Hungarian scholars fear ‘loss of freedom’ in academy restructure

Academics highlight brain drain of researchers and loss of international research partners as concerns in wake of latest government ‘attack on autonomy’

February 18, 2019
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Moves by the Hungarian government to restructure the country’s Academy of Sciences will lead to a “complete loss of academic independence” and the collapse of international research collaborations, experts have warned.

Last year, the government announced that 70 per cent of the 40 billion forint (£110 million) budget allocated to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (HAS) would be transferred to the new Ministry of Innovation and Technology, which would be in charge of funding the HAS’ network of 15 research institutions and more than 130 research groups at universities co-financed by the academy.

Now the National Research, Development and Innovation Office, which is controlled by the ministry, has launched a “programme of excellence”, according to a document published by the Hungarian Academy Staff Forum earlier this month.

It requires research centres of the academy to apply for their entire budget by submitting tenders that must relate to one of four broad topic areas: secure society and environment; industry and digitalisation; health; and culture and family. Public universities and state-controlled research centres will also be able to submit grant proposals under the new model.

The document claims that the proposals will be “assessed according to unclear evaluation principles, allowing for arbitrary, politically motivated decisions” and that the move will lead to “the complete loss of academic independence for the academy specifically and for scholarship in Hungary in general”.

There are also fears that research institutions may be merged with university departments and state-controlled research centres and that some may be eliminated altogether.

Liviu Matei, professor of higher education policy and provost at the Budapest-based Central European University, said that the HAS has been “the most important research institution in Hungary” for almost 200 years and that the government changes are an “attack against institutional autonomy, academic freedom, and education and research”.

They are also an “existential matter”, he said, as the academy may have to “close down most of [its] research institutes” because of a potential lack of funding.

Zoltán Fleck, head of the Centre for Theory of Law and Society at Budapest’s Eötvös Loránd University, said that European and North American partners were likely to “drop Hungarian universities” from research projects reliant on Hungarian funding “because of the narrowing academic freedom”.

Gergely Böhm, head of the Department for International Relations in the HAS secretariat, added that “it will definitely harm the performance of Hungarian science if the research network is torn apart”.

He said that the uncertainty regarding the future of the network was “destroying confidence in the future of Hungarian science” and some of the best academics were already leaving the country.

The Ministry of Innovation and Technology did not provide a comment but sent Times Higher Education a letter that prime minister Viktor Orbán wrote to researchers who had protested against the restructuring of the HAS. The letter says that Hungary’s “system for innovation and research and development still lacks the element that would guarantee that knowledge generates direct economic benefits”.

“The goal – as with the transformation of universities – is the creation of a system which operates optimally and free of administrative restraints, but also more responsibly and transparently. This means that nothing valuable will be lost, and likewise freedom of scientific research cannot be compromised,” it adds.

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