Prevent, protect, rebuild: How to help crisis-hit scholars

With a record number of scientists displaced around the world, how can institutions offer better support during crisis and conflict?

In 2022, within months of the russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a small group of volunteers mobilising as Science for Ukraine had already connected with more than 1,000 displaced scientists, coordinating with institutions around the world, offering safety and work.

“It was a very impromptu effort,” explained Oleksandra Ivashchenko, a Science for Ukraine coordinator and medical physicist at Leiden University in the Netherlands. “The goal was just to help people find a place to settle, so it was a mix of finding new places where they could find jobs, housing and helping them to cross the border,” she said.

By connecting with both displaced scientists and institutions looking to help, Science for Ukraine was able to suggest ways to improve the crisis response. “Being able to collect information about the exact needs is crucial, because what we think might work is not necessarily what works,” Ivashchenko said.

For institutions, providing a clear, centralised list with opportunities and requirements can help scientists who are finding their way in new surroundings, she said. The group also helped a large jobs database tweak search settings to meet the particular needs of displaced scientists.

Much of the initial attention focused on people who had fled Ukraine – but as it became clear that the conflict would last longer, Science for Ukraine began pitching the idea of remote fellowships for scientists who stayed, keeping them connected to the global scientific community even if their own institutions were out of commission.

“For long-term conflicts like this, one of the most important aspects is sustainability – making sure that we are creating pathways to rebuild, and looking into the future,” Ivashchenko said.

In a recent paper, the International Science Council’s Centre for Science Futures (CSF) pointed to both Iraq and Ukraine as examples of why science institutions need to rethink support mechanisms for refugee and displaced scientists. In the paper, the CSF makes practical recommendations for how the science community can be more proactive to protect science in times of crisis, broken down into three phases: prevent and prepare, protect, and rebuild.

Preparation includes adequately funding and strengthening science infrastructure to better withstand shocks. The CSF also recommends encouraging collaboration with disaster risk and humanitarian experts, and stronger cross-border partnerships between scientists. In times of crisis, these networks can quickly pivot to the kind of life-saving work done by the Iraqi and Ukrainian projects.

Institutions and governments should also provide more funding for projects which, like RESI and Science for Ukraine, protect scientists and allow them to continue working during a crisis – which can also speed post-conflict recovery and prevent brain drain. Remote fellowships, access to digital scientific resources and conference opportunities for scientists from crisis-hit regions should also be part of a more effective response.

It’s also critical to safeguard work, including notes, archives and clinical research data, the CSF notes. After the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, scientists raced to back up their work with the help of colleagues overseas. Ahead of a crisis, digitising and archiving data can protect potentially irreplaceable data, and help displaced scientists maintain their work.

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