Boycotting our colleagues from Russia: An atmosphere of fear in German academia?

[Normally this blog is reserved for strictly scientific issues. This post is an exception, about a situation when politics gets in the way of science.]

Over the last few months, several international conferences in Germany announced that they were forced to boycott participants from Russia because of a requirement imposed by their funders, the DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Germany’s main funding agency for academic research).

There was very little protest against these boycotts, and I am wondering whether this is because of indifference or because of fear. Over the last couple of years, more and more conferences have had an explicit code of conduct, with phrases such as the following (from the website of one of the conferences):

„We are committed to making our conference productive and enjoyable for everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, nationality or religion.“

The conference organizers were thus forced to violate their own code of conduct, but why did they do this? Why didn’t they protest against the DFG’s decision to withdraw funding unless they exclude participants from one particular country? After all, the DFG’s practice is itself in clear violation of its own diversity statement:

„The DFG believes that no one should be disadvantaged in their career on the basis of academically irrelevant factors such as gender, origin, age or state of health.“

It seems hard to believe that those responsible for these decisions are simply indifferent to the situation in which our Russian colleagues find themselves in. Everyone knows that among Russian academics, the shock about the 2022 attack on Ukraine is just as big as in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. And everyone knows that it is unfair to punish individual Russians for the actions of an undemocratic government that they are not responsible for.

Germany’s government has not imposed any sanctions or other restrictions on scientific cooperations, and Russian citizens can apply for a Schengen visa as before. Some of them have been participating at conferences in the EU not funded by the DFG (though this has become very difficult for them, as travel has become very expensive and complicated due to the restrictions on air travel). So why does the DFG impose such a ban? The DFG was established as an independent organization that does not have to follow the government’s orders. It elects its own officers and would be able to resist government interference. Unlike in Russia and many other countries, science in Germany is free, and this freedom is enshrined in our constitution. This is what allows me to write this critical blogpost, without fear of reprisals from the government or my superiors.

So why is the DFG imposing the ban on our Russian colleagues, and why are conference organizers going along with it, instead of protesting? (They could have raised the participation fee, for example – thus asking the conference participants to pay a price for independence from the DFG and its unprincipled decisions.) I suspect that the explanation is the atmosphere of fear that has arisen in the current political situation. Our society is afraid of Russian dictatorship, of the war escalating and maybe spreading further west, and of fringe dissident views possibly endangering our enormous efforts to beat Russia and somehow restore the previous situation. But fear is not a good advisor, and in our democratic societies, it is our principles that should guide our behaviour, not our fear. And our principles do not allow us to discriminate against individuals (as our codes of conduct correctly emphasize).

When Germany’s government decided to suspend joint science projects with Russia in March 2022, the statement of the BMBF (federal science ministry) actually made it clear that the suspension of activities was limited to bilateral projects and should not affect individual Russian scientists in Germany:

“The BMBF sees scientists and students as part of civil society. Russian and Belarusian scientists and students working in Germany must not be discriminated against, stigmatized or isolated. Freedom of science, teaching and research are indispensable components of independent democracies. Therefore, the BMBF stands by those who stand up for peace and these values.” (2022 March 30)

Thus, the DFG is apparently going far beyond what the government asked German scientists to do, violating its own principles, perhaps out of fear of getting less government funding in the future. (I tried to find out who took this decision within the DFG but was unsuccessful. There does not seem to be any public document about it, so it may be an ad hoc decision by some officials that would not have the backing of the DFG leadership.)

One can understand our Russian colleagues if they are afraid of reprisals when protesting against the war, because the punishment for criticizing the government publicly can be quite severe. But still, thousands of Russian academics signed letters of protest against the war, so couldn’t we be at least somewhat courageous, taking our Russian colleagues as our model?

Some people have suggested that Russian participants could take part in DFG-sponsored conferences without indicating their affiliations, adopting a practice that is well-known from international sports events. However, what I heard from the DFG is that the decisive criterion should be employment by a Russian government-funded institution. This cannot be implemented in practice, of course, because conference organizers cannot be expected to know who employs or funds their participants. They cannot even be expected to check their “affiliations”, as “affiliation” is a very soft criterion anyway – it is quite normal for unemployed colleagues to give their last employer as affiliation, and nobody objects to this.

Thus, the DFG’s requirements are not only against the spirit of freedom in academia, but they are also impossible to implement in practice. If there were no atmosphere of fear surrounding the whole situation, there would probably have been protests against the DFG. But in the current situation, where nobody wants to harm our war efforts against Putin’s dictatorship (for understandable reasons), there is no protest. To be on the safe side, German academia appears to be sacrificing some of its most basic principles.

Cite this blog post
Martin Haspelmath (2023, August 14). Boycotting our colleagues from Russia: An atmosphere of fear in German academia? Diversity Linguistics Comment. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from

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