Hungary’s Constitutional Court clears state-linked research network of impeding scientific freedom

30 Nov 2022 | News

While the government-mandated transfer of research institutes was found not to infringe scientific freedom, it did breach the property rights of the Academy of Sciences. For researchers, that is hampering the day-to-day operation of the institutes

Hungary’s Constitutional Court (Alkotmánybíróság) has ruled that the 2019 transfer of many of the country’s main research institutes from the Academy of Sciences to a new network part-controlled by the government is not an infringement on scientific freedom, but it did acknowledge issues with the legislation over ownership of the institutes’ real estate. 

The formation of the Eötvös Loránd Research Network (ELKH) three years ago, with the goal of increasing the efficiency and operating performance of the network, was controversial. The Hungarian Academy of Sciences (Magyar Tudományos Akadémia; MTA) almost immediately launched a challenge against the law, while outside bodies, such as the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities, warned against its threat to scientific freedom

A group of opposition MPs made up of more than a quarter of the members of the National Assembly also launched a challenge against the establishment of ELKH, whose 12-person governing board is made up of representatives nominated equally by MTA and the government. 

After lengthy deliberation and an investigation into the workings of the network, on 15 November the Constitutional Court rejected any suggestion that the new network infringed scientific freedom in any way that is contrary to Hungary’s constitution, as set down in the Fundamental Law. It is worth pointing out that protection of the scientific freedom of the MTA is specifically written into Hungary’s constitution.

What the court did find, though, was that the legislation written in 2019 to enable the transfer of the network to the ELKH did not adequately define what it would mean for property rights. The MTA technically remains owner of most of the buildings housing the research institutes, but the ELKH now has use of them, since it oversees research. This makes selling, letting, renovating, or expanding the buildings extremely complicated, and limits the MTA’s scope in using the properties as financial assets. 

From MTA’s point of view, it is as if the buildings have been nationalised, which usually means it should be compensated. The court did not take that stance, but rather asked Hungary’s parliament to better specify the property usage rights, such as defining the timeframe of the use of the properties. It gave a deadline of 30 June 2023 for these changes to be made.

It may seem irrelevant to the issue of scientific freedom, but this contentious point has framed the research landscape in Hungary since the creation of ELKH: the research institutes, the Academy of Sciences and the ELKH are all in a sense stepping on each other's toes to get stuff done. 

Gergely Bőhm, head of the president's office at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, told Science|Business that the creation of the ELKH has made the day-to-day practicalities of research institutes in Hungary more complicated. 

“The issue of property rights creates an inherent conflict of interest,” he said. “Even with the best intentions - which I think the Academy and the research network has - it remains,” Bőhm said. “The research network wants to use as much of this property as much as possible free of charge, while the Academy, the owner, is interested in offering only the necessary parts for research and using all the rest to generate income, to then spend on research.”

Bőhm said the Academy has been trying to resolve this issue for several years but is not necessarily optimistic the court’s ruling will help, even if it adds more substance to the Academy’s arguments. 

In terms of how the situation could be resolved, it could be anything from the government completely nationalising the buildings and paying the Academy, to the former research network under the Academy being fully restored, and everything in between, Bőhm said. 

No real change

The creation of the ELKH has not impacted research itself, Bőhm said. He is not aware of any researchers being fired for their views, any research themes being made off limits, any institutes being closed down or the government trying to impose its views on scientists. In fact, the network’s budget has more than doubled. 

But Bőhm said he also had not seen any real positive changes, with the exception of the increased budget, which he said could have been brought in with the Academy still in charge anyway. 

He said things were largely the same, but with an added layer of complication over who is in charge.

The Hungarian government did not respond to Science|Business’ request for comments on the court verdict, but ELKH did provide a statement in which it said it accepts the decision of the Constitutional Court. 

“As we have done in the past, we will continue to carry out our duties in accordance with the relevant legislation in force,” said Gabriella Verbovszky, senior external relations specialist at the ELKH. 

Péter Hack, a professor of law at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary (which despite the name is not connected to the research network), said he thinks the court’s decision was “an easy way out” of a tricky question. 

“The judges found a middle way, saying something that is not nice for the government but not really bad,” he said. 

He acknowledged that when the government backed the creation of the ELKH, it had concerns about how decisions were made by the MTA. 

“There was not necessarily competitiveness within the Academy and a lot was based on friendly relationships. If the network creates more transparency and fair competition for those applying for money, then I think it has value,” he said. 

But that is not the whole picture. Hack also warned that the creation of the network essentially opened up the possibility of the government influencing research institutes. While that has not happened yet, as far as anyone knows, it is not impossible. 

Another element to consider is the impartiality of the Hungarian Constitutional Court. The country’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has been criticised by outside bodies such as Amnesty International for the government’s sway over the judiciary, a comment Hack did not disagree with. 

“Right now, none of the Constitutional Court judges had support from opposition politicians. The independence of the court is a legitimate criticism, the judges are highly qualified but close to the government,” he said. 

But, Hack said, the fight over the property rights between the ELKH and the MTA might not be high on the government’s priority list at the moment. 

“Recently the government has started to listen to international and national criticism in terms of anti-corruption and the independence of the judiciary […] It would be reasonable if the government tries to avoid new debates,” said Hack. 

Bigger issues at hand

At the research institute level, the “double ownership” of the property that the creation of the ELKH has caused does make life more complicated, said Dezső Miklós, deputy director of the Renyi Institute for Mathematics. 

While the Renyi Institute is not majorly impacted, Miklós hopes that the situation will be made easier. He said there are other concerns, such as rising energy costs that could cause certain research institutes in Hungary to struggle this coming winter. 

Miklós was not surprised at the Constitutional Court’s verdict that there was no infringement of scientific freedom, something that is not at issue for the Renyi Institute. In terms of the property rights dispute, he does not imagine much changing beyond the parliament making the necessary changes to rectify the legislation. 

But Miklós has broader questions about the ELKH. For one, he said he would like to see representatives of the individual research institutes on the governing board. He is also waiting to see if the government’s new minister of culture and innovation, heading a new ministry created only this year, will bring in any major change of direction at the ELKH. 

“Better for us if not,” Miklós said, calling for stability. 

Ultimately, the ELKH is most likely there to stay. Miklós regrets that research institutes are now tied to the government, saying one advantage of the Academy having control over them was the independence that meant continuity over hundreds of years, free from government changes. 

“What we hope for is the property situation will be simplified but we don’t see how,” Miklós said, summing up the feeling in Hungary that the dance between the research network, institutes and Academy of Sciences is set to continue despite the court’s verdict.

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