Blog: How many scientists left Russia due to war?

(Russian version above)

With the onset of the war, the main question for studies of Russian science became the scale of the damage caused to it by the massive exodus of scientists, sanctions, and the severing of scientific ties with colleagues abroad. Some of these assessments are based on counting the results of scientific activity – usually journal articles. Others try to capture the scale of academic migration. A recent study, which compared the websites of ten leading Russian universities as of February 24, 2022, and in the summer of 2023, is currently the most significant step in this latter direction. It identified 8.6 thousand people who had stopped working at these institutions over the past one and a half years. The mere fact of ceasing employment, however, is not very informative: scientists sometimes get a new position, retire, and unfortunately, pass away. Investigators tackled this challenge by trying to trace their subsequent fate through Google and social networks. However, since collecting information on the movements of eight and a half thousand people manually is almost impossible, they limited themselves to 2.300 individuals occupying positions of researchers and found 270 who had moved abroad; as far as can be understood from their text, about half of these 270 people publicly declared their anti-war stance. Few will be surprised to hear that National Research University “Higher School of Economic” – or simply the HSE – suffered the greatest losses (160 researchers). Apart from having reputation of a liberal (at least in the past) university, it is also predominantly a social science institution, and social scientists are well-known for their propensity to attract political troubles. Thus, HSE can potentially provide us with an upper limit estimate of losses of Russian academia – other schools would likely have suffered less.

However, 160 people is a modest number if we consider that in HSE alone, as of October 2022, 2800 teachers and researchers worked (excluding external part-time workers, interns, and many others). Other estimates of the losses of HSE are much higher – for instance, in a recent post, one of the university’s founding fathers, Andrey Yakovlev, citing an informed source, estimated the number of its teachers and researchers who left the country at 700 people.

I tried to conduct my own assessment of HSE’s losses, using data about one category of employees – those receiving bonuses for publications in international journals. Calling things by their right names, bonuses – along with teaching loads very low compared to other Russian universities – were the major tool of HSE’s global expansion. In 2010, special bonuses for publications in foreign scientific journals were introduced for the first time, amounting to 60,000 rubles per month over two years for a single article in any foreign-language journal indexed by Scopus citation database – totaling 1,440,000 rubles. It should be recalled that in 2010-2011, the dollar was worth about 30 rubles, and the average monthly salary in Moscow – the richest Russian metropolis – was 44,890 rubles. The results can be easily traced in the lists of publication bonus recipients available on the HSE Research Fund page. If in 2010 there were only 12 people benefited from the HSE’s generosity, in the last pre-war year, 2021, there were already 885 individuals receiving bonuses for publications in international journals (a bit reduced in size but still very attractive) – more than 30% of the faculty. HSE itself also grew in size, buying out most Russian social scientists who produced foreign-language articles on a more or less regular basis. In this way, it became the most prominent center for the production of social science knowledge in Russia in the eyes of the outside world, occupying the most prominent place in QS and other global university rankings in social sciences. Within the country, its dominance was absolute. Thus, in a survey of sociologists, it was most often mentioned as the institution they would recommend to interested applicants, and it employed a good half of sociological celebrities, which publishing sociologists named during reputation surveys. Its successes in other social science disciplines were comparable. Perhaps in no country with hundreds of universities did one university enjoy full dominance in so many fields. Moreover, starting with economics, HSE branched out into the exact sciences, opening departments of physics, mathematics, and computer science, and in recent years began expanding into biology and fundamental medicine.

How did things turn out for researchers who were behind all these spectacular successes after February 24? I took the list of recipients of bonuses for international publications for 2021 and compared it with the data about the employees of the Moscow campus, downloaded from the HSE website. HSE is well known for the habit of removing data about employees from the website on the day they are fired, so we know exactly who is currently listed there and who is not. And out of the Moscow recipients of bonuses for 2021, two years later, on September 2, 2023, approximately three-quarters – 75.3% – were found on the site. Accordingly, 24.7% were absent (177 people). In themselves, such calculations tell us little: it’s unclear what proportion of these losses can be considered a natural turnover. Intuitively, it seems that a quarter of the core faculty over two years is a very high turnover for an academic institution, but its connection to the war still needs to be proven.

Some food for thought can be obtained, however, if we look at how many of those who received bonuses in earlier years we can find on the website today. To us an imaginary example, if 12% of employees leave the organization each year, then a year ago, 88% of the current staff worked there, two years ago – 77.4% (88% of 88%), three years ago – 68.1%, and so on. Consequently, in the list of those rewarded for each earlier year, fewer and fewer names of current employees will remain. By collecting data over a certain period, we can estimate the rate of personnel turnover.

