The senior scientist asked what should be done about their Russian colleagues. The temperature in Chicago is 100 degrees. The United States' premier particle physics research facility and my former workplace was the site of my keynote speech. For many in the auditorium, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was more important than my talk about the Asian-American experience.
The European Organization for Nuclear Research stopped collaborating with institutions and individuals in Russia and Belarus after the conflict began. The organization said in June that it would cut ties with both countries after their current agreements expired in four years. Similar actions have been taken by other international organizations. A potentially devastating blow to climate science has been dealt by the suspension of work by the intergovernmental forum of eightArctic states. Europe's first Mars rover, which was supposed to board a Russian rocket later this year, has been grounded by the European Space Agency. It seemed like the International Space Station would be able to deal with the earthquakes. The hope was dashed when the head of Russia's space agency said his country wouldn't be involved in the project in four years.
From the icy caps of Earth to the edge of space, the sharp blade of war has cleaved through academic alliances already under the strains of the epidemic. I have seen a collective frustration in conversations with friends and colleagues in the US and Europe. Everyone agrees on the need to help Ukraine and that keeping business as usual would be morally indefensible. What concrete actions can the scientific community take with regard to Russia?
Many people say the decision is not theirs to make. The funding agency rules forbid collaborating with colleagues in Russia or accrediting Russian institutions in coauthored papers, among other things. Russians who do not support the invasion are ostracized. One scientist, who grew up in the former Soviet Union before moving to the West, made a compelling argument that people in democracies should not help advance science in authoritarian regimes because it would only strengthen dictators. The scientist has not been to his birth country for a long time, and he does not want his students to go back.
Thousands of scientists, science reporters, and students in Russia and the Russian diaspora have signed open letters condemning the conflict. Vladimir Kara-Murza's father refused to accept a job in Soviet Russia because of his opposition to the regime. These brave acts puncture the illusion that ordinary people can't be held responsible for the actions of the state. Responsibility is denied if it's dismissed. A condition of survival in an unjust world is compromise.
To rely on official guidelines, to pretend the Russian people are powerless, or to evoke a complete cutoff, are just a few of the ways in which scientists in the West view the Russians. Despite the fact that German cities are powered by Russian gas, Swiss banks are havens for Putin's cronies, and democratic governments use technology for harm, the bombs, prisons, and purges are blamed on an abstract state and cast in a foreign locale. The insistence on innocence prevents a clear understanding of the multiple systems of violence and injustice that are not limited to one war, one country, or one governing model. As the world splits along political divisions and academia finds itself on fault lines, how we perceive and react to the designated other is ultimately about ourselves: who we are, where we stand, and what kind of future we aim for.
France to the north and west, Switzerland to the south and east are where the lab is located. A confederation of 23 member states and 10 associate member states was founded in 1954. The principles of open science and peaceful research can be found in the CERN Convention, which has been hailed as a model for international cooperation.
Scientists on both sides of the Iron Curtain were able to work together. The first experiment was conducted by physicists from the US and the Soviets. President Richard Nixon visited the People's Republic of China. Science and technology are the first items that both sides agree would be mutually beneficial.
A small but growing number of Chinese scientists were able to visit the US for training. They helped rebuild science and education in their homeland after the Cultural Revolution. Several of my professors were also my professors. After graduating from university in China in 2009, I moved to the US for my PhD in physics and did research at the European Organization for Nuclear Research. I grew up in a country with limited means and was a beneficiary of the academy.
Science as a unifying force is only one part of the story. Since the end of World War II, progress in cross-border collaboration hides the fact that scientific alliance among countries has always been limited and fragile. The pursuit of a universal truth may be mistaken for what science is doing to the past. The scientist doesn't have to confront the social cost or political reality of their work because of the pretense of a pure intellectual endeavor.
Cold War propaganda can't be blamed for the idea that science should know no borders. The US government promoted a vision of open, curiosity-driven research that was better than the closed, state-controlled science of the Soviet Union. The concept of "free" became synonymous with "American".
