Olena Prysiazhna fled Russia’s invasion twice. On 25 February, the 35-year-old plasma physicist raced out of Kyiv to her home village 80 kilometres away, hoping to escape the coming attacks on Ukraine’s capital city. Two weeks later, Russian shells began raining down on the previously peaceful village. A rocket exploded in her neighbour’s back garden.
“It broke our windows, doors, roof, but no one was hurt, thank God,” says Prysiazhna. “After that, there were several attacks and we had to act.”
Prysiazhna knew it was time to get out of Ukraine. With her sister Oksana, her mother and her German shepherd puppy Tokay, she set out to leave. After several days traversing the country, they walked across the border to Poland with no clear plan as to where they were going.
In the 10 weeks since the Russian invasion, an estimated 3,100 civilians have died in Ukraine and more than 5 million Ukrainians have fled the country — creating Europe’s biggest refugee crisis in a generation. The war will indelibly alter the lives of tens of millions of Ukrainian people at home and abroad.
Among them are the country’s estimated 95,000 researchers. Until now, they were part of a modernizing scientific system that was beginning to throw off its Soviet-era shackles and integrate more closely with European research. Six months ago, there was a lot of interest in Ukraine and young people were heading up research departments, says George Gamota, a Ukrainian-born US physicist who left in 1944 and helped Ukraine to develop its scientific system after it gained independence in 1991. Now, the war has destroyed science centres in cities such as Kharkiv, Sumy and Mariupol and “a complete reconstruction will be needed once the war ends”, says Gamota.
It is not yet possible to say how many researchers are casualties or have fled the war, although Gamota suggests that some 22,000 — mainly women with children — have left. Scientists worldwide have stepped up to help their colleagues through grassroots efforts such as #ScienceForUkraine, which has collated thousands of job offers at labs worldwide for Ukrainian researchers in need. Governments, universities and organizations such as CARA, the Council for At-Risk Academics in London, are also helping refugee scientists to resettle.
“There’s a lot of pressure in universities from academics and students” across the world, says Stephen Wordsworth, CARA’s executive director. “There’s a great awareness that there are people like them in other countries that are under considerable threat.” CARA is currently helping to place around 100 Ukrainian academics in research positions, mostly in the United Kingdom. “Many of them are optimistic in the circumstances. They’re thinking in terms of, ‘Maybe in six months’ time I’ll be able to go home again’,” he says.