Academy battles Orbán move to take control of science

The Hungarian Academy of Sciences has urged members of parliament and everyone who is concerned about the freedom of science to back them in opposing government proposals to strip the society of its research institutions and hand them to a new body whose members would be appointed by the prime minister.

The Hungarian prime minister, right-wing populist Viktor Orbán, said Hungary is among the weaker performers in international innovation rankings and that its research needs to be improved to strengthen its ability to obtain significant scientific and innovation funds.

But the Academy has warned that if the proposals, which were submitted to parliament on 4 June, are passed in their present form, “the freedom of scientific research will be violated and basic scientific values crucial for the country may be lost”.

President of the Academy László Lovász, in a press conference on 12 June, said the proposals breach European principles of research funding and threaten academic freedom.

The European Commission has urged the Hungarian authorities “to refrain from any decision restricting scientific and academic freedom”.

However, in a statement on 13 June, the Ministry for Innovation and Technology, defending the legislative amendment bill, said: “More Hungarian patents and inventions are required. The current system is not efficient. Hungary is being left behind, and for this reason both the institutional system and financing must be reinforced.”

It said in the 2020 budget it is increasing funding for research, development and innovation by HUF32 billion (US$112 million) and is creating the conditions for the “uniform and performance-based distribution of resources”.

‘Impose political and ideological goals’

Scientists fear the funding system being pushed forward by the Ministry for Innovation and Technology will impose political and ideological goals on their work and weaken financial and professional security.

They are also concerned in particular for the future of institutions focused on humanities and social sciences.

Lovász said: “Government control will not increase the innovation capacity of the country. There is also a concern that an unbalanced role for government priorities and control in science may soon become an alarming example that could be followed by other governments in the EU.”

Many people see the government’s proposals as part of a wider government attempt to curb freedom of expression and academic freedom, which has forced the Central European University (CEU) to move some of its operations to Vienna.

On 2 June thousands of demonstrators joined street protests outside the Academy in central Budapest against the government proposals, according to estimates.

In a statement on 5 June, CEU backed the Academy, calling on decision-makers to recognise that “the country can be competitive only if academic research is free”.

‘New’ network

At the press conference on 12 June Lovász explained that under the proposals the ‘new’ research network, Eötvös Loránd Research Network, would be controlled by a governing board comprising six delegates from the Ministry of Innovation and Technology and six from the Academy and a jointly selected president, but all members would be appointed by the prime minister.

This network would use all the existing properties of the Academy, part of its central administration and its successful grants and fellowships for its operations.

“State support will be maintained, but with no guarantees for basic operation costs for staff and tenured researchers, etc, previously guaranteed by the Academy law,” he said.

Lovász said the Academy had been successful in running its research network as “proven unwaveringly by the fact that based on output/resources it ranks among Europe’s finest”.

The government, in contrast, has not presented “any strategy that could justify the separation” and the often-mentioned low innovation performance “will not be improved by putting a successful basic research network under government control”, Lovász said.

Moreover, the new network would be increasingly reliant on project-based funding available for government priorities, which would make it harder to cover permanent and long-term contracts for staff.

“Long-term research agendas, blue sky research and any research beyond government priorities will be increasingly difficult to follow.”

The situation had already led to “some of the most excellent researchers” leaving the country and there is a hidden problem of other scientists “hesitating to return or move to Hungary because of the current situation”, he warned.

‘Increase in autonomy’

The ministry argues, however, that the changes will lead to an increase in the autonomy of the research institute system in view of the fact that they will be supervised directly by parliament and not by a public body made up of elected members.

And it says it expects the ratio of successful domestic and EU tenders submitted by researchers and research institutes to increase as a result of the changes.

In February thousands of people protested by forming a chain around the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ headquarters.