Update: On July 2nd 2019, the government's amendment bill was passed.
After the Hungarian government forced the Central European University to move most of its programs to Vienna, the government’s Ministry of Innovation and Technology now plans to take away institutional and budgetary sovereignty from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
Established in 1825, the Academy employs nearly 5000 researchers in fields ranging from humanities to brain research to nuclear physics.
The Ministry proposed a new entity to govern all the Academy’s 16 research institutes, headed by a board comprised of 12 representatives and a president, all of whom are to be appointed by the Prime Minister.
Asked how will it ensure the Academy’s autonomy, the Ministry responded that two thirds of the board members will be “made up of members of the scientific profession”.
“People fear even scientists can be dominated by sentiments of loyalty. The ministry might propose formally appropriate members who will be loyal to the government’s positions,” said Eörs Szathmáry, director of the Academy‘s Center for Ecological Research and one of its negotiators.
The Academy accepts the need for a new management structure. A joint work group comprised of 40 representatives of the Ministry, the Academy and independent experts unanimously accepted a set of recommendations in this regard. The amendment bill “disregards about half of the compromises”, said László Lovász, the President of the Academy.
Mr Lovász said that when the government first informed the Academy about proposed changes, the Academy was given 54 minutes to respond. Mr Lovász implied that the Minister László Palkovics blackmailed the Academy by withholding the research budget until the Academy agrees with the minister’s “terms”.
The Ministry did not respond to a request for comment on these issues.
The Ministry emphasized that “Hungary’s competitiveness in the field of innovation must be improved” and to that end, it now tabled an amendment bill to the Parliament necessary for “financing of Hungarian research & development and innovation”.
“Verbally, government is very much in favour of innovation. But the actual operation does not confirm this devotion,” says Attila Chikán, minister of economic affairs in the first Orbán’s government.
“The Ministry cannot distinguish well between research and development. What is missing are actually institutions that would convert basic research into industrial practice.”
“It is not a device but an aim to centralize.”
It is not the first time when some government in Central Europe aims to make the operation of its Academy of Sciences more efficient. In 2009, the right-wing government of Mirek Topolánek eventually backtracked from such proposal in the Czech Republic. “They realized the Academy was not as lavish as they first thought,” says Julius Lukeš, a prominent Czech parasitologist.
The Hungarian Academy of Sciences produces the highest number of articles in top 25% academic journals of all comparable European research institutions relative to its budget.
Whether the Hungarian government will eventually yield is far from clear. At the European level, the government has often engaged in what Viktor Orbán described as a “peacock dance” – appeasing critics of advances against pluralism by flaunting retreats which rarely keep meaning in the long term.
“If the government finds it opportune, it might eventually backtrack. But the intention remains probably to have centralized control of science in Hungary,” says Mr Szathmáry.
In the past years, the Academy published “papers critical of the government’s education, research and labout market policy,” said Ádám Török, General Secretary of the Academy.