How the war in Ukraine threatens decades of scientific research

When Iryna Ilienko fled Ukraine with her daughters, she left behind her research and the 20-year career she had built as a cell biologist in Kyiv before the Russian invasion.

Ilienko and her daughters, aged nine and 19, fled to Budapest, Hungary shortly after the war began and stayed there for a month before flying to Edmonton on April 9, unsure of what the future held for them.

As the war rages on, there are growing concerns about the lasting effect the conflict will have on the global scientific community – and the lost opportunities for discovery in academia, medicine and science. science in Ukraine.

There are, however, scientists in Canada who are trying to help researchers displaced by war settle in a new country, at least for now.

In Edmonton, the co-founder and CEO of Future Fields, a biotech company, had posted online that the lab was interested in hiring Ukrainian researchers who fled due to the conflict.

“The idea of ​​having to put my career on hold on top of everything else you would face as someone fleeing a war-torn country – it’s awful,” Matt Anderson-Baron said. “If we could help in this way, that’s a no-brainer.”

Until the conflict, Ilienko had worked at a research center in Kyiv for more than 20 years. She feared losing her scientific career because of the war. (Sam Martin/CBC)

And several weeks ago, Anderson-Baron hired Ilienko.

“I [was] afraid that my scientific career could be stopped,” she told CBC News.

“It’s like the first step for me,” she said of her new job. “Of course it’s very difficult… For me it’s very important that I’m here. If I [had to] spend another month in Canada without work, I think [I] will be absolutely crushed.”

Displaced scholars

Intellectual institutions are often the first targets when war breaks out, said Karly Kehoe, an associate professor at St. Mary’s University in Halifax and an advocate for displaced and refugee scholars.

“Universities are generally seen as areas where there can be intellectual exchange and they have more freedom, academic freedom, to speak their minds based on their research,” Kehoe said.

“It doesn’t always go very well.”

A local resident walks near a heavily damaged building during the Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine on May 20. (Alexander Ermoshenko/Reuters)

Kehoe highlights how scholars were displaced by World War II, throughout the war in Syria, and now during the conflict in Ukraine.

“The most common thing that happens is that people have to run away to leave their research behind, [but] they don’t give up on their ideas,” she said. “They take their kids and their families if they can – they’re not necessarily going to stop and move their labs.

We potentially lose all the discoveries they would have made or potentially have made during their careers.– Karly Kehoe, Associate Professor St. Mary’s University

This can result in a loss of potential, especially if someone is unable to continue working in a new environment.

“We are potentially losing all the discoveries that they would have made or potentially have made in their careers,” Kehoe said.

Search in motion

Aaron Barr hopes to mitigate those losses by helping to move Ukrainian researchers – and their work – to Canada.

The CEO of Canadian Rockies Hemp Corp. in Bruderheim, Alberta, has been connected with the Institute of Bast Crops, the Ukrainian National Academy of Agrarian Sciences, for about two years.

Aaron Barr is CEO of Canadian Rockies Hemp Corporation in Bruderheim, Alberta. (Sam Martin/CBC)

In addition to moving staff, Barr said he’s been working with the institute to transport about 1,800 kilograms of specialty and pedigreed seed that agronomists have developed in recent years.

Seeds should arrive in Canada by the end of May; if they weren’t moved from the institute, Barr said, they would likely spoil. Most grain and seed production bins were destroyed, he said.

“They had some of the seed in their warehouses and that’s what we can get trucked to a safe place and then brought here to Canada,” Barr said.

Vladyslav Tkachenko, a spokesman for the institute, said it was unclear how long the war might persist and that staff did not want to risk losing their research on the seeds.

“We don’t know what the outcome of the war will be. That’s why we are looking further afield and trying to find the best solution for our case,” he said in an interview with CBC News from Dnipro, Ukraine. .

Barr said he has seen resilience from his colleagues in Ukraine.

“The staff who remain at the institute are determined to continue to rebuild,” he said. “They’re going to be sowing crops this year. They’re doing everything they can to keep living their lives.”