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As work progresses on ITER’s Cryostat Workshop, the megaproject has been caught in geopolitical tensions reminiscent of the Cold War.

As work progresses on ITER’s Cryostat Workshop, the megaproject has been caught in geopolitical tensions reminiscent of the Cold War.

ITER Organization

Geopolitics disrupt scientific exchange with Russia

Tensions with Russia over the unrest in Ukraine are inflicting collateral damage on science. ScienceInsider has learned that several U.S. scientists have pulled out of upcoming conferences in Russia.

Some cancellations stem from policy guidance that the U.S. government issued to agencies this spring to clamp down on travel by government scientists to Russia. Based on that guidance, NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE) announced in April that they would block most government travel to Russia; other agencies are reviewing and in some cases not allowing such travel. “There has been some diplomatic pushing and shoving behind the scenes,” says Dale Meade, a physicist emeritus with the U.S. DOE’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in New Jersey.

Some DOE scientists who had planned to attend the International Atomic Energy Agency’s conference on fusion in St. Petersburg in October have requested permission to travel there but have not received any guidance. The approval process for travel to Russia is shrouded in secrecy, says Rita Guenther, a program officer at the National Academies in Washington, D.C., who is tracking the issue. “There is no one policy that all agencies share. Each meeting is looked at independently, and each instance of scientific cooperation is looked at independently.”

The conflicting signals from DOE are frustrating researchers. “This is the biggest fusion meeting of the year. Especially now, with ITER at such a critical phase, one would want to participate in the meeting," Meade says. The irony, he says, is that the $17.5 billion ITER collaboration grew out of efforts in the 1980s to improve scientific ties between the Soviet Union and the West. “One of the original goals of the project was to use scientific research to ease tensions during the Cold War. This is now being replayed in reverse," Meade says.

Plans for meetings in other fields have also been disrupted. Physicist Geoffrey Bodwin of Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, was invited to give a plenary talk at a meeting on subatomic particles next month in St. Petersburg, one of several U.S. government scientists listed on the conference website as participants. But Bodwin, who declined to comment, has not been able to get approval for his travel. DOE did not respond to questions about Bodwin’s case, noting only in a statement to ScienceInsider that “[g]iven the current standing of the United States’ relationship with Russia, the Department of Energy closely evaluates all cooperative interactions with the Russian Federation on a case by case basis.”

Another meeting that will lose a prominent speaker is an international confab on extremophiles in St. Petersburg next month. Russian-born plenary speaker Eugene Koonin, a biologist at the National Center for Biotechnology Information in Bethesda, Maryland, recently canceled his attendance, he says, for “various reasons … some of them personal.” He declined to specify the reasons.

Other meetings have fared better. Vladimir Poroikov, a computational biologist at the Institute of Biomedical Chemistry in Moscow, was concerned that tensions would disrupt a meeting he is chairing later this summer in St. Petersburg on chemical-biological interactions. A sponsor from Ukraine, not surprisingly, canceled its involvement, forcing Poroikov to find other funding. But he says that turnout is looking good. Russia has placed no restrictions on foreign scientists, Poroikov says, and the 300 attendees include several from the United States including the plenary speaker, Marc Nicklaus of the National Cancer Institute.

Most Russian-U.S. research projects appear to be weathering the geopolitical storm. Scientists at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration received approval from the National Security Council for a joint research cruise last month to sample the Bering Strait under a long-term monitoring project called RUSALCA. One possible casualty is nascent projects getting started under the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission in health, environmental, and information sciences. A State Department official told ScienceInsider in a statement that “in response to Russia’s illegal intervention in Ukraine” some of that research has been “postponed.” But the official declined to say which projects. He added:

“In general, the United States considers scientific work to be vital to U.S. national interests and we are not seeking to isolate Russia’s society.  We are reviewing all bilateral engagement on a case by case basis, but believe it is in our interest to work together with Russia on scientific research.”

Restrictions on U.S.-Russian collaborations may be “understandable” given the circumstances, says Michael Lubell, director of public affairs at the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C., but “you’d like to have scientific exchanges not tainted by the politics.”