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Chemists respond to invasion of Ukraine

Scientific community expresses solidarity against invasion as costs to Russian science grow

Laura Howes, with reporting by Michael McCoy and Leigh Krietsch Boerner

2022-03-03 23:28:39

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A Kharkiv National University building in flames after being struck by a missile on March 2, 2022

EyePress/NewsCom

Since Russian forces invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, there has been an outpouring of concern for the residents of Ukraine from the scientific community and beyond. The situation was continuing to escalate at C&EN’s deadline.

Many researchers in other parts of the world who have links to Ukraine, such as Keele University PhD student Valentyna Slyusarchuk, say they have been using work as a means to distract themselves from the situation. Slyusarchuk says she has been getting the first bus into work in the morning and leaving late in the evening just to have something else to focus on.

“Ukrainians are very proud of their heritage and identity,” says Donna Huryn of the University of Pittsburgh, who has family in the country. “They have managed to keep their culture and religion, despite being under Soviet rule for so many years. Hearing people claim Ukraine is not a country is infuriating.”

The scientific community has offered research funding, lab space, and accommodation for researchers who have escaped Ukraine. These resources are collected in online spreadsheets and on a map on the Science for Ukraine website.

Chemists who work with Ukrainian research chemical firms have also expressed disbelief and solidarity. Enamine is one of several Kyiv-based firms that supply building-block chemicals and compound libraries to the world’s drugmakers. Such companies emerged in Ukraine and Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, when chemists who worked for the state had to find new opportunities in the private sector. Enamine is a founding member of an initiative, COVID Moonshot, that is working to develop an antiviral for COVID-19.

Ed Griffen, a cofounder of UK-based MedChemica and the team leader of the COVID Moonshot, had been in discussions with the team about visiting an Enamine site in Kyiv. Enamine has “always gone above and beyond in just getting the job done,” Griffen says in an email. “Obviously we’re all extremely worried about our team in Kyiv,” he says. “We will stick by them as they have stuck by us.”

On Feb. 28, C&EN exchanged messages on multiple platforms with Ivan Kondratov, Enamine’s head of medicinal chemistry. Kondratov, responding in between his other work duties, says that he and his family were in western Ukraine when the Russian attacks began, meaning he has escaped the worst so far. Kondratov continues to coordinate the work and safety of his colleagues from there.

“It is impossible to do anything when the air-raid warning can take place in any time,” Kondratov says. Safety is the priority, he adds. “Therefore all the flammable solvents and materials are hidden or removed.”

Life Chemicals is another drug services company affected. The firm employs about 120 people in Ukraine—half of them chemists. Life Chemicals closed its offices and production site in Kyiv when Russia invaded, according to Vasily Pinchuk, the firm’s vice president of sales and marketing, and had hoped to reopen Feb. 28. “That’s not what happened, and right now it’s very difficult to say when it will happen,” he says. “We are hearing a lot of support from our customers, who are wishing things come back to normal as soon as possible.

Both Kondratov and Pinchuk, a Ukrainian based in Canada, say many of their employees have left Kyiv for the surrounding countryside. Others have traveled to what they hope will be safer places in the western part of the country.

While economic sanctions have been levied against Russia, some are calling for scientists to also end collaborations with Russia. Biotech industry leaders have already pledged to cut economic activity with Russian businesses.

Alinda Chemical, Aronis, and Interbioscreen are Russia-based companies that, like Enamine and Life Chemicals, supply the pharmaceutical industry with compound libraries and building blocks. C&EN queried the three companies about the proposed collaboration freezes but did not receive responses by deadline. Similarly, C&EN contacted ChemDiv and ChemBridge, San Diego–based pharmaceutical services firms that have significant operations in Russia, but received no response.

The Alliance of Science Organisations in Germany has already frozen all collaborations with Russian scientists. A Feb. 25 statement from the group of 10 research organizations and funders says, “The Alliance is aware of the consequences of these measures and at the same time deeply regrets them for science.”

One alliance member, the German Academic Exchange Service, has stopped all funding for academic exchanges between Germany and Russia. “We know that this step also creates injustice and affects numerous academics and students who are committed to peaceful and constitutional conditions as well as good neighbourly relations,” Joybrato Mukherjee, president of the service, says in a statement.

“We are aware that many of our Russian friends and our Russian partner institutions reject the campaign against Ukraine from the bottom of their hearts,” Mukherjee says. “At the same time, in view of the war, we believe it is imperative to critically review the promotion of exchange relations with Russia.”

Enamine’s Kondratov and Life Chemicals’ Pinchuk are in favor of such actions and argue for cutting off all scientific contact and collaboration. “It is really important to ensure the entire isolation of Russia from the civilized world,” Kondratov says. The scientific community should stand in solidarity against Russia, he adds.

Some Russian scientists C&EN spoke to accept such actions as important in the short term as a way to stop the war. But all worry about the long-term impact on Russian science—particularly on younger researchers.

“I have always believed that collaboration between scientists of different nationalities means a fundamental value for the world scientific community and enriches the world science,” Moscow State University polymer chemist Alexei Khokhlov says in an email. “From this viewpoint I cannot understand how the stop in scientific contacts can help in the current situation. However, if this happens I see my mission to help younger scientists who do not have ‘Soviet time’ experience to adjust to the ongoing changes and to continue successful scientific careers. And simultaneously to exert every effort in order to restore the damaged international scientific connections.”

In open letters, scientists and science journalists in Russia and in the Russian diaspora call on the country to stop the invasion. The letter from within Russia says, “We demand respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state. We demand peace for our countries.”

Statements made by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and the European Chemical Society both condemn the invasion of Ukraine and emphasize the importance of international cooperation.

C&EN also contacted the American Chemical Society for comment. “At present, ACS is working to support its members in Ukraine by waiving dues as an immediate action. The current government sanctions towards Russia do not impact ACS operations, but we are watching the evolving situation very closely,” Susan R. Morrissey, head of communications at the ACS says in a statement emailed to C&EN. Morrissey is also the publisher of C&EN.

With additional reporting by Leigh Krietsch Boerner and Michael McCoy