Sunday 6 March 2022

Some quick thoughts on academic boycotts of Russia



In response to the dramatic developments in Ukraine, several instances of academic boycotts of Russia have been proposed or implemented.  These are a few of the initiatives I have heard about on Twitter:


European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities (ALLEA) has suspended the Russian Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Sciencesof Belarus


The British Psychological Society has supported a call from Ukrainian psychologists for the Russian Psychological Society to be suspended from the European Federation of Psychologists Associations (EFPA)


The Australian National University suspended all institutional ties with Russian institutions.


Yesterday, Chris Chambers, who is a journal editor, asked people's views on whether academic journals should be considering contributions from authors based in Russia.


Responses were pretty polarised. I have strong views against all these kinds of academic boycott, which have not really been changed by the numerous, well-argued points made by those responding to Chris, and so I thought I'd set out my position here.


I should start by saying that the disagreement here is not about the rights and wrongs of the war in Ukraine. I take as a basic premise that the invasion of Ukraine is an abominable atrocity, that, as its instigator, Vladimir Putin is guilty of war crimes, and that we all should do all we can to stop the war and ensure Putin is brought to justice.


At a national level, sanctions are imposed by governments to put pressure on Russia that, on the one hand, serves a symbolic function of demonstrating disapproval, and on the other hand serves a practical function of weakening the Russian economy, in the hope this might help bring the invasion to an end without starting World War 3.  They are not undertaken lightly, as it is recognised that many innocent people who play no part in the invasion will be adversely affected - both Russians who protest the invasion and people in the countries who are applying the sanctions, who may have to pay higher prices, or suffer shortages of goods.


Other organisations, notably sports organisations, have taken the line of moving major sporting events away from Russia. I fully support such moves, because they will have a financial impact on Russia, as well as denying Putin an opportunity to act as a host, which is a role that carries considerable prestige as well as opportunities for positive publicity. I also agree with banning Russian athletes from sporting events where they are explicitly representing their country - in effect, including these athletes creates the impression that Russia is a normal member of the sporting community. So these sanctions affecting sports have a very visible symbolic role as well as a potential financial one.  That makes the cost-benefit ratio of the actions seem worthwhile, despite the unfairness to individual athletes.


I see academic interactions differently in terms of the cost-benefit ratio.  I don't think there'd be any financial impact to Russia of Chris or other editors refusing to consider papers by Russian authors, and the symbolic impact is likely to be pretty small. I doubt most people would notice that such a sanction had occurred, and, even if Putin was aware of it, I can't see him getting particularly upset about it.  In saying this, I'm not arguing that academics are 'special' - just that the practical impact of adopting sanctions against them would be close to zero, except for the damage to the sanctioned individuals. Add to this the fact that academics are typically among the early casualties of dictators, who dislike them for their tendency to criticise, and I think the case for this kind of academic sanction is very weak.  


In the responses to Chris, there are many people, on both sides, putting forward 'what about' arguments. So, for instance, what about a small Russian trader, innocent of any war crimes, whose livelihood is blighted by sanctions that affect her business? For me the question is whether such sanctions have an effect that is worthwhile - in terms of its visibility and economic impact -  given that all sanctions will trap the deserving as well as the undeserving in their net?  So this needs a response on a case-by-case basis, rather than treating it as a generic principle to be adopted in all sectors.


Another 'what about' issue that is raised concerns countries other than Russia. Should we start to sanction academics from any government that behaves inhumanely? It would be quite a long list, and would be difficult to draw the line.  It's worth noting that on the same principle, we could well find ourselves sanctioned by academics from other countries who regard the UK's colonial past and/or escapades in the Middle East worthy of censure.  The only reason we don't have to worry about that is because we happen to have considerable power over the machinery of academic publishing.


So my answer here again is that in general, academics should only consider sanctions as an extreme resort, given that they are a blunt instrument that can have serious unintended consequences. The economic sanctions currently imposed on Russia by governments are unusually effective because they have a big effect on many sectors, and we are seeing a co-ordinated activity of many nations, as well as nations prepared to take a financial hit themselves.  That's not the case for academic sanctions.


There are many other ways we can express our support for Ukraine. Moves are already afoot among learned societies to help Ukrainian academics who have had to leave the country, and also Russian academics who have put themselves in harm's way by speaking out against the invasion. Personally, I think the most useful thing I can do is to donate money to that cause as well as to other causes that will strengthen Ukraine's position in the conflict, rather than calling for symbolic gestures.


I'm prepared to listen to counter-arguments. It's clear this is one of those issues that is pretty divisive among people of good will who are usually on the same side of political debate.  To help cope with a tsunami of spam, comments on this blog are moderated, but I will monitor them and publish those that contribute (respectfully) to this discussion.