How the war in Ukraine threatens decades of scientific research

·4 min read
Iryna Ilienko is a cell biologist who recently fled Ukraine. After arriving in Canada, she was hired by Future Fields, a biotechnology company in Edmonton. (Sam Martin/CBC - image credit)
Iryna Ilienko is a cell biologist who recently fled Ukraine. After arriving in Canada, she was hired by Future Fields, a biotechnology company in Edmonton. (Sam Martin/CBC - image credit)

When Iryna Ilienko escaped Ukraine with her daughters, she left behind her research and the 20-year career she had built as a cell biologist in Kyiv before the Russian invasion.

Ilienko and her girls, aged nine and 19, fled to Budapest, Hungary, shortly after the war began and stayed there for a month before flying into Edmonton on April 9, uncertain about what the future held for them.

As the war rages on, there is growing concern about the long-lasting effect the conflict will have on the global scientific community — and of the lost opportunities for discovery in the fields of academia, medicine and science in Ukraine.

There are, however, scientists in Canada trying to help researchers displaced by the war establish themselves in a new country, at least for the time being.

In Edmonton, the co-founder and CEO of Future Fields, a biotechnology company, had posted online that the lab was interested in hiring Ukrainian researchers who fled due to the conflict.

"The thought of having to put my career on hold on top of everything else that you'd have to face as someone fleeing a war-torn country — that's awful," Matt Anderson-Baron said. "If we could help out in that way, it's a no-brainer."

Sam Martin/CBC
Sam Martin/CBC

And several weeks ago, Anderson-Baron hired Ilienko.

"I [was] afraid my science career could be stopped," she told CBC News.

"It's like the first step for me," she said of the new job. "Of course, it's very difficult … For me, it's very important I'm here. If I [had to] spend one more month in Canada without work, I think [I] will be absolutely crushed."

Displaced academics

Intellectual institutions are often the first targets when a war breaks out, said Karly Kehoe, an associate professor at Halifax's St. Mary's University and an advocate for displaced and refugee scholars.

"Universities are usually seen as areas where there can be intellectual exchange and they have more freedom, academic freedom, to say what they think based on their research," Kehoe said.

"That doesn't always go down very well."

Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters
Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

Kehoe points to how academics were displaced by the Second World War, throughout the war in Syria and, now, during the conflict in Ukraine.

"The most common thing that happens is people have to flee so they leave their research behind, [but] they don't leave their ideas behind," she said. "They're taking their kids and their families if they can — they're not necessarily going to stop and move their labs."

"We're potentially losing any discoveries that they would have been making or that they would have potentially made in their careers." - Karly Kehoe, associate professor St. Mary's University

That can translate into lost potential, especially if someone is unable to continue their work in a new setting.

"We're potentially losing any discoveries that they would have been making or that they would have potentially made in their careers," Kehoe said.

Moving research

Aaron Barr is hoping to mitigate those losses by helping move Ukrainian researchers — and their work — to Canada.

The CEO of Canadian Rockies Hemp Corp. in Bruderheim, Alta., has been connected to the Institute of Bast Crops, Ukraine's national academy for agrarian sciences, for about two years.

Sam Martin/CBC
Sam Martin/CBC

In addition to moving staff, Barr said he is working with the institute to transport about 1,800 kilograms of specialized, pedigree seeds that agricultural scientists have developed in recent years.

The seeds are expected to arrive in Canada by the end of May; if they're not moved from the institute, Barr said, they would likely spoil. Most of the grain and seed production bins have been destroyed, he said.

"They had some of the seed in their warehouses and this is the stuff that we're able to get trucked out of there to a safe location and then brought here to Canada," Barr said.

Vladyslav Tkachenko, a spokesperson for the institute, said it is not clear how long the war could persist, and staff did not want to risk losing the research they've put into the seeds.

"We don't know what's going to be the result of war. That's why we're looking further and trying to find the best solution for our case," he said in an interview with CBC News from Dnipro, Ukraine.

Barr said he's seen resilience on the part of his colleagues in Ukraine.

"The staff that is left there at the institute, they have a determination that they're going to continue to rebuild," he said. "They're going to seed crops this year. They're doing whatever they can to continue living their lives."

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