The Hungarian Academy of Sciences

The Headquarter of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences

Conference reports On recent developments affecting academic institutions in Hungary

In my contribution I would like to provide an assessment of what has happened over the past two years in Hungary, how academics have been reacting, and finish with a few thoughts regarding academia in that country and beyond. My focus should and will be on the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Published on balticworlds.com on maj 8, 2019

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On May 6, 2019, CBEES (Södertörn University) held a seminar entitled Academic freedom under threat on recent developments regarding the autonomy of academia in various countries. This text was a contribution to the seminar.

In my contribution I would like to provide an assessment of what has happened over the past two years in Hungary, how academics have been reacting, and finish with a few thoughts regarding academia in that country and beyond.

While my focus should and will be on the Hungarian Academy of Sciences – which is the biggest research institution in the country employing over 2,500 researchers– a few other organisations need to be mentioned, as looking at these cases in isolation would mislead any overall assessment of the situation of academia in Hungary.

In spring 2017, the government unexpectedly announced it would alter the higher education bill so that any foreign institution providing higher education in the country would need to have programs running not just in Hungary, but also in its country of origin. While a number of small foreign universities is operating in Hungary, the modified law’s effects on most of these were going to be minimal or non-existent. It has therefore always been difficult to interpret the change of legislation in any other way than targeting a specific institution, the Central European University, which is why the law has been referred to as Lex CEU from the moment it was announced.

Despite triggering a chain of protests unseen in Hungary since the change of regime in 1990, with the first demonstration in April 2017 involving 60–70,000 thousand protesters, owing to its two-thirds majority the government swiftly introduced Lex CEU. The university on its part quickly reacted by launching a number of joint programs with Bard College in New York State,in order to meet the requirements posed by the new Hungarian higher education bill. The government sent a delegation to Bard College to inspect the institution and its new joint programs with CEU, which it found are not meeting the requirements of the new legislation.

The university has continuously emphasized that it is open for discussions or negotiations with the government to find a common ground, but these attempts apparently gained few results. What is for sure is that CEU’s Hungarian accreditation was only prolonged for the current academic year, as a result of which last Decemberthe Rector announced all new students would begin their studies at the university’s new campus in Vienna.

According to recent developments, there are some signs of the university being able to maintain some operations in Budapest, such as some of its research units.In addition, the Free State of Bavaria has offered its support in setting up new faculty positions at the old campus.Negotiations are ongoing with the Technical University of Munich, which sees an opportunity in complementing its renowned technical profile with CEU’s highly-ranked programs in the social sciences and humanities.

Before moving on to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences I will just briefly mention Corvinus University, which has for decades been the country’s number one institution for Economics, Business Administration, and International Relations. This university was appointed a new rector about two years ago, an arch-conservative political philosopher who previously headed the largest think-tank close to the government. His mandate is to transform Corvinus University into one of the highest-ranking business schools in the wider region – not a bad aim in itself, but the question is how.

The vision, which is currently being implemented, is handing over this currently public institution to a new type of a (somewhat vaguely defined), partly still public foundation to manage it. The chief executive of Hungary’s largest energy company was recently appointed as head of that foundation. Last but not least, the change in the university’s legal status means its workers’ status as public employees is endangered and will almost certainly be abandoned, leading to much less employment security.

Turning to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, then, which was established in 1825 and is the oldest still functioning national institution of the country. The Academy maintains fifteen research centers in all scientific fields. As mentioned it employs over 2,500 researchers but it is also crucial that its activities reach far beyond; by for instance offering research stipends, excellence programs, foreign exchange programs and further opportunities to all researchers in and outside Hungary. It also holds open days to popularize science among the general public, and the list goes on.

The current conflict has been ongoing for almost eleven months now, and the way the responsible body – that is the Ministry of Innovation and Technology – handles it is as telling as its intentions are. Last June, a weekly magazine very close to the government published an article depicting scholars of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in general terms as a liberal,immigration-friendly bunch primarily researching about gay rights and gender-issues. Over a dozen scholars – all in the social sciences and humanities – were briefly portrayed with their profile pictures, names and affiliations, with a short but highly manipulated and exaggerated description of their research profiles along the lines just mentioned. One of them was of Roma origin and has reportedly already left the Academy. I personally know of two distinguished historians who were not among the portrayed scholars, but have very recently left to Western Europe to carry on with their careers.

The initial plan of the Ministry has been a shock to the Academy: it was going to de-couple the research centers from the Academy, merge some of them with universities while even closing down others. At one point the responsible Minister, Mr László Palkovics, specifically mentioned the Institute of Economics as one of the institutions that ought to be closed down. Colleagues from that Institute later mentioned the Minister’s anger at them may be related to a conference they held where the Minister sat in the first row, listening to presentations some of which were critically portraying Hungary’s economic situation.