This method of assessment has obvious limitations. It is based on the assumption that the probability of producing an article remains constant for each individual employee. Some events could have occurred which caused some employees to stop writing articles while others started to do so (for example, if the rules for awarding bonuses radically changed, and sociologists stopped receiving bonuses, but for physicists, they were doubled); as a result, the composition of awarded authors changed, although all of them continued working for the organization. However, all the events of this kind that come to mind seem quite exotic and, as far as is known, none of them did occur at HSE before 2022.

Relying on this, admittedly approximate, method of assessment, we can find that currently on the website there are 65.2% of all those awarded in 2019, 72.6% awarded in 2017, 63.4% awarded in 2015, and 67.9% awarded in 2013. It’s clear that there are some random fluctuations – which is to be expected, given that each year awards are given to a different set of people because some had their articles published that year while others did not – but overall we see that the logic holds: the further back in time, the fewer current staff are on the list.

Up until the last two years, the staff turnover was remarkably low; in fact, we observed an outflow of less than 1% of employees per year. This is not surprising provided that there weren’t better offers available in Russia. The graph shows that by the fall of 2023, the extrapolated line would have reached 73.7%. This means that something has occurred in the last two years that caused to the departure of an additional 26.3% of the publishing staff, compared to what would have been expected based on previous trends (if nothing had changed, the line would have hit the 100% mark). This figure can be interpreted as HSE’s losses in global visibility after the start of the war.

A quarter of the core faculty is by no means a small number, but it doesn’t match the perception of a total exodus. The losses, of course, are distributed extremely unevenly; there are programs that lost 60% of their instructors in a year and a half, but there are also those that suffered minimally. And if HSE indeed suffered more than others – which could be expected based on its reputation as a liberal institution – then the outflow at the level of Russian science as a whole should have been even less significant.

There are caveats to be made, though. Opening the pages of staff who received bonuses in 2021 and are still listed on the website today, one can find that not all of them are actually teaching. This is an ominous sign. There is currently an unofficially ban on in Russia on teaching by individuals not physically present in Russia. At the same time, in HSE, publication bonuses have traditionally been awarded only to teaching staff, which is why most of paper-producing researchers have always sought to obtain a teaching load. Naturally, those who are listed on Web-site but not teaching might be on extended academic, parental or medical leave, but the majority are probably those who are outside of Russia, but want to retain their job in the hope that life there will against all odds get back to normal. In this sense, the real losses are probably somewhat higher – likely no less than 30% of internationally visible staff.

There are other considerations. As a concluding note, I looked at the distribution of those who disappeared from the website by discipline (using data on bonuses awarded from 2020, which is broken down by specialties; the graph shows disciplines represented by at least 30 bonus recipients; the rest are grouped into categories “other social sciences and humanities” and “other natural sciences”). Surprisingly – and counter to what was said before – social scientists were not the ones suffering the heaviest losses.

In fact, political science and sociology – which seem to have the most reason to expect repression – belong to the less affected disciplines, while biology and medical sciences, which are unlikely to face immediate threats, are among the most affected. This prompts us to view the decision on academic emigration from Russia from a new perspective. Apart from political risks or emotional reaction to policies of the Russian state, the decision to leave may be influenced by more pragmatic considerations. These considerations could include, for instance, the loss of opportunities for scientific work due to the unavailability of equipment and reagents, as well as assessments of one’s chances to secure an attractive position in a foreign university. This explains why there might be more representatives of natural sciences, traditionally strong in Russia, among academic migrants.

In this sense, seeing the departure of some of HSE faculty as an exodus of liberals may be only partially correct. To the same extent, it could be an exodus of pragmatics concerned with the possibilities of continuing their careers. It’s quite possible that biologists and IT specialists working at HSE were attracted by the university’s liberal reputation and differed in terms of political leanings from their average Russian colleagues (although there’s no conclusive evidence of this). However, the crucial factor in their decision to leave could be considerations that probably came to the minds of their conservative colleagues as well – at least to the extent that they related themselves to global science. In this sense, a greater scale of departure from HSE (if it is observed not just because they more regularly remove pages of former employees from the website) might be related to a higher concentration of leading scientists, not the oppositional stance of its faculty. Other strong scientific centers, not noted for any liberalism, might experience something similar. However, the brain drain from them might be more drawn out over time. Unlike those driven by the shock after the onset of the war, pragmatics will make decisions to leave as problems with continuing work accumulate – and as their job search abroad yields results. The story of academic exodus from Russia seems far from over.


Mikhail Sokolov (University of Wisconsin-Madison)