Some academic researchers in Russia are quietly working to prevent colleagues who have supported their country’s invasion of Ukraine from being elected to the Russian Academy of Sciences this month.
If they succeed, they will deny those who back the war a prized credential that confers prestige in Russian institutions of higher learning. Their campaign could also show that some acts of protest remain possible despite a government crackdown on dissent.
The Russian Academy of Sciences is a nonprofit network of research institutes in a variety of disciplines across the Russian Federation. It has just under 1,900 members in Russia and nearly 450 nonvoting foreign members.
The academy elects new members every three years. The upcoming poll, starting on Monday, is for 309 seats, including 92 for senior academicians and 217 for corresponding members. The competition is steep: More than 1,700 candidates have applied.
This month, a group of Russian researchers started circulating a list of dozens of candidates who have publicly supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by signing pro-war declarations or letters their universities or institutions released or by making such statements themselves.
Hundreds of high-ranking officials at Russian universities, most of whom were administrators rather than prominent scientists, alsoin March.
But many academic researchers have taken an antiwar stance. More than 8,000 Russian scientists and science journalists have signed an open letter opposing the invasion since it was first published in February.
Three academic researchers — who were not identified because they risk job loss, imprisonment and their safety by publicly opposing the war — said in interviews that they helped create the list of those who supported the war to prevent them from being elected to the academy.
Members of the leadership of the Russian Academy of Sciences did not respond to a request for comment.
Some voters think the list could make a difference in the elections.
“Most of the scientific community is definitely antiwar,” said Alexander Nozik, a physicist at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology who was not involved in creating the list. “Being in such a list could significantly reduce chances to be elected.”
May 28, 2022 at 8:15 pm ET
Some outside observers say that the Russian Academy is not as powerful as it once was.
“It used to be a vast network of research institutes containing the best scientists in the country,” said Loren Graham, a historian who specializes in Russian science, with emeritus positions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. “Those institutes have now been stripped away by the Putin government, given to the Ministry of Education, and leaving the academy as an honorific society without genuine heft in science.”
Members of the academy have also been implicated in ethical shortcomings in recent years. In 2020, a commission the body appointed found that Russian academic journals and research publications were riddled with plagiarism, self-plagiarism and gift authorship, where scientists were listed as co-authors of manuscripts without contributing to the work. As a result of the report, Russian journals retracted more than 800 research papers in which the authors were thought to have committed ethical violations.
A separate 2020 exposé by the same commission at the academy found that several rectors and other senior university officials were guilty of publishing papers in questionable journals, listing fake collaborators and plagiarism.
And some say such problems diminish the importance of the academy’s upcoming election.
“A lot of people in Russian science still believe that the academy is the oldest structure that can do something — not because it is good but because others are worse,” said Dr. Nozik.
This is not the first time the Russian Academy of Sciences has found itself pulled into disputes over the invasion of Ukraine. On March 7, it was released a statement about the war. Some observers saw it as the closest any official institution in the country came to condemning Russia’s aggression, but critics argued it was not as explicitly antiwar as it should have been.
But the statement did address the repercussions of the war and how the international response to it would affect Russian science, a concern shared by Russian academics.
“We condemn any attempts to exert political pressure on researchers, teachers, graduate students and students the grounds of nationality or citizenship,” the academy said in its statement.
Some researchers fled Russia as a result of the war. Universities and institutions around the world have allotted positions to academics from Russia and Ukraine under programs like Scholars At Risk. Anna Abalkina, a sociologist of Russian origin at the Free University of Berlin, said she was aware of some who relocated to her university.
Another problem is the deepening isolation of scientists who remain in Russia, with many being barred from participating in certain projects, working with international collaborators and attending certain conferences.
Another factor, Dr. Albakina said, is the decision of influential international databases, including Web of Science and Scopusto stop offering their services in Russia.
“It means that the quality of publications will go down immediately,” she said.
Ultimately the future of Russian science hinges on whether President Vladimir V. Putin stays in power, Dr. Nozik added.
“It is my belief that it is not possible to do modern science in Russia under Putin’s regime,” he said.