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Academy Hardens Stance Against Govt’s Radical Plans

Ábrahám Vass 2019.05.07.

Following months of debates and power-play, on Monday, MTA’s General Assembly decided to vote against the most essential points of the leader of the Ministry for Innovation and Technology (ITM) László Palkovics’ plan and took a firm stance against the radical restructuring of the Academy.

(You can read about the antecedents here, here and here.)

Although MTA scholars have long agreed upon the need for change and moved towards compromise over the past few months, everyone expected a tense Monday. In March, Palkovics and MTA President László Lovász signed a letter of intent; it was now the general assembly’s turn to back the plan.

Pro-govt daily Magyar Hírlap published an interview with Palkovics on Monday ahead of the meeting. He argued that the reason for the restructuring “is simple: a legitimate desire of the community that finances the network – taxpayers, voters, industry – to see where those resources go.” He also insisted that “Hungary’s scientific performance is dismal and has failed to advance over the past decades.” Furthermore, he once again claimed that if MTA rejects his plan, the government will separate the network of research institutes by force, modifying academic law. This was viewed by many as a threat ahead of the meeting.

Palkovics and Lovász. Image by MTI/Tibor Illyés

Then, not surprisingly, the general assembly’s meeting took place amid a reportedly tense atmosphere. After long debates, MTA scholars – with a large majority – voted not to support the most important points of ITM’s plans. Although the academics agreed on the establishment of a new governing body that would oversee the research network in the future, they decided not to green-light the government’s delegation of 50% of this new body’s membership. Instead, they voted for a solution that would allow the government only a third of the representation.

And more importantly, MTA scholars voted against the cornerstone of Palkovics’ plan, the separation of the network of research institutes from MTA.

In addition, scholars also insisted on the base funding system and as Index noted, the assembly also deemed “ITM’s methods of coercion” “unacceptable” to the Academy.

At a press conference held after the talks, Palkovics could not mask his disappointment and claimed that since this move contradicts the letter of intent signed back in March, it is “unacceptable” to the government, thus more talks are needed. He insisted that “they do not want to strip MTA of the network, just put it on a new track.”

Lovász argued that the MTA’s network of research institutes is a national treasure and that holding it together is in our common interest. He added that they have a well-founded standpoint and wish to represent it until the Parliament decides otherwise. “Then we will step aside,” he concluded.

Demonstration organized by the Forum of Academic Employees (ADF) during the meeting. Image by MTI/Tibor Illyés

In an evening interview with ATV, former MTA President and Minister of Education of Orbán’s 1st government, József Pálinkás, admitted to voting against Palkovics’ plan. Afterward, he claimed Palkovics only very briefly commented at the meeting, failing to offer an explanation as to why a restructuring would be necessary. He added that the current situation endangers Hungarian scientific life by “causing terrible damage to the academics who have to work in this milieu.”

As a consequence, Palkovics’ intention to push through the radical restructuring “peacefully” with the formal agreement of the scholars seems to have failed. It is yet to be seen whether he will indeed push the plan through by force using the government’s two-thirds majority. If so, it will surely be met with loud resistance and demonstrations.

Anyhow, he also emphasized that he would restart talks with Lovász right away, as Parliament sets to discuss the matter as early as June.

featured image via Tibor Illyés/ MTI