APS News | Opinion

What Can U.S. Scientists Do to Help Their Ukrainian Peers?

Raymond Orbach shares his experience getting funding to physicists in Ukraine.

Published Feb 16, 2023
A flag flies above Peremohy Park in Brovary, an eastern suburb of Kyiv, Ukraine, before the war.
Credit: Maksym Diachenko / Wirestock

On Feb. 24, 2022 — around one year ago — Russia launched a brutal attack on Ukraine, invading cities and towns and destroying lives and livelihoods. The Ukrainian people remain fiercely strong, even as missile attacks still lay waste to homes, shops, and schools.

There is another victim of Russia’s atrocity: science. For decades, Ukraine was a bastion of research, which thrived in cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv and attracted international collaboration. In the 1980s, I myself worked with a brilliant Ukrainian physicist, Igor Orestovich Kulik, of the Verkin Institute for Low Temperature Physics and Engineering in Kharkiv (he passed away in 2019).

But from the war’s beginning, Russia was undiscerning in its assault, bombing universities and research institutions and killing scientists and other civilians. By mid-April, the war had displaced millions, including one-sixth of Ukraine’s scientists — some 15,000, according to Vaughan Turekian, executive director for policy and global affairs at the U.S. National Academies of Sciences.

Remarkably, though, research in Ukraine continues — a testament to the strength of its scientists. Just as military aid from the United States and European Union has helped blunt Russia’s assault, so foreign support has helped Ukrainian scientists persist. The American Physical Society, for its part, has programs and funding to assist scientists and students in Ukraine.

We working physicists can add to these efforts, as I learned firsthand last year. On April 4, 2022, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science published a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter that said scientists could request funding “to enhance ongoing research efforts by supporting students and scientists at U.S. institutions or by supporting remote collaborations for students and scientists already located at European institutions.”

One supplementary note added, “Supplements may be requested to place personnel in currently funded research groups, or to support sub awards to new institutions, including European institutions, that complement currently funded research groups” (italics mine).

In other words, through the DOE, U.S. scientists with existing DOE funding could directly fund their Ukrainian peers. I marvel, even now, at such a timely and effective commitment by a U.S. agency to protect scientists whose lives and work risk being torn apart by this war.

Rubble of the V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University after Russian attacks.
Credit: National Research Foundation of Ukraine

To utilize the program, I first had to find a scientist whose research areas overlapped with mine. Working through multiple contacts, I found a perfect fit: Dr. Maxym Dudka, a physicist at the Institute for Condensed Matter Physics in Lviv, western Ukraine’s largest city. Russian attacks have not reached his research institute, though Russian forces have bombed Lviv.

Dr. Dudka studies the critical properties of 3D magnets with random anisotropy, finding critical exponents and universal dimensionless ratios — a perfect complement to my work on spin glasses near their condensation temperature, for which I have DOE funding.

I reached out to him, and over the course of a few weeks in May 2022, we drafted a proposal for a grant that would supplement my existing DOE-funded research. True to the DOE’s letter, the proposal was reviewed quickly, and funding arrived at my university, the University of Texas-Austin, in late September 2022.

But funding in Austin would not help Dr. Dudka. The next step was getting the funds to Ukraine.

Generally, grants from the federal government are administered through the institutions that receive them, like universities and laboratories, which must follow the government’s grant terms. UT-Austin, then, was responsible for administering the supplement so that funds could flow to Dr. Dudka and his institute.

Normally, this is handled through a subcontract in my own grant. This subcontract would funnel money to the subcontractor — in this case, Dr. Dudka’s institution. But what I didn’t know then is that, at most universities, these transactions require the receiving institutions to register with SAM.gov, a secure federal platform.

At that time, Dr. Dudka’s institute had not registered. We needed to find another route.

Fortunately, we found CRDF Global, a nonprofit authorized by Congress in 1992 that supports international scientific collaboration through grants, training, and technical resources. The organization has offices in Ukraine, which have operated continuously through the war, and SAM.gov credentials. It has become a financial go-between for U.S. universities and Ukrainian institutions — including for precisely the transaction that UT-Austin needed for Dr. Dudka.

With CRDF Global’s help, the plan worked. The funds will support Dr. Dukda's and his graduate student’s salaries, as well as related equipment, travel, and research, and the Institute’s overhead expenses.

Many Ukrainian institutions are now registered with SAM.gov, meaning that direct subcontracts may be a viable path; CRDF Global is, of course, another option.

To utilize these grant proposals via either route, though, you must have a scientific relationship with someone in Ukraine. In other words, you need to identify a Ukrainian scientist or group whose research interests fit into your existing grant objectives.

Luckily, there are resources that can help. The National Research Foundation of Ukraine (NRFU) maintains a public repository of opportunities. A scientist can send NRFU (nrfu@nrfu.org.ua) a one-paragraph statement of their research interests and contact information. NRFU will post the blurb on their website, and Ukrainian scientists with shared research interests can contact the blurb’s author. The duo, or their respective teams, can decide whether to pursue a joint supplemental grant.

To my knowledge, aside from the DOE, other federal agencies have not yet written ‘Dear Colleagues’ letters that invite this kind of joint grant work. That should not deter you from contacting these agencies to find out what might be possible.

As the DOE’s ‘Dear Colleague’ letter notes, these supplements aim to “protect the well-being and livelihood of students and scientists impacted by the war by maintaining strong connections to the worldwide scientific community.” Whether through DOE or other agencies, these grants can bolster the professional and scientific lives of our peers in Ukraine. I hope this article inspires others to use these funding opportunities.

In just over a year, Ukraine’s scientists and students have shouldered a lifetime’s worth of strife and struggle. Displaced, under attack, their rights and lives at risk, they remain fiercely dedicated to the pursuit of science.

In my view, it is our responsibility as research scientists to find ways to help — to assist those deprived of decent working conditions by an unjust and unprovoked war. As governments around the world rally to support Ukraine’s war efforts, so we scientists should rally to aid the work of our Ukrainian peers.

Raymond Orbach

Raymond Orbach is a theoretical and experimental physicist, a professor at the University of Texas-Austin in physics and mechanical engineering, and an APS Fellow.

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