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Scientific Collaboration Between Russia, West Should Continue for Environment's Sake, Scholars Say

© Sputnik / Vera Kostamo / Go to the mediabankIceberg near Hooker Island, Franz Josef Land, Russia
Iceberg near Hooker Island, Franz Josef Land, Russia - Sputnik International, 1920, 16.07.2022
MOSCOW (Sputnik), Kirill Krasilnikov - Scientific collaboration between Western and Russian researchers has taken a hit amid the ongoing conflict in Ukraine but must carry on despite politics for the sake of the shared quest for knowledge and desire to protect the environment, experts told Sputnik.
One of the unexpected casualties in the ongoing conflict between Moscow and the West became the scientific work to further advance human knowledge of the Arctic region, where Russia's role was especially significant in such areas as permafrost research. Russia also controls a significant portion of the Arctic, making it a vital partner for climate and environmental monitoring in the region. Its exclusion threatens to leave Western researchers without information necessary for their work.
Cooperation between Russian and Western scientists has been taking place in diverse fields, including the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum that aims to promote partnership and coordination between regional states. However, in March seven Western members — Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the United States — suspended their participation in the platform, only to resume the work in June on projects that do not involve Russia.

Cooperation Under Threat

Some of those collaborative efforts span decades, as is the case of Terry Callaghan, a professor of Arctic ecology at the University of Sheffield. Professor Callaghan worked with his Russian colleagues to set up the Russian component of the EU-funded INTERACT pan-Arctic network, which includes 89 research stations — 21 of them were Russian — that annually host approximately 15,000 researchers.

"Russian research stations welcomed Western researchers and Western research stations welcomed Russian researchers and data was made widely available. At a time of challenges from climate change, such international collaborations are essential to solve cross-boundary challenges," Callaghan, who is also a professor of botany and co-chair of the International Advisory Board at Tomsk State University as well as a member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, explained.

© Photo : Polus Arctic and Antarctic Expedition CenterЛедовая база "Барнео" в Арктике
Ледовая база Барнео в Арктике - Sputnik International, 1920, 16.07.2022
Ледовая база "Барнео" в Арктике
The professor also pointed to other forms of contribution by his Russian colleagues to INTERACT's activities, such as making outreach material available to schools in 60 countries and a special volume of the Ambio journal published by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, "a product of collaboration between INTERACT and the Siberian Environmental Change Network (SecNet)."

"This volume had 14 papers produced by 100 researchers over 70 of whom were Russian. It presented an up-to-date and detailed overview of the changing Siberian Environment," Callaghan said, adding that "this excellent and globally important collaboration is at risk" in the wake of the conflict in Ukraine.

Another example of an international scientific partnership between scientists is the Beringia Shared Heritage Program of the US National Parks Service, which has been going on for over 30 years and is dedicated to promoting cooperation in conservation of the region's natural resources and cultural heritage.
One of the beneficiaries of this program is Donald Anderson, a senior scientist at the Biology Department of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who studies harmful algal bloom (HAB), a phenomenon when photosynthetic eukaryotic organisms known as algae begin an uncontrolled growth in water producing toxins harmful to humans and animals.
While conducting research in the Alaskan Arctic, Anderson and his colleagues faced the issue of the Russia-US maritime boundary, which stops them from tracing the toxic organism, preventing a full assessment of the problem. To overcome the issue, Anderson obtained funding from the program for a project "to facilitate exchanges of samples, methods, and analysis between my team and those from a group studying HABs in Vladivostok (led by Dr. Tatiana Orlova, National Scientific Center of Marine Biology, Far Eastern Branch, Russian Academy of Sciences)."

"We obtained funding to bring several of our Russian colleagues to my laboratory in the US to learn our methods and to process Russian and American samples together. Unfortunately, the conflict in Ukraine has brought everything to a halt, and that collaboration is now on hold. The extended visit we had planned for training and sample analysis this September is now indefinitely postponed, and I don’t know if and when it will happen," Anderson stated.

Uncertain Future

According to Callaghan, European researchers face the issues of funding, institutional and personal constraints that undermine their collaboration with Russian colleagues. These include funding organizations such as the European Union cutting ties with Russia's state-owned institutions, making impossible cooperation that requires expenditure, institutions banning contact of their employees with Russian colleagues and individual scientists making a conscious decision to end collaborations. Nevertheless, scientific cooperation and data sharing in his field is persisting albeit at a reduced rate and at the individual level, he added.

"I think it will take many years for trust to be re-established," Callaghan lamented, stressing the importance of continuing even simple personal contacts for further cooperation so that "science should rise above politics, particularly at a time of unprecedented and increasingly damaging climatic catastrophes around the world."

© Sputnik / Valeriy Melnikov / Go to the mediabankThe atomic icebreaker Yamal during researches carried out in the Kara Sea as part of the world's largest Arctic expedition in the recent 20 years, Kara-Winter 2015
The atomic icebreaker Yamal during researches carried out in the Kara Sea as part of the world's largest Arctic expedition in the recent 20 years, Kara-Winter 2015 - Sputnik International, 1920, 16.07.2022
The atomic icebreaker Yamal during researches carried out in the Kara Sea as part of the world's largest Arctic expedition in the recent 20 years, Kara-Winter 2015
Meanwhile, Troy Bouffard, the director of the Center for Arctic Security and Resilience at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, does not think scientific cooperation with Russia has much potential in the near future as "a combination of Russian bans and western aversions related to such activities makes it very difficult to imagine how to overcome this massive scientific divestment."

"Hopefully, fragmented Arctic scientific efforts can continue to make crucial progress until collaborative opportunities with Russia are possible again. There's no field of study concerning the Arctic that wouldn't benefit from scientific cooperation with Russia, including defense and security studies," Bouffard said, adding that "the loss from mutual collaboration in the Arctic Council alone probably can't be measured."

The expert suggested that scientific communities should be shielded from geopolitical issues, citing the example of coast guard agencies being able to continue their shared maritime security efforts.
Anderson, for his part, hopes that the current situation will not result in a long-term exclusion of Russian scientists from the international efforts to research the Arctic.

"Scientists tend to be non-political, and quite the opposite, tend to think that their efforts to collaborate can help countries improve relationships. I am one who believes that, so... I believe the cooperation in research absolutely should continue, not only in my own subject area, but in so many others where we have a shared interest in understanding and protecting the environment," Anderson concluded.

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