In this war, great damage has been done to Ukraine’s scientific infrastructure, its research institutes, and its universities. Yet, looking ahead, something remarkable could emerge out of the situation which few other countries have an opportunity to realize.
Science has, for the last few centuries, been the wellspring of the knowledge that has powered advances from medicine to engineering that we all enjoy. Although scientific effort can yield knowledge with nefarious uses, a good scientific culture not only contributes to a nation’s ability to produce valuable know-how but improves the environment to adjudicate the different uses of those newfound insights.
Ukraine is no exception, and its scientific history is a rich and fascinating one. Its national academy emerged as a successor to the Kyiv-based Ukrainian Scientific Society just months before the 1917 Ukrainian-Soviet war – a war of independence that would ultimately see Ukraine submerged into the Soviet experiment and with it, its scientific academy. It emerged into its current form, the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, in 1994.
Another bastion of Ukrainian science has been the Shevchenko Scientific Society, founded in 1873, which continues today as a public-funded scientific society with branches across the globe. Ukraine has seen much change in the last centuries, reflecting the geopolitical circumstances, but its scientific roots have held strong against all the currents and counter currents swirling around them.
History aside for a moment, what about the future?
Perhaps one of Ukraine’s most interesting scientific potentialities lies in its geographical location. Sitting on the Occident’s eastern flank, on Eurasia’s western flank, and on the Global South’s northern flank, it can act as a scientific trade-route, so to speak, for the creative exchange of ideas and thoughts around the world. Could two glaring chasms that so divide the modern world – the East-West divide and the North-South divide, be healed in Ukraine?
Last June, when I wrote an essay for Kyiv Post about “Science in Time of War”, the first thing Kyiv Post did was translate it into Arabic and post it online. An essay about science, written in Edinburgh one afternoon, sent over to Kyiv and then translated into a language understood by over 400 million people in the world living to Ukraine’s east and south, all in three days.
Although this a simple example, it is a typical illustration of the enormous intellectual power and potential of Ukraine. For this to work, it requires a free culture that is unhindered and unthreatened by the spread of ideas. Ukraine has both the required elements – the ability to act as that transmission wire between the Western and Arabic world and the culture of openness that takes delight in bringing these worlds together.
Ukraine understands this role well; her culture is colored with cross-fertilization. Might it not be the case that she could more forcefully decide to become a nexus of the exchange of scientific thoughts and innovations in a highly technologically dependent world in which significant wealth divides between the north and south, and frequent tensions between east and west, can be partly addressed by effective scientific collaboration?
How could she do this? Envisage institutions in molecular biology, astrophysics, medical science, space science, and many others besides, that bring in undergraduates, doctoral, and post-doctoral scientists with a set quota of individuals from these broadly different geographical regions.
The babble of languages and cultures from across the globe meeting in this uniquely neutral geographical place to bring forth an efflorescence of ideas to power a scientific revolution. These institutions might gain strength in their capacity to cast a wide geographical net through Ukraine’s healthy IT sector (incidentally, itself a product of Ukraine’s early computer schools).
Of course, international scientific collaboration is hardly a new idea. You can find a plethora of laboratories around the world filled with a mix of cultures and students from different countries. But Ukraine’s location makes it especially well situated to create organizations that are not merely western institutions with a scattering of individuals from the east or eastern institutions hosting some western scientists.
These ‘crucible institutions’ might genuinely straddle these cultures, using Ukraine’s location to imbue within them an authentic maelstrom of thoughts that have allegiance to no-one. These organizations might be state-funded, public-funded, or a mixture of both.
And while we’re entertaining some ambitious ideas, could an east-west reach in this part of the world be a balm to end other divisions. Having essentially ceded its dominance in mathematics, astronomy, and medicine to the West in the seventeenth century, there has been a long-lived scientific rift between the Islamic world and its western peers.
Perhaps a nation like Ukraine might be the catalyst and conduit through which scientific collaboration may be reinvigorated once more, leading to a more forceful fusion of minds across this religious and cultural divide?
Another facet that Ukraine should wield to its full potential is its relatively fluid past. Stability over centuries is always a good thing for predictability and peace in society, but at the same time it leads to entrenched ways of doing things.
Ukraine, in many ways, has an enviable freedom of movement born from the kaleidoscopic changes of its history. Might it not find the energy to build or renew academies, institutions, and research centers with international cultures that are the envy of the world?
If such a vision of science was to become real, it would be an incalculable benefit that would help us all to extend our scientific tentacles and bring into being a more global scientific community.
That brings us to an elephant in the room – the funding
The improvement of scientific culture in any country is a net benefit to all of humanity. Any country whose science becomes perverted by the state to war-like ends, or which is ramshackle and leads to a low scientific self-esteem, is bad for open societies. Degraded science ultimately erodes the capacity to produce impartial knowledge and institutions, and in so doing, eats away at the more critical structures of democratic deliberation. It is in everyone’s interest to help fund and support scientific reconstruction in Ukraine.
There are wider political implications. Good science is not exclusive to liberal democracies; a determined scientist can write an excellent paper even under the duress of the worst totalitarian regime. However, I think it is true to say that the best environment for scientific creativity is a society in which countervailing views in all walks of life are given their fullest play, because this is the culture that scientists pursue in their own work.
Healthy science brings vigor, rationality, and strength to open decision-making processes; social and scientific freedom are a powerful symbiosis. The success of this scientific attitude ramifies into the international relations of any nation, yet again making it in the interests of all nations to encourage healthy science everywhere.
Personally, I think that one way this could be accomplished is to have an international scientific equivalent of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Call it what you will, maybe the International Scientific Fund (ISF); it would provide large scale equipment and funding support to nations seeking to build and reform scientific institutions; for example, maximizing their independence from the state and ensuring accountable budgetary systems. That would be one approach on a global scale, but clearly such a thing does not yet exist.
In the absence of global architectures for scientific support, individual nations, or existing blocs, should take an interest in providing Ukraine with material support for rebuilding its scientific ambitions.
Much of what I have suggested in this essay shows that Ukraine could attract scientific support, personnel, and funding from around the world. At the intersection of the world’s major political and cultural tectonic plates, Ukraine could harness the best of all possibilities, drawing in funding from every part of the compass to enrich its scientific portfolio and reach.
Ukraine should not be demure and deferential in its scientific vision. Sitting at a geopolitically propitious location in the world, equipped with a fundamentally liberal democratic constitution, and energized with a new self-awareness, it has every reason to assume a position of uniqueness and prominence.
At the moment, in the smoke of war, these ideas may seem distracted fantasy, but equally, surely there should be enormous optimism for the potential to come from an independently minded and scientifically motivated Ukraine?
Charles Cockell is Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.