While any government of course has the full right to initiate reforms of any institutions it co- finances, the question of how may be indicative. Up until very recently there has been no sign of a will to discuss any reforms with the Academy. Neither have any official documents been made public about the necessity to reform. The only document one could familiarize oneself with has been a PowerPoint-presentation of the Minister that leaked out last December. In this Mr Palkovics pointed out Hungary’s relatively low ranking on the European Innovation Scoreboard to legitimize his reforms.

In another interview he also mentioned that Hungary’s position in Europe’s knowledge-landscape is at the same time exactly comparable to the country’s Research & Development expenditure, which is 1.5% of GDP (the European average is 2.1% and in Sweden and Austria this number is over 3%). It can be added that the amount of R&D expenditure is not in the hands of the Ministry but is of course laid down by the government in its annual budget. The point is that Hungary’s research performance is equivalent to the level of priority it enjoys by its key decision-makers.

A note on the Minister’s background may shed light over his view of the role of science and research in society. Mr Palkovics, trained a mechanical engineer, had made a career at a German technological company called Knorr-Bremse, in Hungary. Accordingly, he keeps emphasizing the need for closer cooperation between science and industry (Magyar Narancs, 2019-04-25, p. 17). Again, we may or may not be skeptical about this approach per se, but the fact is the Hungarian Academy of Sciences has produced 25 patents on a yearly average (ibid). The big question is how or why this performance would improve by de-coupling the Academy from its research institutions and putting them under the oversight of the Ministry. We have not received any convincing answer to this question.

What happened instead was that last December the Ministry announced it would not transfer the money to the Academy that was already laid down in the national budget for the current year. Thus in the first few months of this year the research institutions lived off their savings, a situation that somewhat ironically hit the natural sciences worst.

Since the outbreak of the conflict, a bottom-up initiative called the Hungarian Academy Staff Forum was established, consisting of a core group of around twenty members and an additional large ring of loose associates. This group has for instance organised e-mail votings covering all research institutes of the Academy, on questions whether employees support the de-coupling of the research institutions from the Academy, or whether they support the latter’s Presidium – headed by Prof. László Lovász, an internationally highly recognized mathematician – in its defense of the Academy’s autonomy. In addition, the Hungarian Academy Staff Forum maintains contacts to domestic and foreign media outlets, organizes discussion fora and not least protests.

The first major example of the latter was a demonstration held in February with up to 3,000 participants, in which a human chain was formed around the headquarter of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. To our delight participants did not only include employees of the Academy, but also hundreds from different Hungarian universities, also the Central European University, as well as students and non-academics. Domestic and western media have been covering this and other events related to the Academy, including prestigious journals such as Nature.

This and other events may have contributed to the Ministry in March transferring parts of the Academy’s money, but only for the first half year, despite the fact that the institution’s share was laid down in the national budget for 2019 already last autumn. Another demonstration was held in March with up to 2,000 participants.

The situation at the moment is the following. As a democratic institution, under its current statute the Hungarian Academy of Sciences can only take major decisions with the approval of its General Assembly, which consists of 560 elected and permanent members. This large group is only gathering twice a year, and today happens to be such an occasion. The most likely outcome is that the Assembly votes down any option where the research institutions would be de-coupled from the Academy. The big question then is how the Ministry will react. It is indicative that early this morning, a government-close newspaper published an interview with the Minister who confirmed his earlier repeated will to unbuckle the research institutions and the government taking charge.

What does all this say about the freedom and autonomy of academia in Hungary and beyond? Some commentators have pointed to the rise of ‘neoliberal authoritarianism’ in a number of countries. I do not want to engage in labeling here but the combination of those two words may be indicative of a trend: on the premises of competitiveness and innovation, governments are increasing their control of autonomous research institutions across the world, and not just in full-fledged autocracies. A Japanese colleague told me not long ago about his colleague being harassed by authorities due to his critical approach on Japan’s role towards neighboring nations during World War Two. A colleague in Denmark recently said the government there is increasingly trying to guide research themes, and so on.

The Hungarian case shows that coordinated resistance has at least helped to delay the reforms envisaged by the Ministry. But whether this will lead to some kind of punishment later or will in time be a forgotten chapter in the history of Hungarian academia is too early to tell. At this point, the long and still growing list of support letters to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences by numerous highly recognized international and domestic institutions is encouraging and most welcome.

 

  • by Péter Balogh

    Péter Balogh’s research focuses on geopolitical narratives in Hungary and Central and Eastern Europe. He is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Regional Studies, CERS-HAS, where he is critically analysing how and why the notion of ‘Central Europe’ has been changing over the past years.

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