One year into the full-scale Russian invasion, Ukrainian chemists persevere despite tough conditions

It’s December 2021; I’m washing the final batch of glassware and tidying up my lab space before leaving for Christmas break, optimistic about the next year as the lab workflow is gradually returning to normal after Covid-19 lockdowns. One of my plans for 2022 is to spend more time on science outreach, including preparing materials in my native language, Ukrainian. I do indeed spend most of the next year on outreach, albeit of a very different kind: raising awareness about the full-scale Russian invasion of my home country.

Campus of Shevchenko National University of Kyiv damaged by Russian missile attack

Source: © Ruslan Kaniuka/Ukrinform/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

A Russian missile attack damaged buildings at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv on 31 December 2022

On 24 February, 2022, the plans of chemists in Ukraine were disrupted much more drastically. Since then, Russian shelling regularly destroys educational and industrial facilities. Even New Year’s Eve didn’t pass without attacks that damaged multiple buildings on the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv campus, among other places. The death toll of Ukrainian scientists keeps rising too.

Now, with Russia targeting critical infrastructure, power outages have become an unwelcome addition to existing adversities. When visiting my family in Ukraine in December, I was taken aback by how surreal a big city looks with close to zero street lights on. And while it’s simple enough to carry a torch to avoiding breaking one’s leg in a dark alley, it is much more challenging to maintain a work routine amid constant and sometimes unpredictable blackouts, which also severely affect mobile and internet connections – not to mention that people’s daily errands are constantly interrupted by air raid sirens. I couldn’t help but wonder how people manage to stay productive when faced with such conditions. Of course, this is another example of Ukrainian resilience. But the constant stress takes its toll and not everyone has the mental and physical resources to adapt. And many in Ukraine, scientists included, struggle to make any long-term plans in conditions of such uncertainty.

The amount of help and support provided to Ukraine since February 2022 is truly unprecedented. The commitments made by international representatives to support our country until victory, and later to rebuild, are reassuring and very much appreciated. However, for many Ukrainians, including me, the anxiety that the world might forget about this war won’t go away until Ukraine’s victory. One year into the full-scale invasion, media coverage has gradually but noticeably dropped, while Russia’s brutal attacks continue. Similarly, we see less coverage of other events that enter a protracted phase where people still need support and solidarity, such as the protests in Iran. As attention wanes, so does the understanding of people’s struggle, as well as the offers of tailored opportunities for those in particularly adverse circumstances. This means that only exceptionally resilient, lucky or relatively privileged people can persevere, which is not the best way to harness human potential globally. Even when opportunities are there, they cannot address every important issue if the directly affected people are not involved in decision-making. The follow-up series of interviews with Ukrainian chemists shows that, while adapting, scientists in Ukraine need help as never before, and they also have ideas on what would be most helpful.

At the beginning of last year, quite a few job opportunities were created for Ukrainian scientists, which were met with gratitude. At that time, however, many in Ukraine were more preoccupied with evacuating, looking for ways to help others, and just trying to cope with the stress, so not everyone was capable of adding to this the workload of job application processes. In addition, the majority of the offers appeared in the first months of the renewed Russian invasion, but, according to a report from Science For Ukraine, the initiative aggregating the offers available for Ukrainian scientists, the number of listings has dropped significantly since February 2022.

Another issue is that most of the assistance is provided as placements abroad, hence is not accessible to many people who cannot or don’t want to leave the country. With the Russian invasion taking its toll on the Ukrainian economy, government funding opportunities are scarce and often prioritise applied research. Help from international partners is very much needed to sustain scientific development, and local scientists keep appealing for such help. Ways to support scientists continuing their research in Ukrainian laboratories include providing remote access to libraries and computational facilities, hosting virtual conferences, allowing the translation of educational materials into Ukrainian, donating equipment and just being more open to delivering items to Ukraine. There are also multiple fundraisers for anyone willing to contribute to the restoration of damaged research facilities, and recently the National Research Foundation of Ukraine issued an appeal for donations to support Ukrainian scientific projects.

I believe in Ukraine’s victory and the more military help Ukraine gets, the sooner it happens. After that, however, we’ll still face multiple other challenges, including fighting climate change. Helping scientists to stay in research and harness their potential, and supporting the education sector even in the bleakest circumstances, such as times of war, is the best investment in our future.