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In-Depth Analysis: Why Academy Circles Are Disturbed by the Govt’s Plans for Research Reform

Ábrahám Vass 2019.02.14.

Following April’s elections, the newly-founded Ministry for Innovation and Technology (ITM) lead by László Palkovics kick-started a controversial series of maneuvers aimed at reorganizing the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA). Many feared that academic independence would drift into jeopardy as a result. In addition, Palkovics—a member of the MTA—seems reluctant to compromise and constantly emphasizes the government’s good intentions.

According to ITM’s plans, aside from receiving an increase in funds, MTA’s research institutes would be separated from the leadership of the Science Academy and maintained by the government. This means that MTA wouldn’t have the final say in the money’s allocation. Instead, bodies under the government’s direct or indirect control would exclusively decide its distribution. In addition, the costs of everyday work (salaries, utility costs, etc.) would be financed through separate tendering procedures and base funding would be eliminated completely.

Fact

While MTA has 365 elected members, it also runs Hungary's largest scientific network of institutes. It consists of 5,000 employees, among them 3000 researchers covering almost all disciplines. Although the government has always decided the number of funds, MTA was in charge of distribution.

The Innovation Minister is determined

According to László Palkovics, the Hungarian R&D sector is not competitive enough at the international level. For example, the number of MTA-submitted patents has been very low in recent years. In addition, its structure and framework have remained unchanged for decades. Palkovics insists that MTA should place more focus on applied research as it is more economically profitable. Palkovics said the elimination of basic funding corresponds to international trends and insists on a more performance-based system.

Innovation Minister László Palkovics. Photo by Zsolt Szigetváry/MTI

Accordingly, hinted measures seem to confirm that the humanities and social sciences will be downplayed and relegated to certain universities. What is more, the whole institute of economics would be abolished. Palkovics criticized MTA for being “too political.” (While the Academy has never taken part in political debates, some of its members have voiced their opinions on public matters, often taking different sides. Some scientists have criticized the controversial establishment of admin courts; the unorthodox economic policies of the government and the ousting of CEU. MTA President László Lovász even voiced his deep concerns on the latter.)

Experts agree that the increase in funds is indispensable. (In 2017, Germany invested 2,7% of its GDP in research and development and the EU average is 1,9%. Hungary, however, lags behind in this matter with 1,35%.) However, critics see the reorganization as the government’s new, controversial move, referring to it as yet another measure to centralize power and oppress potentially critical voices. They fear that by exerting control over the distribution, the government would put an end to the Academy of Science’s freedom and independence. After all, the government would have a say on what and how research is conducted. According to their views, the government’s forced reform plan challenges the constitution—written and adopted under the ruling of Fidesz—as it guarantees academic and scientific freedom.

Fact

Article X

(1) Hungary shall ensure the freedom of scientific research and artistic creation, the freedom

of learning for the acquisition of the highest possible level of knowledge and, within the

framework laid down in an Act, the freedom of teaching.

(2) The State shall have no right to decide on questions of scientific truth; only scientists

shall have the right to evaluate scientific research.

(3) Hungary shall protect the scientific and artistic freedom of the Hungarian Academy of

Sciences and the Hungarian Academy of Arts. Higher education institutions shall be

autonomous in terms of the content and the methods of research and teaching; their

organization shall be regulated by an Act. The Government shall, within the framework of the

Acts, lay down the rules governing the management of public institutes of higher education

and shall supervise their management.

MTA in defense

MTA officials claim the elimination of basic funds would thrust a number of researches into jeopardy and several scholars into existential uncertainty, potentially leading to departures.

MTA’s scientists also contest Palkovics’ claims about the Academy’s questionable competitiveness. In winning prestigious European Research Council (ERC) grants, Hungary leads among EU13 countries with more than half of the ERC grants having gone to MTA and its institutes including social science. According to additional data, MTA performs very well in comparison to other similar European institutions.

MTA president László Lovász arrives to the meeting of the Presidium on Tuesday. Image by MTI/Szilárd Koszticsák

MTA officials also claim that a modest reorganization began under MTA’s former president, József Pálinkás. Even Palkovics admitted that MTA’s staff has become more balanced politically. An MTA communiqué insists that “basic and applied research is inseparable. Directly applicable research results can only be achieved on a basis provided by significant basic research.”

In an interview with Index, MTA president László Lovász said that “giving up the institutional system shouldn’t be compulsory for negotiation.” He also questions the necessity of reorganization and sees Palkovics’ goals as unclear. Lovász also warned that there is a fundamental difference between party politics and policies. A confirmatory or critical result in certain social or educational research is inevitable, he added.

Number of publications and Q1 publications per € 100,000 institutional budget in case of MTA and similar European research organizations. Source: MTA, 2017.

Govt backs Palkovics

Meanwhile, as Lendület’s (Momentum, not to be confused with the political party of the same name) group of young scholars turned to Orbán, he responded by supporting Palkovics’ arguments: “International innovation rankings show that, unfortunately, Hungary’s place is among the weaker performers (…) Our ability to enforce our interests in obtaining significant scientific and innovative funds could be stronger. So, in this case, a responsible government has to act.”

Image by Forum of Academic Employees (ADF)- Facebook

Relations have grown cold between the parties and Palkovics seems to prefer pressure to diplomacy: last year he gave the Academy less than an hour (54 minutes) to discuss important reorganizations. Now, he has decided to suspend any funds outside of scholars’ salaries. He also threatened to push through the legislation package using the governing alliance’s two-thirds majority if MTA is unwilling to agree to the changes.

Meanwhile, scholars, artists and other notables have issued a joint statement with a signature-drive “condemning the government’s attempts to ‘wither’ sectors or views they don’t agree with.”

Following Tuesday’s protests, Lovász and Palkovics are scheduled to meet on Friday.

featured image: a protester holds up MTA founder István Széchenyi’s picture at Tuesday’s demonstration; via Forum of Academic Employees (ADF)- Facebook