Bloomberg News is reporting that the Biden administration is exploring the possibility of granting special visas to Russian scientists and engineers, with the aim of initiating or accelerating a “brain drain” from Russia of individuals critical to a modern economy and, not incidentally, modern warfare. Potential candidates for these visas would need credentials in such fields as artificial intelligence and computer security; historians and students of the Russian novel need not apply — though, speaking for myself, I get a better understanding of the Ukraine crisis by reflecting on Dostoyevsky than from reading The New York Times. Put these researchers and engineers to work in the U.S. for the benefit of the U.S. economy (and the Department of Defense) and deny the current Russian administration of the same. It’s a cunning idea, whether you like it or not, because of its asymmetric appeal: How many Americans, outside of Tucker Carlson, are likely to welcome a chance to emigrate to Russia?
Allow me to pause to interject: observation is not advocacy.
I have no idea how the game of geopolitics is played, especially against a backdrop of nuclear weaponry; it is like watching a chess game played by grandmasters, one of whom is bound to lose in the end. What has caught my attention is how the research community is being brought into this game. Research and researchers are now being weaponized as assuredly as digital networks and a chunk of uranium. This is not, as far as I can determine, how researchers like to think of themselves and their work. After all, what is the meaning of academic freedom when the academy is itself put to work for the benefit of an imperial power determined to hold sway over another imperial power?
It has already been observed, most eloquently by Lisa Hinchliffe and Roger Schonfeld on The Scholarly Kitchen, that the dream of a collaborative global order for academic research is being disrupted by the events in Ukraine. Fragmentation of the scholarly community is one thing, however; pitting empires against one another, and conscripting researchers, takes matters to a new level. On the other hand, one can argue, as we did in The Brief, that it was ever thus, that the notion of a global research community, like that of a global market, was a creature of a specific time and place, and things have moved on. If that is true, it may be a good time to think about the implications for various elements of this community. For example, what does cOAlition S look like when mapped against a world where biologists are smuggled out of Moscow and dropped down in Berkeley? In whose political interest is Open Access when world powers are attempting to deny rivals of the human capital that makes innovative research possible?
I detect a certain insidious aspect to the administration’s proposal, namely, the policy will have an impact even if it is not formally adopted. The Russian government will have read Bloomberg News and knows that emigration is being discussed to humiliate the Russian leadership, and to the extent that Russian researchers themselves learn about this, they may pause to reflect on where their loyalties lie. In other words, the proposal, even if it is not adopted, plants civil discord. What is being weaponized is not only the research community but also immigration policy and aspirations.
Bloomberg broke this story just as I was finishing up Tom Wolfe’s classic The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test, which poses the question: Are you on the bus or off the bus? That is a choice that most of us would rather not have to make, but there it is. I suspect we will be pondering that question for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, having recently reread Crime and Punishment, it’s time to move on to The Brothers Karamazov.