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Geography associate professor Alexander Prischchepov has faced a number of ethical dilemmas over the course of the past year. How do you balance important collaboration partnerships, the safety of Russian researchers, and a boycott of Russian universities?
Alexander Prischchepov normally spends many hours a day in front of a screen. Through the study of satellite images, he tries to understand how humans affect the world’s land mass, and the screen hours are worth it, according to the associate professor in geography from the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH).
»We can use satellite images to map everything from climate change in the Siberian tundra to bomb craters after wars, so it is really useful,« he says.
It is an effort that often involves a lot of cross-border collaboration. And in Alexander Prischchepov’s case, this involved, up until a year ago, a large network of Russian researchers.
Troop movements over the Ukrainian borders on 24 February 2022 set off a year of broken collaborations and ethical dilemmas however.
Associate Professor at the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management since 2014
Russian citizen. Born and raised in Saint Petersburg.
Moved to the US in 2005, but has lived in Germany and Denmark since then.
Uses satellite images to do research on the impact of humans on large areas of land.
Specialises in Eastern European and Central Asian land areas, so he often cooperates with Russian researchers.
Shortly after the invasion, all Danish universities including the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) signed a declaration that discontinued all so-called bilateral institutional collaboration with state-institutions in Russia and Belarus.
This meant specifically that UCPH stopped exchange partnerships for students and researchers, and that academic staff were asked to not attend conferences or other scientific meetings in the two countries. Collaboration on scientific articles could be completed: but you were not allowed to start new collaborations with Russian researchers.
Rector of the University of Copenhagen, Henrik C. Wegener, said that the decision was a result of Russia’s absolutely unacceptable invasion of a peaceful democratic nation.
»It is important to send the strongest possible signal that this behaviour has consequences,« he says.
The decision left Alexander Prischchepov with a number of ethical dilemmas. With whom is he now allowed to collaborate with, and how?
This was unclear to him, and so he contacted his manager and reported all his activity with Russian researchers. He explained that he wanted to complete the ongoing scientific articles with Russian researchers, but did not plan to start new collaborations.
»But I never really heard anything back. So I’ve felt like the interpretation of the declaration and the ethical dilemmas are ultimately things that I have to wrestle with,« he says.
He hoped that the university would explicitly distinguish between Russian institutions and individual researchers who had taken a critical stance on the war. But he has now terminated all professional collaboration with researchers from Russian universities.
»This will harm both sides,« he says.
Russian colleagues can get into trouble with their own government agencies if they work with UCPH, because the rector has spoken so critically about the war. But at the same time, he fears for the consequences at home in Denmark, if he interprets the rules too freely.
»I would prefer not to get into problems with management,« he says and points out that the controversial dismissals of Hans Thybo and Irina Artemieva at his department have made him more concerned.
UCPH justified its dismissal of Thybo with the claim that Thybo had pressured a postdoc to criticize management at the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management (IGN) in a staff assessment. The dismissal attracted international attention, and 1,646 Danish and international researchers and students signed a petition of protest. The dismissal of Irina Artemieva for not completing administrative and teaching tasks was also questioned in an article in Nature.
READ ALSO: Sacked geology professor Thybo speaks out
»If I’m fired, I’ll even lose my visa – and I’m not exactly looking forward to having to return to Russia in these times,« says Alexander Prischchepov. He emphasises that this is a concern that other researchers from many countries in conflict with the West have, and they have to live with it.
There can be large consequences resulting from he and other researchers halting collaborations. Especially in key areas like climate change, he reckons.
He was just about to cancel a trip to Mongolia, which included investigating the effect of climate change on land changes in the borderlands between Mongolia and Russia.
»But I ended up going and paying out of my own pocket. And I was very conscious of only collaborating with the Mongolian researchers. That they, in turn, cooperated with Russian researchers is out of my hands,« he says.
It is precisely this kind of research into climate change that he fears will be harmed by the war. Russia has one sixth of the Earth’s total land area, and the country will be affected massively by climate change. This creates a common interest in doing research in the field.
»We can stop scientific collaboration with Russia, but the climate knows no borders. When the permafrost in Siberia melts, methane is released and the planet becomes warmer, it will affect us all.«