During the McCarthy era, the US government refused visas to foreign scientists and denied passports to Americans suspected of being communists. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of three people who were denied visas by the State Department. The FBI surveilled and questioned Chinese-American scientists who helped open the door between their birth country and their adopted home. US-led sanctions have made it difficult for researchers in Cuba and Iran to get basic equipment.
During the Bosnian War, the United Nations called for the suspension of all scientific and technical cooperation with Serbia and Montenegro. The UN Resolution did not affect the relationship between the country and the institution. The American Physical Society decided against imposing an embargo on individual Serbian physicists because they were vocal opponents of their government.
The realization of the noble goals expressed in the convention calls for a more capacious understanding of the relationship between power and academia. Just as claiming to not see race is to deny the existence of racism, pretending that science is borderless in a world of nation states ignores the many ways politics shape the development of science. The citizens of countries that have been exploited by the West face higher financial and bureaucratic hurdles. A laboratory is not exempt from the sins of war if it gets material support from states that are fighting. Few have applied the same standards to the United States when it comes to foreign wars. If academic institutions don't contest the underlying power structure, they will become another tool for the ruling states to advance their agendas.
There is a row of national flags at the front of Wilson Hall. It's international community is as diverse as the billowing colors. The Chinese scientists at the lab requested that their flag be flown at half-mast to honor the victims of Tiananmen. Leon Lederman ordered the Chinese flag to be taken down.
When I was a student in Chicago, I was able to cross paths with Lederman on a number of occasions. I would like to know why he made the decision. The Chinese government had slaughtered its people, and I can imagine the outrage of the winner of the award. I agree with his anger. The Chinese researchers were denied a vehicle of public mourning because he took down the flag. The Chinese members of the lab were not able to reject their association with the Chinese state by stripping a piece of fabric from a pole. It is easier for others in the same area to see the bloody night as an atrocity if the Chinese flag is not seen. The rest of the flags were seen as innocent.
The flag removal was a sign of US academia's reaction to the massacre. Conferences in China were canceled by institutions and professional associations. Some scientists objected to the measures because they hurt the Chinese people. Business objectives overshadowed academic debates. The need to hold Beijing accountable gave way to Washington's desire for a stable relationship with the world's most populous country. Chinese nationals who were in the US in the months after the Chinese Student Protection Act of 1992 were given permanent residency. Only those who had the means to leave China in the first place, often through advanced training in the sciences, were allowed to do so.
The border is seen by the state as an artificial barrier against undesirable people whose only crime is the place of their birth. When harm happens on the other side of the division, one's own innocence is Privileged over the needs of those most impacted The root causes of harm aren't examined. A hasty ban along national lines doesn't make a difference. The sanctimonious act reinforces the logic of exclusion. The harm is perpetuated by it.
There were calls for a boycott of conservative states after the Supreme Court's decision in the abortion case. The annual convention of Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research was pulled out of Utah due to the state's abortion ban and discrimination against trans athletes. The American Society for Human Genetics did the same thing. The casual cruelty of imposing a border has finally hit home for a lot of Americans.
Research organizations have changed conference locations before to protest domestic policies. The American Association for the advancement of science moved its 1979 meeting out of Chicago when Illinois failed to approve the Equal Rights Amendment, and the 1999 meeting from Denver when Colorado amended its constitution to allow discrimination based on sexual orientation. The American Physical Society decided in 2020 that police conduct will be taken into account when choosing future venues. There are valid concerns about intellectual freedom in each of these instances. Conventions make a lot of money. Being complicit in a place's policies contributes to the economy and prestige.
Women, queer people, and Black and Brown people live in these areas. About 20% of American students go out of state for college. Privilege is one of the factors that determines mobility across borders. Capital flows freely while people are bound in place. When it comes to international sanctions and embargoes, the most marginalized have the worst consequences.
