How researchers from Ukraine and Russia cooperate

The Ukrainian crisis has been smoldering since the beginning of 2014: the Crimea was annexed by Russia, and in the Donbass, Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists have been caught up in seemingly endless trench warfare. So you may well wonder why, in the midst of this turmoil, did the Volkswagen Foundation launch a funding offer at the end of 2014 that makes the seemingly impossible its programmatic core: for under the call titled 'Trilateral Partnerships', Ukrainian and Russian researchers can only submit proposals if they intend to work together with German partners on a joint project.

A gamble with unpredictable outcome

Mann im Gespräch
Dr. Matthias Nöllenburg, Program Director for the call "Trilateral Partnerships" as well as for the initiative "Between Europe and the Orient – A Focus on Research and Higher Education in/on Central Asia and the Caucasus" (Photography: Philip Bartz for Volkswagen Foundation)

How is such an undertaking supposed to work: In addition to the German partners, to force into cooperation two other partners whose countries are currently at war? "That was certainly a risk," says Dr. Matthias Nöllenburg, who has accompanied the 'Trilateral Partnerships' from the very beginning as its funding manager, "but willingness to take risks is one of the Foundation's key features." As an independent, non-governmental funding organization, the Volkswagen Foundation is able to assume the role of an impartial mediator, especially in conflict situations.

"We see the cross-border promotion of science as a building block for international understanding. Maintaining dialogue between the disciplines, even under adverse political conditions, is part of what we call 'science diplomacy'. Otherwise, neither confidence building nor rapprochement will have a chance." Nöllenburg knows that this is correct, for in addition to 'Trilateral Partnerships', he is also responsible for another program in a conflict-ridden region: The funding initiative 'Between Europe and the Orient – A Focus on Research and Higher Education in/on Central Asia and the Caucasus', which has been running since 2000.

Political interventions as a deterrent

The Foundation's Board of Trustees gave the go-ahead for 'Trilateral Partnerships' in November 2014 – and the political reaction was not long in coming: The Ukrainian Ministry of Education warned its researchers not to team up with their Russian counterparts under any circumstances; for this reason, the Volkswagen Foundation's funding offer should be strictly ignored. However, the enjoinder from Kiev triggered diplomatic consultations which ultimately led to a mitigation of the ban and resulted in the Foundation eventually receiving more than 200 project applications, far more than expected. Following evaluation, at the turn of the year 2015/16 a total of 37 research projects and two conferences were approved with funding in the amount of 8.8 million euros.

Participants of the Status Meeting in Radebeul (Photography: VolkswagenStiftung)

How does Matthias Nöllenburg explain the awesome response? 

"On the one hand, the call for proposals was open to all disciplines and topics, so it offered a starting point for researchers across the board. On the other hand, some teams already knew each other from many years of cooperation. A third of the partners in Germany were born in the Ukraine or Russia. These established consortia wanted to continue their promising work, despite all political resistance". The call did, however, also result in many completely new personnel constellations and research approaches. The subject distribution over the approved proposals was rather balanced: 21 of them were in the sciences, including mathematics and computer science, eight in the life sciences and ten in the humanities and social sciences.

Politics is one thing, science is another

And how did the cooperation work in practice? Nöllenburg visited several projects in Germany and the target region – and was impressed by the respectful and friendly way in which all participants dealt with each other. In particular, the status symposium held in Radebeul near Dresden in May 2019 with 170 funded participants was an indicator for the success of the cross-border approach of the funding initiative: "The discussions focused solely on technical issues, political convictions playing no role whatsoever."

Since travel between Ukraine and Russia is often difficult to organize, and the participants wanted to avoid unnecessarily compromising their partisan universities and academies, meetings were often arranged on neutral territory: in addition to Germany, in Belarus, Armenia, Slovakia and Poland. This, according to Nöllenburg, also helped to keep political arguments out of play.

In terms of measurable output, the groups have worked successfully. Nöllenburg confirms that each project resulted in eight publications, mostly in peer-reviewed journals. And that on average five doctoral students or postdocs were involved in each project, totaling 190 early career researchers and students in the three partner countries. 

What is the next step?

And yet, despite the successful result, there is still a sad downer. At the status symposium in Radebeul, the question naturally arose as to what should become of the trilateral partnerships when the funding expires? Unfortunately, it was clear to everyone that no other sponsor would be prepared to finance such Ukrainian-Russian cooperation.

Against this background and encouraged by a positive evaluation, the Board of Trustees decided in November 2019, five years after the first round of funding, to launch a second, final call for proposals. Only project groups that had already successfully worked together in a trilateral partnership were eligible to apply. "The Foundation wanted to give the successful teams the chance to come together once again and advance their research," says Matthias Nöllenburg. This time, the Foundation received 40 applications, with 17 projects receiving approximately five million euros in funding, and four additional projects currently still being reviewed.

The fighting in eastern Ukraine continues. But so are the trilateral partnerships. Matthias Nöllenburg expects the last German-Ukrainian-Russian research project to be completed by mid 2023, by which time he would like to see peace having returned to the region – and with it freedom of research and teaching across the borders.

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Background on the Call 'Trilateral Partnerships'

The "Trilateral Partnerships" funding offer (which has since ended) was first launched in early 2015 against the background of the current conflict between Ukraine, Russia and the EU. You can find all approved projects in the Project-Persons-Search.