn’t expect such a brutal invasion,” Melnyk tells The Scientist. Numerous credible reports of indiscriminate and intentional attacks by Russian troops on schools, hospitals, nurseries, and places of shelter prompted the Biden administration last week to formally conclude that Russian forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine. The United Nations’ Human Rights Office has recorded some 1,100 civilian deaths since the war began but says the actual figure is considerably higher.  

As Russia’s war on Ukraine enters its second month, the country’s scientific community is among those suffering dramatic effects. Many scientists and students in combat areas in the north and east of the country and around the capital city of Kyiv have scattered, fleeing to safer regions of Ukraine or joining the nearly 4 million refugees leaving the country. Others are helping to defend the country or distributing necessities to people in need. Universities in combat areas are taking responsibility for the care of students and neighboring communities. Many of the staff that remained in Sumy, for example, are helping support 32 students who haven’t evacuated and are sheltering in the university’s basements, Melnyk says. Scientific research is all but impossible. 

See “Russian Scientists Grapple with an Uncertain Future

Yet there are many efforts to keep both education and research afloat, in academia and in industry. Scientists around the world have responded to the war by opening their labs to offer work for refugee scientists. At many Ukrainian universities, professors are preparing to resume teaching suspended classes remotely, while striving to keep their research going. 

“Every morning, we do some sort of ‘roll call’ with all our students and with the staff of the department in order to make sure that they are alive, they are okay,” writes Larysa Skivka, an immunologist at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, to The Scientist in an email. “We are alive and we are working.” 

University life upended  

For many, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has divided life into “before” and “after.” Since it began, “we get used to explosions,” Stanislav Nikolaienko, the rector of the Kyiv-based National University of Life and Environmental Sciences (NULES), writes to The Scientist in an email that was translated into English by his colleague Vadym Tkachuk. Hundreds of students and staff are “at the front,” Nikolaienko says. Between 8 and 10 percent of the university’s 28,000 students and 17,000 staff are now abroad, and 60 percent moved to safer areas of Ukraine. Many of the rest spend nights in bomb shelters in student dormitories, which have water and heat. The administration has now built up stocks of several weeks’ worth of food for students, children from nearby orphanages, and elderly people, and university psychologists provide support for those who need it. Universities initially suspended classes when the invasion began, but NULES resumed courses online on March 14. “Some students cried when we called them” about the decision, Nikolaienko recounts. 

Other universities, such as Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, plan on resuming online classes soon, molecular biologist Andrei Sivolob says via email. Meanwhile, he and other professors are conducting informal lessons online, “which resonates with students,” he writes. 

In Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, university administrators are preparing for an influx of students fleeing from other parts of the country. Lviv Polytechnic University is temporarily hosting displaced students and is offering remote study to students in areas where education is currently suspended, according to a joint letter to The Scientist by university vice-rectors Nataliya Chukhray, Oleh Davydchak, and Ivan Demydov. The university has also been supplying bandages and other humanitarian aid. But recent missile strikes in the Lviv area have disrupted the city’s sense of safety. “Now students and teachers who have stayed in Lviv hear the sirens of the air alarm every day and are forced to interrupt their work, study, or sleep and move to prepared shelters, which emotionally and physically exhaust everyone,” the administrators write. 

See “Science Comes to a Halt in Ukraine, at Risk in Russia

In territories that Russian forces have occupied since February 24, such as the southern port city of Berdyansk, organizing remote learning is a big challenge due to internet disruptions, writes Igor Lyman, a historian at Berdyansk State Pedagogical University, to The Scientist in an email. “In some cases, communication lines have been damaged as a result of combat operations, in others, the occupiers are deliberately restricting local access to the internet.”  

To address depleted grocery shelves and spiking food prices, the university’s administration and staff are buying food from elsewhere for students and organizing other support. The university is also temporarily hosting students and professors from universities in Mariupol, the besieged port city around 80 kilometers to the east that has endured what an Associated Press journalist describes as relentless bombardment, including devastating attacks on hospitals and shelters. Civilians from there often head to Berdyansk initially, where they wait for days to escape the occupied area, Lyman writes. For professors and students, “the local university provides rooms in its dormitory, care, and food.”  

Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, several of that region’s educational institutions chose to be integrated into the Russian educational system, and fighting in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk caused 18 universities to move to other parts of the country. Lyman says that to his knowledge, all universities in the recently-occupied territories remain under the Ukrainian education system. Despite the danger posed by Russian soldiers, he adds, “teachers and students in the occupied cities are attending peaceful [demonstrations] under Ukrainian flags.” 

Impacts on infrastructure, research  

Nikolaienko and Melnyk write that many universities—especially in Mariupol, Sumy, and Kharkiv—have sustained heavy damage. One casualty was a NULES research and training farm in Vorzel, a village near Kyiv, says Nikolaienko. “The training dairy farm, where there were 200 head of cattle, was destroyed,” forcing workers there to evacuate, he writes. “Hundreds of billions of dollars will be needed to rebuild colleges and all [educational] facilities in Ukraine.” 

