14 Mar 2019   |   News

Hungarian Academy of Sciences signs deal with government on joint oversight of research institutes

The academy’s network of research institutes will be placed under a new governing body made up of scientists proposed by both the academy and the government

László Lovász, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Photo: mta.hu/Tamás Szigeti

Academics have given a guarded welcome to a deal signed by the president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences László Lovász and research minister László Palkovics, which will see all the academy’s research institutes placed under a new governing body to be chaired by an appointee of the prime minister.

In the coming weeks, Lovász and Palkovics will hash out the details of the deal which will be put to a vote in the academy’s general assembly.

For now, the agreement drawn up following a round of negotiations announced by Lovász last month, safeguards academic freedom and the budget, but researchers fear they are still not entirely safe from further political interference.  

András Báldi, a researcher at the academy’s Centre for Ecological Research is optimistic that the deal could be an opportunity for building “a normal, even better governing system” for the academy’s research institutes. However, he fears the government will eventually gain full control over the research network. “The [memorandum] is better than expected, and actually acceptable, but the future horizon is rather black,” Báldi said.

“The unity of the network of academic institutions cannot be guaranteed in the long run once [the ministry] has the authority to make any changes in the structure,” said Róza Vajda, junior research fellow at the department for methodology and history of research in the academy.

Vajda believes the government was trying to sow discord among research institutes, but the memorandum demonstrates the institutes understand how important it is to hold a common front. By themselves, the institutes “would be highly vulnerable,” said Vajda.

The memorandum says the network of research institutes will remain the same but they will be moved from under the leadership of Lovász, to a new governing body made up of scientists nominated by the academy and the government on an equal basis. The chair of the new body will be appointed by the prime minister, based on a consensus proposal by the president of the academy and the research minister.

Until the new management system is put in place, the academy expects the government to guarantee the funding of its research institutes as initially budgeted for 2019. Also, the academy wants to keep ownership of its assets, including buildings and research infrastructure worth an estimated €1 billion.

The agreement is seen as a first official step towards settling a dispute triggered last year, when an amendment introduced by Palkovics to the 2019 budget took 40 per cent of the academy’s budget and put it under the government’s direct control. Researchers saw that as an attempt to limit their freedom to study topics that clash with the government’s nationalist agenda.

However, the agreement does not bring peace of mind about job security, Vajda said. “I do not think anyone has any reason to feel safe. After all, keeping the sanity of our mind is more important than consoling ourselves with small gains and entertaining futile hopes.”

Waning trust

While on the face of it, academy researchers see nothing to worry about in the new governance structure, much hangs on how it operates in practice. For Báldi it needs to work, “as a scientists-led body, like the Max Planck senate.” The senate is the main decision making body of the Max Planck Society, Germany’s most successful research network.

The new leadership structure could eliminate current frictions between directors of institutes and members of the learned society arm of the academy, Báldi believes. “It can be better than the recent situation, when any non-competent academician can criticise the directors [of research institutes], simply because they are member of the academy,” he said.   

However, after previous attacks on academic freedom, there are doubts among researchers that the government will hold to its part of the agreement. “It is very unfortunate that the credibility and reputation of ITM [Ministry of Innovation and Technology] is around absolute zero, 0 degrees Kelvin,” Báldi said.

Last year, an article published by Hungarian pro-government magazine Figyelo, entitled “Immigration, homosexual rights and gender science – these topics occupy the researchers of the academy”, claimed the research topics of the Centre for Social Sciences of the academy are politically suspicious and that the government should have a greater insight into the academy’s work.

“The right wing media published many dirty and fake news about the academy, destroying a lot of its reputation,” said Báldi.

Innovation as an excuse

The academy’s social sciences institutes “are obviously the number one target of the attack,” said Vajda. In a list published at an earlier stage of the row between the government and the academy, naming institutes that would be integrated into other entities, the Centre for Economic and Regional Studies “was specifically mentioned as one that would be closed down,” Vajda said.

The government recently organised consultations with regional stakeholders as part of broader plans to overhaul its research and innovation system, under which it will set up two separate funding streams, one for research and another for innovation. The aim is to help Hungarian companies innovate, encourage universities and research institutes to strengthen ties with industry, and to raise income by providing innovation services.

The reform also aims to boost private research, innovation and knowledge transfer, and encourage SMEs to focus more on R&D.

Favouring research with more immediate impact is seen by humanities researchers as an attempt to muzzle social sciences. “[It] looks like an excuse to finish research activities that may be critical of the government and suppress autonomous, reflective thinking,” said Vajda.

The European Union is in the thick of negotiations for its next budgetary cycle, which could see funds cut from infrastructure projects and allocated to research and innovation.

Hungary has been one of the main recipients of EU funding for roads and other infrastructure projects. Báldi argues the government is now trying to adapt to the new spending strategies in Brussels and get its research strategy in line with EU priorities. “This is probably one aim of the government, to have a successful institution network with competitive strength at the EU level, but under their control,” Báldi said.

Báldi is worried the government will try to take over the new body governing the academy’s institutes. “I am afraid that sooner or later they will take over the full control of the governing [body] to have a ruling voice on EU R&I incomes in Hungary. Negotiations, however, between the ministry and the researchers' community is still going on.

Editor's note: This article has been updated March 20 to clarify that the agreement signed by the president of the academy and the minister for innovation and technology will be put to a vote in the academy’s general assembly.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up