04 Jul 2019   |   News

Parliament votes to give Hungarian government control over Academy of Sciences

New law will hand oversight of research institutes to a new agency headed by minister of innovation and technology. Researchers say that limits academic freedom; the government says it will modernise the system

Protesters in Budapest rallied against the law voted through on Tuesday. Photo: Tamás Szigeti

The Hungarian parliament passed a law on Tuesday forcing the Hungarian Academy of Sciences to transfer its research institutes to the oversight of a government-controlled body, the Eötvös Loránd Research Network, a new agency run directly by the government, through its minister for innovation and technology, László Palkovics.

The new governance body is also empowered to use the academy’s assets, including a part of its central administration system, and research projects and scholarships it has already won.

Academy researchers are unhappy with the change and have called for a different structure that gives less power to the government.

“The planned institutional and funding structure runs counter to the European principles of research funding and jeopardises scientific freedom,” the academy said in a statement.

The law, a draft of which was published last month, was proposed by Palkovics and voted in by 131 parliamentarians. Only 31 opposed it.

Researchers do not yet know what the implications are for the start of several international research projects. For example, the academy’s Renyi Institute for Mathematics recently won a European Research Council (ERC) synergy grant, which is due to start in December. Dezso Miklos, deputy director of the institute is unsure how the project will fit under the new structure. “We don’t know how ERC will react to this one,” he said.

The academy is to challenge the law in Hungary’s constitutional court, but there is little hope that a constitutional review would help its case. “We cannot do anything within the country,” said Miklos. Only stronger political signals from more powerful EU member states, but also from the EU itself, could help the academy keep its research institutes. “We are in the hands of big politics,” he said.

More funding for more research

The Hungarian government says the shakeup at the academy’s institutes is not a matter of limiting academic freedom, but rather lays the foundations of a new regulatory and financing framework for science and innovation policy, focused on applied research. In a statement published last month, the government said it “wants to see more research done, with more government funding.”

According to government officials, the law is “required” as part of broader efforts to boost research that supports Hungary’s economy. “Every forint of state funding spent on research must generate concrete returns for the Hungarian economy and eventually for Hungarian society,” the government argues.

The changes are based on “proven international practices” and “will even add to the autonomy of the research institutes” since they will be controlled and governed directly by parliament instead of a public body of elected members, the government says.

There is a promise to boost funding for research and innovation as soon as next year. To get that money, researchers will have to compete in a new “single standardised, performance-based system for the allocation of funds.”

Threat to basic science

Critics see the law as a further move by the government to limit academic freedom in Hungary. In 2017, the Hungarian government changed higher education law to require foreign universities to have campuses in their home countries. As a result, Central European University (CEU), founded by George Soros, billionaire philanthropist and a foe of prime minister Viktor Orban, has been forced to move 85 per cent of its courses to Vienna in order to keep its double-accredited degrees.

In a letter of support to the academy this week, CEU condemned the government’s “months of political pressure, threats and blackmail” against the academy. The law “illustrates once again the disdain of Mr Viktor Orban’s regime for the value of science, academic freedom and, at the same time, blundering disregard for the rule of law,” the university said.

Other academies in the region have voiced their support for the Hungarian researchers. Ioan Aurel Pop, the president of the Romanian Academy told Science|Business that any form of political interference would undermine the academy both as a learning society and a research institution. “It is unconceivable that a government agency – no matter how effective – can run research better than the academy,” Pop said.

The European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities (ALLEA) also expressed concerns about the law, which it sees as a government attack on academic freedom and a threat to the autonomy of science. “ALLEA will back our member academy and all Hungarian scientists, and work with them and other international partners to defend science from populist pressures,” the federation told Science|Business.

Researchers fear the changes will stifle basic science and also independent research in the social sciences on issues which are on the political agenda of the government, such as migration and the economy.

While applied research and keeping up with the fast pace of innovation are important, that is not to say social sciences and humanities are not, Miklos said. “The biggest danger for humanities and social science is that we are going to be killed or forced to do research only in areas Mr Palkovics finds to be successful,” he said.

The ruling party Fidesz is very popular in Hungary. It won 52 per cent of votes in the European elections in May, just a year after another landslide win in national elections, when it secured a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian Parliament. Opposing the government’s move to change the academy’s structure, “could create a hostile feeling against scientists and academicians, which is very dangerous,” said Miklos.

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