When Researchers Have to Flee: The Cost of War to Science

War has a bad habit of disrupting the lives of ordinary citizens. We’re currently seeing a prime example of this in the millions of Syrians who are attempting to flee a civil war. Before we go any farther, I should issue the disclaimer that I don’t mean for this to sound insensitive to normal people who may be leaving behind their homes and careers when they have to evacuate and I do moderate comments on my blog. My current focus is simply on scientists and researchers who may be leaving behind years of work and have limited options about where they’re going next when they have to leave their home countries because of a bad situation.

Fleeing Oppression and Civil War

Very often, an oppressive government will target academics as dissenters or because they are members of an “undesirable” population. Academics typically hold a respected place in a thriving society and, if they are unwilling to help spread propaganda on behalf of an oppressive or ideological government or if their presence becomes an existential threat to the government’s preferred ideology, they are too often silenced if they cannot flee.

Albert Einstein may be the most famous example of a scientist being uprooted by oppression. He had to relocate to the United States (or, more accurately, paid a visit and never left) during the alarming upswing of anti-Semitism in Germany during the 1930s. Luckily, he was able to land a position at the Institute for Advanced Studies and many of his colleagues were able to find refuge in the US and UK before World War II. However, many researchers aren’t so lucky when they are displaced by anything like an oppressive regime or impending world war.

Many researchers, university professors, and scientists are lucky if they can flee a dangerous situation in their home country with their lives intact. If they’re even luckier, they might be able to smuggle out a USB thumb drive with years’ worth of data from research that was interrupted when war threatened their universities and livelihoods or upload their data to cloud storage services like Dropbox and Google Drive before it can be lost forever. One plant geneticist named Hamdi Alsaffouri was able to salvage his doctorate thesis because he had emailed it to a friend. He acknowledged that he could have easily lost it without this backup:

“Most of our institute in Damascus has now been destroyed, I think. We can’t get anything from our labs there.”

The luckiest academics might be able to find an open university position where they can resume their research or assist with somebody else’s research until the upheavals in their home countries subside – assuming that they ever do or a new regime proves to be friendly toward the sciences.

Despite many of the positive stories, academics who land on their feet even when they manage to escape upheavals in their home nations are the exception rather than the rule. A recent Discover Magazine article cited Syria as an example. Two thousand academics were forced to flee the Syrian civil war and only ten percent have been able to find a position in any field, let alone one comparable to the field and career they left when they evacuated.

Part of the problem is that scholars can easily get lost in the shuffle of the many refugees who flee instability in their home countries. Many are forced to work as construction workers, low-level retail clerks, and janitors when they can find work at all. With no previous contacts or a grasp of the local language, they have difficulty gaining permanent residence and can be deported to nations that have become hostile to academics and the freedom of thought they need to make meaningful contributions to the advancement of science at any time. Access to libraries and translators, as well as connections to the international academic community, are critical to success when it comes to successfully integrating these transplanted researchers into local facilities. This is not even a matter of being just one more refugee who may be unwilling to contribute to the society that hosts them.

“They worked hard and now are sitting around with nothing to do and no one recognizing them for what they’ve done in the past,” says Carman Bachman, a professor of tax and finance at the University of Leipzig, who founded the German nonprofit Chance for Science.

Scholars Helping Scholars

Those who do find a position are very often supported by nonprofit organizations like the Institute of International Education-Scholar Rescue Fund (IIE-SRF). IIE-SRF has found temporary positions for 710 displaced scholars from 53 countries at 370 partner institutions worldwide. Many IIE-SRF beneficiaries hope that they will be able to resume the careers they left behind when they evacuated, though some more realistic scholars have chosen to apply for asylum in their host countries.

Chance for Science is one regional nonprofit that works with academicians who have arrived in Germany but don’t speak much German. Volunteers include scholars who have escaped situations similar to the scholars that Chance for Science helps, such as Nedal Said, a microbiologist who fled from Syria to Germany but could only communicate when he met a couple who spoke a mutual language: Russian. He helps others like him by translating for new Arabic-speaking arrivals who would like to find a position in a German institution. He explained that he did not wish to be just another refugee:

“I studied for 15 years to do science, to help people, not to live in a camp with the government giving me food.”

Besides that, most scholars’ careers can suffer if they drop out of their academic fields for just a year or two. To keep up in their fields, they need to be able to connect with other professionals and gain access to reputable publications and they don’t necessarily get that if they’re languishing in a refugee camp, unrecognized as scholars. The solution to this problem may include better access to translators and other government officials and the local academic community who can be made aware of their situation and help with placement in academic institutions.

The pitfalls include difficulty in navigating the world of publications outside of the scholars’ own country. The academic pressure to publish has led to the rise of less-than-reputable publications with very little peer review and scholars who have had to flee their home countries may not know which publications may actually hurt their careers.