At many universities, including Melnyk’s and Nikolaienko’s, staff are scrambling to safeguard valuable equipment and research materials from attacks. In Kyiv and Kharkiv, researchers are working to preserve irreplaceable archives of flora from Ukraine and elsewhere, says Andrii Tarieiev, a Ukrainian PhD student who studies birch tree phylogenetics at the Georg-August-University in Göttingen, Germany. “These people are staying there under direct threat to their lives to save these . . . herbarium collections that are very important not only for us, but for the entire world,” he says. 

multiple people and a dog bed down on cardboard and blankets in a concrete room
In the basement of a house near Kyiv, some of Olena Burdo’s family members and friends shelter for safety.
Olena Burdo


Some of the field sites Tarieiev and his collaborators study might also be impacted, he says. Habitat destruction caused by military activity may threaten endemic species, and in some cases local conservationists are rushing to preserve them, he says. If species’ distributions are very small, a “couple of bombs or missiles could be enough to eliminate them completely,” he adds via email.   

Researchers have also expressed concern about field sites in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, where researchers have long been studying—and debating—the ecological impact of lingering radioactive material from the 1986 nuclear accident. Shortly after the invasion began, Russian forces took control of the now-defunct power plant and surrounding area. Radioecologist Nick Beresford of the UK’s Center for Ecology and Hydrology says via email that he and his collaborators were planning on submitting another proposal for research in the zone, but “on the day of the invasion we in-effect put that in the bin.” Researchers who spoke with The Scientist know little about what’s happening in the zone, but environmental scientist Jim Smith of the University of Portsmouth says he worries about possible combat activities there that could exacerbate the risk of wildfires that could release radioactivity from soil and vegetation. And “obviously, having tanks driving through an ecosystem isn’t great.” 

See “New Chernobyl Initiative Aims to Boost Research on the Area” 

Olena Burdo, a radiobiologist at the Kyiv Institute for Nuclear Research, was recently studying the effect of radioactivity on voles around Chernobyl, but is now focusing on analyzing results and on teaching at a private school that recently began offering free remote courses. After fleeing Kyiv and helping some members of her family leave the country, she’s been living near the capital with her husband, mother, and friends, with a basement stocked with drinking water, food, and charged batteries. Together with other scientists, she is on high alert to respond to possible safety issues arising at nuclear power plants occupied by Russian forces, and at the Chernobyl facilities that contain old radioactive waste. “I don’t have a child, and if [an] accident at a nuclear power plant [should] become real, all specialties will be needed,” she writes to The Scientist in an email. 

Obviously, having tanks driving through an ecosystem isn’t great.

—Jim Smith, University of Portsmouth

As with educational efforts, some researchers are striving to keep their work going. Though many experiments have come to a standstill at Taras Shevchenko—where cell cultures have been frozen, Sivolob writes—some of Skivka’s experiments continue with the help of colleagues who are now living at the university. And many of NULES’s farms are preparing for spring field work and experiments. In Turkey, Melnyk is working with collaborators to the extent possible. “It is not as fast as it was before, but we try to keep on our scientific research.” 

Delays to drug development pipelines  

Beyond the disruptions to academia, the war is also taking a toll on the operations of private companies that play a critical role in global drug development. The Kyiv-based biotech company Enamine, which supplies pharmaceutical companies worldwide with synthetic compounds used in developing therapeutics, is scrambling to shift some of its operations elsewhere, according to a March 7 statement from its CEO.  

Drug testing has also been hindered. Ukraine is popular among Western pharmaceutical companies seeking additional populations to test novel therapies for cancer and other conditions; the US National Institutes of Health’s database lists around 600 clinical trials that include research sites in Ukraine. The country’s medical system has long had limited resources, which makes it easy and fast to find patients to participate in trials of novel treatments. Ukraine’s reputation for generating high-quality data, as well as recent healthcare reforms that have introduced electronic medical records, have also made the country attractive to trial investigators, according to Ivan Vyshnyvetskyy, president of the nonprofit Ukrainian Association for Clinical Research. 

After the invasion, however, most if not all companies have paused recruiting patients or beginning new trials in Ukraine, Vyshnyvetskyy says. Spokespersons for the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and the New York-based biotech Regeneron each confirm this to The Scientist via email. That the war could rob some patients of their best chance of survival “is the biggest pain,” he says. “For those patients who waited to be included in some clinical research, [like] special oncology trials . . . the result of this war can be devastating.” 

