Science for Ukraine? Some research residencies are failing to support researchers at risk

Picture made by Global Voices with OpenAI

Academic institutions around the world have been vocal in supporting Ukrainian researchers. Hundreds of academic opportunities were designed very quickly in the spring of 2022, united under the hashtag #ScienceforUkraine. The project lives on, with a separate website dedicated to such efforts gathered under one umbrella.

Germany, as Reuters reports, accepted over 1.1 million refugees from Ukraine in 2022, and it put a lot of efforts in organizing the process of receiving temporary protection for Ukrainians.  

Because a lot of science for Ukraine programs were designed to deliver help to Ukraine as fast as possible, some of them were not strategically structured. There were a lot of short-term research residencies that did not provide any further assistance, such as a road to a stable job or an ability to stay in the host country for a longer period.

Global Voices spoke with three Ukrainian researchers who were enrolled in two different types of programs: one long-term (one year), and two short-term (three months) in Germany and Taiwan. 

Alina (name changed) applied to a three-month fellowship for Ukrainian researchers. Although an experienced academic with a track of publications and teaching, Alina had a bad experience in one of the German's universities:

The program didn't really exist, this became clear later. Of course, I am grateful that the scholarship was given in the first place, but if I had waited and looked around in Ukraine, I would have found something more sustainable. As the administration of the program explained to us later, they simply thought that there would be scientists among the refugees, so why not announce something there? As a result, they altered this program on the go many times.

Alina spent much of her time in Germany applying for basic documents that would allow her to stay as a Ukrainian refugee, as well as trying to access medical insurance and housing. She continued:

Three months was nothing, like, at all. Nobody dealt with us and any questions had to be addressed purely by mail. Most often, the answer that we received from the university was, “We don’t know, it’s not our competence, we can’t help in any way.” Besides, they didn't tell us that in three months we would have to go look for further opportunities totally by ourselves. As a result, we were later made to feel guilty that we did not look for anything further. They essentially invited us without having the slightest idea why.

Artem, on the other hand, received a grant from a large German foundation for a 12-month research stay. His experience was very different, although he, too, spoke of some setbacks. A scholar with extensive publication and empirical research experience, he was in Kyiv when it was shelled by Russia in February and March 2022. He said:

The most problematic thing for me was a long waiting time for the approval of my project. [Those were] a very dangerous 2.5 months for my family when we were waiting for the final decision. I think that for scholars in danger, this period must be shorter.

In spite of this, his fellowship was helpful for him and his family alike:

My one-year scholarship was very useful. It was the best option for me […] to get my children far from the war, to perform my current project, to finish my articles that were conceived a year or two ago, and then to come back to Ukraine, as I expected from the beginning.

Alina found herself in a very different situation as her three-month stay was coming to an end:

It took me three months to only do the necessary migration documents. The university didn't help. I asked them for help, and they told me, “Everything is online.” But I do not know German, and I am fleeing from the war; it was very difficult.

The university suggested that she ask volunteers in the centers for Ukrainian refugees to help with filling in applications and visiting migration centers, where it is often necessary to either know German or have a translator. At that time, however, volunteers were preoccupied with the influx of more vulnerable refugees:

Volunteers said, “You are from universities…look at mothers with children.” It was so overwhelming, and you were always to blame for everything. At the same time, [there was this feeling] gnawing at you from the inside that you left — and the Russians were approaching Kyiv, and all you could think about was whether your [family and friends] were alive.

Artem agreed that one of the most important things was that he got support from his academic institution and particular people within it: 

I think that your comfort in the university depends on the faculty adviser's readiness to help you.  So if you have an opportunity to wait a bit, you should choose your faculty coordinator well.

In contrast, Kateryna received a three-months fellowship in Taiwan which led to four-year scholarship for an MA program there.  

It started in summer and really felt more a like very relaxed thing, but not because the institution is not serious, but rather the advisor just wanted to give me some space to decide and I’m eternally grateful for that, because I’ve made my decision towards getting a Master’s degree here in Taiwan and got the scholarship for 4 years, and now I’m studying what I really like. There were small organisational issues, but thanks to the constant support of the Academia’s administration they were resolved really quickly.

Global Voices asked Maria Trofimova, Ph.D., Head of the Graduate School Office at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (ISTA), about the academic research programs for Ukrainians that ISTA implemented in 2022:

 Since ISTA is a research institute and not a university, our options to welcome undergraduate students were very limited. We decided to include Ukrainian students in our well established summer research program.

In the framework of this ISTernship program undergrads from all over the world come to ISTA for two or three months of intensive lab training in our research groups. The program is extremely competitive: we receive about 3000 applications every year and we can accept only about 40 students. Last year, we decided to take an additional 40 students from Ukraine into this program. 10 of them, sadly, could not come, as young men were not allowed out of the country.

We run this program in partnership with ÖAD — Austrian Agency for Education and Internationalization. They provided all logistical and visa support, including special sessions for Ukrainians on how to get a certificate of displaced person, what benefits it gives, and what are their opportunities thereafter.

We have mental health support at the institute, and Ukrainian students could  use these services. I believe short-term academic and research programs for Ukrainian students can work well in Europe if students are included into an existing program that already proved to be viable. New programs designed in a rush might not make much sense indeed.

For Ukrainian researchers looking for a fellowship abroad, Artem advises to start preparing the paperwork for their long-term grants just after the beginning of their short-term one, in order to avoid the big gap between funding periods. However, for the people running from the war, planning is often impossible. For Alina, her situation in Germany has added to her anxiety:

I'm still on my feet, but more and more often I ask myself, “What is the point?: I have been teaching students for years that the task of any generation is to leave a better world behind, that the science of knowledge and education can save the world from sliding into the abyss, that progress should guide people.

Now, with Russia bombing her country for over a year, she has nowhere to go. Unfortunately for her, not even science was able to help.

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