Hungary: On the verge of a breakthrough in scientific research?

February 20, 2004

Brussels, 19 Feb 2004

The countdown is on. Just over two months away, ten new countries will join the EU's swelling ranks. Hungary might have been a poster child during the enlargement process, but Nature reports that not all is rosy in this central European jewel. It is battling to regain its former glory as a centre of scientific excellence.

Anecdote or fact, Hungarians have a reputation for being smart people. Taking Nobel Laureates as a yardstick, Hungarians have more winners per capita than any other country since the prize began in 1901. But some, especially the younger generation of scientists, worry that the Republic is not living up to its reputation: the old guard of scientific administrators are not moving with the times, and inadequate funding is given to promising research.

But there is light at end of the Budapest tunnel. In fact, according to the Nature feature 'Dreaming on the Danube', that hope sits on the Buda hillside overlooking its twin city Pest in the form of the Collegium Budapest, an academic institute reportedly modelled on Princeton in New Jersey (US).

"Hungarian scientists hope that the Collegium's success can serve as a springboard to reviving their country's past scientific glories," writes the journalist Quirin Schiermeier. "Budapest, they argue, is ideally placed to lead attempts to re-establish a cosmopolitan culture of science among the countries of the former eastern bloc."

Hungary's efficient preparations for joining the European Union – beginning in 1998 and concluding in April 2003 with the signing of the EU Treaty of Accession – show its commitment to moving forward, offering greater opportunity for the country's many scientists and science students. Hungary is also one of the first acceding countries to create ties with the Informal Group of RTD Liaison Offices (IGLO), based in Brussels.

One-way traffic

The Union is working overtime to improve the image of science, especially among youth, but in Hungary, it still has certain glamour attached to it, argues Livia Meszaros, a medical student in the capital. "We don't have famous soccer players any more, and we never had big pop stars – so what else can you do [other] than shine in science?"

The problem, Nature reports, is that those who do shine are increasingly likely to become part of the 'brain drain' to the West. This problem is not exclusive to Hungary: the current EU Member States have also complained about a flight of scientific talent to the USA. But officials at the Hungarian Scientific Research Fund (OTKA) are keen to reverse the flow.

OTKA's best known funding programme, aimed mainly at research leaders to help create a 'school of like-minded scientists' (not unlike the networks of excellence in the EU's Sixth Framework Programme for research funding) provides some 20 grants a year of around €87 000 each. However, these tend to be given to the more established scientists. "The recipients have averaged 66 years of age, and are selected using backwards-looking criteria such as the number of PhD students they have produced… rather than their potential to make a real difference in the future," the article notes.

Again, hope rests on the Collegium. Thanks to funding from the Union and individual European governments, this institute is attracting foreign researchers – 18 in total this year. The high-tech and pharmaceuticals industries are also keen to tap into Hungary's skilled population. Companies with a presence there include the electronics manufacturers Ericsson, Nokia and Hewlett Packard, and healthcare technology makers EGIS and Chinoin.

Neuroscientist and president of the nation's Academy of Science, Sylvester Vizi, is upbeat about his country's research future: "Hungary has left important fingerprints on science in the past, and I am optimistic that Budapest will be able to regain its traditional role [as] a premium intellectual centre for central and eastern Europe."

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