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Two years of war: With each passing day, research in Ukraine gets weaker

Researcher exodus — The researchers who have not fled the war are publishing less — and worse — research. The University Post visited a faculty in Kyiv that has a lecture hall in a bomb shelter, a gallery on a wall showing the students who are at war, and a dean who tries to keep track of all the colleagues who have left.

Olena Aleksandrova swipes her index finger across a piece of paper on the table in front of her:

»One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.«

»Seven researchers went abroad in the spring of 2022,« she says and lets her finger run down the list of names:

»One in the autumn and another one in 2023. And one is in the army.«

Of those researchers who have left her faculty and gone abroad after Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago, she knows each of their stories.

»He had a scholarship at a university in Germany, so when the war started, he stayed there.«

»She’s a PhD in political science and moved to Poland with her daughter and two grandchildren. Now she’s at a university in England.«

»They are husband and wife and live with their child in Poland,« says Olena Aleksandrova.


Since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022, approximately ten million Ukrainians have taken flight. This is the largest exodus of refugees since World War II and is almost a quarter of Ukraine’s pre-war population of 44 million.

She herself is professor and dean at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Borys Grinchenko Kyiv Metropolitan University. From her office on the fifth floor, you can look out over the rows of apartment blocks that almost blend in with the grey February sky. Today the corridors are empty, as the spring semester has not yet begun. But on a normal day, the number of university employees is also down:

»Some of them were excellent researchers, others were excellent teachers. I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t have consequences for us,« Olena says.

The best disappear first

This is not just something this dean is experiencing. University employees are among the many millions of Ukrainians who have sought refuge abroad since Russia’s invasion. According to one study, in December 2023 18.5 per cent of Ukraine’s researchers had fled by the autumn of 2022.

One of the authors behind the study is Gaétan de Rassenfosse. He is an associate professor at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, and he says the number may have dropped since the study came out, as some researchers have returned to Ukraine. But he still describes the development as »dramatic«:

»What’s most concerning is that it is the best researchers who are most likely to leave the country. They are the ones who have the highest academic degrees, who publish the most articles, and whose articles are most cited,« he says.

There are far more women than men in the group of researchers who have left. This came as no surprise to the researchers behind the study, as men in the age group 18-60 years were generally not allowed to leave the country.

When the war broke out, many European universities opened their doors to Ukrainian researchers and offered scholarships of varying durations. This was an opportunity that many of the researchers who have fled took advantage of:

»Most of them have succeeded in finding some kind of temporary position at a university or public research institution. But for the majority these are fixed-term contracts of three to six months, maybe a year,« says Gaétan de Rassenfosse.

He points out that there are big differences in the extent to which researchers have maintained contact with their university in Ukraine. But the trend is for them to orient themselves more and more towards their new colleagues:

»We asked the Ukrainian researchers in Europe how much they interact with four groups of people. To our surprise, interaction with Ukrainian researchers in Ukraine, in the host country, or in other countries, had all decreased compared to before the war. While interaction with researchers from the host country had increased,« he says.

»So as the war continues, we can expect that the ties between Ukrainian researchers abroad and other Ukrainian researchers will slowly weaken.«

Students in battle

If you go through the entrance to the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Borys Grinchenko Kyiv Metropolitan University, the war is immediately almost palpable.

There are signs on the wall every few metres pointing to the nearest bomb shelter, and out in the hallway a wall displays pictures of students fighting in the Ukrainian army. Olena Aleksandrova points to two of the pictures of uniformed youths. They have been killed in battle. The rest are still at war.

In the basement, a room has been converted into a lecture hall with rows of chairs and a desk, so that the teaching can continue when the air raid siren goes off.

Kyiv is now considered a relatively safe city in Ukraine. The front line is far away, and although the capital is regularly hit by Russian missile and drone attacks, most daily life continues just like before the invasion.

This was not the case two years ago, when a 64 kilometre-long military convoy moved in the direction of Kyiv.