Studies that are actively dosing patients, however, continue—a fact also confirmed by the AstraZeneca and Regeneron spokespersons—but face other difficulties. With Ukraine’s airspace closed to civilian flights, it’s not possible to ship patient samples to central laboratories in the US or Europe for analysis. Some of the facilities storing therapeutics and other trial materials around Kyiv are inaccessible or might be destroyed due to combat activities, Vyshnyvetskyy says. 

In most cases, the sponsoring companies are working with local investigators to help patients in conflict zones relocate to other sites in Ukraine or other countries participating in the trials, Vyshnyvetskyy says. At a site he directs in Kyiv, Vyshnyvetskyy and his colleagues managed to transfer some cancer patients who were waiting to be enrolled in a clinical study to trial sites in Germany and the UK where they could receive treatment.   

Nevertheless, the disruptions are likely to lead to delays. Several companies running trials with sites in Ukraine have recently reported increases in their timelines for drugs, WIRED reports. The war “will slow down the process of getting new medicines on the market,” Vyshnyvetskyy says. “And this is not [only] not good for Ukraine, but for the whole global society.” 

Support for displaced researchers  

Just a few days after the invasion began, medical imaging physicist Oleksandra Ivashchenko of the Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands and three other researchers joined forces to help scientists forced to flee Ukraine. They started a Twitter hashtag, #ScienceForUkraine, to help collect information about research positions open to refugee students and scientists. Scientists from six continents have offered opportunities for Ukrainian researchers. There are now nearly 5,000 positions listed on #ScienceForUkraine’s website.  

Research institutes, associations, universities, and funding bodies, too, are taking action. Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), Germany’s largest independent research funding organization, for instance, opened to Ukrainians an existing program whereby refugee scientists can join DFG-funded research projects, says Johanna Kowol-Santen, the DFG’s deputy head of the division of scientific affairs. So far, she says they’ve heard from about 100 interested Ukrainian researchers, ranging from PhD students to senior scientists.   

“I do not know any other industry where such support was felt,” says economist Yevheniia Polishchuk, a #ScienceForUkraine coordinator and the vice-head of the Young Scientists Council, which is part of Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science. “We [will] not forget what Russia is doing now, but we will never forget what our friends do for us.” 

a science lab with 3 tall windows blown out and purple curtains blowing
A view inside the department of zoology and animal ecology at Kharkiv National University. The institution’s main building lost many of its windows due to a shockwave following a rocket attack on nearby official infrastructure.
Glib Mazepa


But while Ukrainian researchers often find positions relatively quickly, frequently “there are weeks and weeks and weeks of confusion” when it comes to formally appointing them at universities, Ivashchenko says. Some countries, like the Balkan and Baltic states, are fairly flexible in allowing Ukrainian refugees to take on work at universities, but others often create bureaucratic headaches such as requiring that diplomas are formally validated, which researchers are currently unable to do because the responsible ministry in Ukraine isn’t operational. Ivashchenko says she knows of one researcher, a mother of four who had fled Kyiv to the Netherlands, but ended up going to Switzerland because the employment process was easier there.  

Ivashchenko estimates that between 26,000 and 52,000 of Ukraine’s 95,000 scientists and support staff might leave the country, alongside some 300,000 students, creating an urgent need for more opportunities abroad. That’s why she and other coordinators are also planning on approaching startups and R&D companies, which have more freedom regarding employment rules, she says. “If [scholars] have a chance to work, they also have a better chance of supporting their country and . . . giving it a chance to resist,” she says.   

Polishchuk stresses that positions volunteered through #ScienceForUkraine are largely only intended to be temporary. The hope is not to exacerbate an existing brain drain phenomenon, as higher salaries have already lured some researchers out of Ukraine in recent years. As such, it’s also critical to find ways to support scientists who remain in Ukraine. A scientist-led petition is now calling on universities, scientific institutions, and governments to create remote opportunities for researchers who remain in Ukraine who are internally displaced or whose institutions have been destroyed or forced to close—for instance, by inviting them to collaborate on research projects remotely, Polishchuk says.   

Tarieiev adds it’s also important to find opportunities for scientists like himself, who are based abroad and are nearing the end of their programs but are now unable to return home as planned. Psychological and moral support in particular is needed across the board, he says—the mental toll has made it nearly impossible for him to concentrate on research. “We just don’t know what will come tomorrow. I am living with [the] understanding that I could lose my home, my relatives, my family, my colleagues.” 

No Ukrainians who spoke about the outcome of the war with The Scientist entertained the idea of Russia winning. Trust in Ukraine’s military and support from Western countries, Nikolaienko writes, are reasons for hope. Many are already thinking about rebuilding; the Lviv Polytechnic vice-rectors note that the country’s long-underfunded science sector will need extraordinary help to restore what is lost. 

“Our cause is just, victory will be ours,” Sivolob writes from Kyiv. “Ukraine is and will be a free democratic country in which, among other things, science will develop.”