It's not a solution to avoidance. I have ranked and refused locations of academic engagement on the basis of personal safety. I accept that I deserve better than what is happening over there. For people at the epicenters of harm, withdrawals by outsiders are meaningless as they mistake a systemic ill for a local error. Racist, misogynist, and homophobia are not unique to the South. Many of the justices who struck down reproductive rights, the legislators who pass abortion bans, and the prosecutors who go after pregnant people are graduates of elite schools in deep blue states.
In order to address police violence in the fall of 2020,APS put forth a list of criteria for police conduct in meeting locations. The superficial reforms, which have been carried out year after year to little effect, fail to recognize that the violence is caused by the institution of policing. It's ironic that the proposal was compared favorably to the Sullivan Principles. Reverend Leon Sullivan developed a corporate code of conduct in 1977 that promised fair and equal treatment for all employees regardless of their race, as American businesses in South Africa faced rising public demands to leave the country. The Sullivan Principles were slammed by anti-apartheid organizations as a shield for companies that continued to profit from the apartheid regime in South Africa.
The anti-apartheid movement sought to shift the terrain of power by applying economic and political leverage. Students and faculty pressured their universities to stop investing in companies that do business in South Africa because of calls from Black South Africans. Lessons from the civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and ’70s were used to build the campus campaign. The campaign was focused on the local community and connected with global battles to fight racism, colonialism, and militarized violence. After the end of apartheid in South Africa, it persevered through decades of setbacks, leaving behind a rich blueprint that continues to inform campus organizing, such as divestments from fossil fuels and the prison industrial complex.
When academics see their role in confronting injustice as deciding where to have a conference or not collaborating with a colleague, it is a failure of the political imagination. Sometimes withholding one's labor or presence is necessary and just, but making the distinction along convenient divisions, such as the national border, further perpetuates systems of segregation. A more effective boycott requires a deeper understanding of who benefits from my participation and who pays for my withdrawal. How can the material conditions that sustain this injustice be changed? What is my role in the situation where I am? The answers to these questions should guide our actions, whereas a passive gesture to avoid complicity reduces the work of liberation to an intellectual exercise. Olfmi O. Tw writes that we need to focus on building and rebuilding rooms instead of regulating traffic.
Like the state, the academy is not an abstract thing. Some of the largest private police forces in the world are operated by major universities. The academy's real purpose is not to attend bias training or make tokenized diversity hires, but to fight unfair labor conditions and economic practices on and off campus.
The fight against state violence needs to progress from condemning foreign actors to examining the material basis of one's own livelihood, how it sustains or contributes to the vast machinery that makes war and oppression possible. Abuses that appear far and hard to reach can be as close to the school endowment and stock holdings as possible. The flow of capital that funds atrocities and blanket bans against groups of people on the basis of Nationality must not be allowed to go unaddressed. Targeted sanctions against the Kremlin and other state actors must be accompanied by support for those displaced by war and the right to refuge must not be conditioned on one's degree of education. Scientific collaboration, like the work of science itself, is not morally neutral or uniformly good, and the refusal to work with Russian or Chinese researchers on weaponry and surveillance technology must hold for peaceful and democratic states.
It is difficult to reconcile with one's position in oppression. I feel the anguish as a physicist, as an employee of an elite university, as a resident in a country sliding towards fascism, as a Han Chinese person watching Beijing tighten its grip over dissidents and ethnic minorities, and as a consumer of the carbon economy on the verge of climate collapse. Responsibility and power are two things that need to be recognized. The challenge's emancipatory potential is large. Individual rebellion can give permission to others, but it's not real change. Collective action is the only way to move power structures.
The laboratories, the classroom, the field, and the archive are places of struggle. It's the academy's professional duty and moral obligation to imagine what the world could be instead of simply describing it as it is. My teenage self thought that crossing the greatest ocean on Earth would allow me to reach safety and be free from politics. The world order was collapsing under its own weight and that was what I had pictured. Many worlds have ended before us and some are not worth saving. In the midst of planetary disasters, there is no escaping to the comfort of another place. Remaking this world begins here and now.