23 February, the day before the invasion, the faculty had just started an accreditation process, so when Olena Aleksandrova got home in the evening, she was tired after a long day. The following morning she was awakened by the sound of explosions, turned on her TV, and was greeted by ominous images of the new reality that she and the rest of Ukraine had woken up to.

But it wasn’t until 25 February that panic really spread in central Kyiv, when people started crowding in long queues in front of ATMs, and at pharmacies and train stations. The faculty’s staff and students were already beginning to leave the city. Together with her associate dean Vitaly Zavadskyy, Olena Aleksandrova set up two groups on the social media platform Telegram: One for staff and one for students

»We needed to know where everyone was and if they were safe. I wrote out to my staff every day and asked them to send signs of life,« she says.

Dejection and exhaustion

After about a month, teaching restarted, and the dean and associate dean tried to get things working again with online teaching and staff that were scattered throughout the world.

It was around this time that the first wave of researchers began to leave, and it wasn’t long before this trend had made its mark on several parts of the faculty.

»We had an archaeology laboratory before the war. The room is still there with all its equipment. But according to the law, you need five employees associated with it for it to have laboratory status. Before the war we had six archaeologists, now we only have three,« says Olena Aleksandrova.

Another problem is, that among the researchers who have fled abroad, there are those who have the best English skills:

»This is bad, because we have plans to expand our study and PhD programmes, but we need people who speak English at a sufficiently high level,« says the dean.

At the same time, according to her, a more general sense of hopelessness has taken over the faculty’s employees, as colleagues disappear and no one can see an end to the war. The researchers publish fewer articles:

»Everyone is exhausted after two years of war, and that affects your motivation. Of course we support each other. But this situation does not motivate you for large-scale scientific studies,« says Olena Aleksandrova.

Lost generation of young researchers

The dean’s experiences are consistent with observations made by Gaétan de Rassenfosse. According to the December study, 40 per cent of the researchers still in Ukraine do less research than before the war.

20 per cent of the remaining researchers have lost physical access to the institution with which they are affiliated, and 15 per cent have left the research world altogether.

Ukraine has lost one-fifth of its research capacity, according to the study.

»It might not sound like much, but if you calculate it in terms of the number of hours spent on research, it is clear how much less research is produced in Ukraine,« says Gaétan de Rassenfosse.

The fact that many of the remaining researchers produce less is inextricably linked to the exodus of their colleagues:

»When you have good colleagues around you, you also do better research because you exchange ideas.«

But he is particularly concerned about the PhD students and young researchers at the early stages of their careers:

»They are still vulnerable as researchers and have a need for mentorship. We risk losing an entire generation of researchers, as fewer young Ukrainians start a career in research, and because those who are doing a PhD or a postdoc lack supervision,« says Gaétan de Rassenfosse.

Dean keeps in touch

The question remains: Will the Ukrainian researchers abroad return home? Gaétan de Rassenfosse has a hard time answering that, he says. But if the war ended tomorrow, Ukraine will have lost seven per cent of its top scientists:

»And of course we can expect that the longer the war lasts, fewer people will want to come back, because they are forging more and more ties with their host country. With each passing day, research in Ukraine gets weaker and weaker,« he says.

The solution is not to let the Ukrainian researchers’ foreign contracts expire and bring them home to Ukraine in a hurry, Gaétan de Rassenfosse stresses. Paradoxically, part of the solution might be to secure better funding for the Ukrainian researchers’ work abroad, he points out:

»As soon as a scientist leaves the world of research, it gets harder to return.«

The task is therefore to maintain the connections between the Ukrainian researchers and the Ukrainian research communities, he says.

»This will ensure that their return to Ukraine will be easier once the war is over.«

At Borys Grinchenko Kyiv Metropolitan University, this is exactly what Olena Aleksandrova is trying to do. She is in contact with all the researchers who want it, even if she has no idea whether they will ever return home:

»But I’m not trying to encourage them to come back. This is their own decision, and it’s not my job to pressure them into anything,« she says.

»I know that many of the researchers feel guilt over having left Ukraine for a safer environment. That’s why I listen to them and try to understand their motivation without being judgmental.«