Hungarian government to take over research institutes of the Academy of Sciences

04 Jun 2019 | News

The government plans to establish a new body - under its control - to manage the research institutes of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, after negotiations over future status come to a halt

Protesters in Budapest rallied against a law that would see the government take over the research institutes of the Academy of Sciences on 1 August. Photo: Tamás Szigeti, Hungarian Academy of Sciences

Hungarian minister for innovation and technology László Palkovics has drafted a law that would see the government take over the research institutes of the Academy of Sciences on 1 August. The law would force the academy to transfer its research institutes to the oversight of a new institution, the Eötvös Loránd Research Network.

The network, named after the famous Hungarian physicist, will be under the direct control of the innovation and technology ministry, with its chair appointed by the prime minister.

The academy says the new appointment procedure does not provide parity with the government and urged the minister to withdraw the amendments, saying they, “essentially provide full government – political - control over the research network.”

In a letter to protesters who gathered in Budapest on Sunday to demand the government back down, academy president László Lovász said the amendments raise concerns for researchers across all disciplines.  “It is a matter of concern for researchers from different disciplines, at different stages of their career, with different world views and hobbies, to raise their voices alongside the freedom of science, and how united they are to keep the MTA's [Magyar Tudományos Akadémia] research network at the Academy,” said Lovász.

In addition to the new governance structure, the government expects the Eötvös Loránd Research Network to operate in buildings currently owned by the academy, for an indefinite period without compensation and without a contract.

According to the academy, by taking over its assets, the government is limiting its property rights. “We believe this is a violation of basic property rights and is in effect the nationalisation of these assets without any compensation,” a spokesman for the academy told Science|Business.

The draft law is already known to academic circles in Budapest, but the government has not made it public yet. Rumours of the draft started circulating in Budapest on 27 May, the day Fidesz’s landslide victory in the European elections was announced.

The ruling party Fidesz won 52 per cent of votes in the elections, just a year after another landslide win in national elections, when it secured a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian Parliament. Researchers say these victories emboldened prime minister Viktor Orbán and his government to press forward with changes at the academy, despite forceful opposition from academics and civil society.

The amendments ignore previous negotiations and a memorandum of understanding signed by Palkovics and Lovász.

Following the signing of the memorandum, the general assembly of the academy voted to keep all research institutes under its umbrella, but under a new governing board that would “delegate substantially more power” to the government. In exchange, the academy demanded that the basic funding of the institutes be ring-fenced from control by the ministry for research and innovation.

Roza Vajda, junior research fellow at the Department for Methodology and History of Research in the academy says the amendments proposed by the government are “far worse than anything so far and completely neglects previous negotiations with the academy.”

The academy will not only lose its material assets, but also “the autonomy, independence of research, the cohesion of the network of institutions, financing and thus practicability of fundamental research will be all gone,” said Vajda.

Some researchers fear one of the main reasons the government is trying to gain more control is to stifle independent research in the social sciences. The social sciences and humanities investigate issues which are on the political agenda of the government, such as migration and the economy.

If the academy loses its autonomy, its best researchers might be tempted to leave the country, said Zsolt Boda, research chair at the academy’s Institute for Political Science.  “Uncertainty and the prospect of political intervention in the future, is discouraging researchers,” Boda said. “It’s a tragic thing.”

The academy and the government have been in conflict for over a year now. In 2018, the government introduced an amendment in the 2019 budget which 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 force the academy to surrender the research institutes to the control of the government and limit their freedom to study topics that clash with the government’s nationalist agenda.  

Cover story

The government claims the new amendments will help the Hungarian research and innovation system have more economic impact, by focusing more on applied research and innovation. It also claims that the academy is not transparent, and the government does not know if the academy is spending its budget efficiently. However, government representatives are part of the council that currently oversees the academy’s research institutes. Palkovics himself is also a member of the academy.

Andras Báldi, a researcher at the academy’s Centre for Ecological Research says a large part of the academy’s institutes funds comes from national research calls but also from contracts with private companies. “If the government wants more applied research, they should devise such calls,” said Báldi.

Researchers also decry the lack of transparency from the government. During the negotiations, the government “never proposed a new system,” said Báldi.

In the negotiations between the academy and the government, researchers were open to the establishment of new bodies for technology transfer or an innovation council. The academy has worked on several proposals for the establishment of such bodies that would enhance collaboration between academic research and industry. But researchers say the government has ignored the proposals and simply want to control the institutes. “It’s just about power, the Russian way,” said Boda. “Innovation is just a cover story.”

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