Iraqi marine biologist Adil Al-Handal is one of the lucky ones, as he was able to serve a year’s fellowship in Florida and then join Sweden’s University of Gothenberg when academic freedom in Iraq took a turn for the worse. He currently works with fellow professor Angela Wulff to analyze samples of polar algae from the Arctic and Antarctic. He has been helping colleagues from his home country navigate the problem of disreputable publications by producing a series of presentations cautioning against this problem.

“Most academics in Iraq … don’t have the facilities and technology needed to do good research and get published in reputable [international] journals,” he said of the problem.

Others have found ways to communicate with colleagues and students back in their home countries using technologies like email and WhatsApp. They may encourage the scholars who have stayed behind to leave if at all possible and provide valuable connections to help them find a temporary job at a university. Even if their students can’t leave, professors often send lessons back home over the Internet or on DVDs whenever possible. Continuing work with Ph.D. candidates and post-grads can be difficult in an environment where Internet connections and international postal systems may not be reliable and student labs don’t always have electricity or sufficient equipment for their research.

Can Years of Research be Salvaged?

War is especially a threat to universities, scholars, and the data from important research that usually takes years to conduct. Dr. Eqbal Dauqan, who briefly headed the therapeutic nutrition department for Yemen’s Al-Saeed University, remembers the day that war broke out and began to threaten her university.

“Everything was damaged, our university, our home. … Our university had to close down due to the attacks, and I stayed home for 10 months with no salary, hardly an Internet access, and often no electricity to charge my laptop or mobile phone.”

She was able to escape Yemen and take up a temporary fellowship at University Kebangsaan Malaysia. Out of concern for displaced scientists and the years of work they might lose when civil war threatens their universities, she attended a conference on displaced scientists earlier this year.

Some new technologies might be able to reduce the possible threat to scientific research when scholars and their universities are threatened. BOINC was originally designed to provide decentralized computing power by harnessing the unused processing power of desktops and laptops owned by supporters of scientific endeavors. If the concept of decentralized computing sounds at all familiar to fintech insiders, Gridcoin is a cryptocurrency built around BOINC to reward individuals for providing processing power for science. This could help universities continue to crunch data even when their servers and (in the case of universities that can afford it) supercomputers come under threat.

Decentralized cloud storage could show an equal amount of promise for making certain that scientific data is safe from attack. The thing about Google Drive and Dropbox is that their users usually don’t know and don’t care where the data warehouses are as long as they can access their data when they need to. However, the data is centralized and, therefore, vulnerable to a malicious actor who can gain access to the servers and destroy the data. In a case like this, Google and Microsoft will only be interested in limiting their liability and not in restoring the data from research that gets interrupted when a region becomes unstable, scientists become threatened, and they may have to join the ranks of refugees. These large corporations will only say that it was the responsibility of the scientific teams to back up their data.

The concept of a decentralized cloud service was popularized within the cryptocurrency community by Storj, another cryptocurrency that theoretically works on “Proof-of-Retrievability.” If the data can be retrieved from somewhere on the Storj network, then owners of hard drive space can be paid for providing an agreed-upon amount of storage to the user of the cloud storage service. There’s no centralized data center, so a malicious actor would first have to go looking for the device that a certain user’s data sits on. If Dropbox or Google Drive refuses to cooperate, then scientists who might become threatened may be able to store their encrypted data on services like Storj as a backup. (And if you provide storage for Storj or a similar service, “Proof-of-Retrievability” will only be able to retrieve the data and get you paid if you keep your device running and connected to the Internet 24/7/365 if at all possible.)

Decentralized services like these mean that the computing assets and data storage could be provided by individuals from halfway around the world and well away from unstable regions that might disrupt the work of scholars. Of course, this will require that the academic world be aware of services like BOINC, Gridcoin, and Storj and also be able to connect on an international level so that they can resume their work or find a new position if they are displaced. They should especially be educated in the importance of backing up their data to a remote location on a regular basis so that they aren’t completely out of luck if they have to flee with very little, if any, notice.

Above all, scientists that have to flee oppression or civil war should be assisted in getting temporary positions in their host nations’ universities if at all possible. Someone like Eqbal Dauqan does not need to be a burden when she could take charge of a university’s therapeutic nutrition department in Yemen and can assist in research that can help therapy patients get the nutrition they need to recover. Adil Al-Handal’s colleagues at the University of Gothenberg have reported that he is a pleasure to work with and he has even discovered new algae species growing in the altered lakes in Iraq because he was able to smuggle some samples out in a suitcase, thus pointing at the possibility of environmental damage caused by the years of instability that Iraq has been through. These are people who can uncover possible solutions to the problems that the world is facing if their talent as scholars and their years of research are not discarded purely because they are refugees.