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Interview with Roland Jakab, HUN-REN Research Network CEO

Dániel Deme 2024.02.19.

We have asked Roland Jakab, Chief Executive Officer of the HUN-REN Research Network to give us an overview of the current state of the Hungarian scientific environment, as well as HUN-REN’s approach to attracting Hungarian scientists working abroad back to their homeland.

HT: The 20th and 21st centuries are full of outstanding Hungarian achievements that were born abroad. Social and political instability or a lack of financial resources often forced our talents to emigrate. HUN-REN is working to ensure that Hungarian scientists can produce these results in our country, but how competitive is Hungary today in terms of a stable and well-funded research environment?

RJ: To start with, Hungarian academia – including the research network itself – has a much longer tradition that laid the foundations for success in the 20th and 21st centuries. The Hungarian nation, in sport as in science, can boast achievements far beyond the country’s size. There is no doubt that the tragedies of the 20th century have made the position of Hungarian researchers and research impossible on several occasions, leading to a significant brain drain. The regime change then created the opportunity to return to a state of normality.

I think that in the last decade and a half, stability has been restored, and there has been a huge leap forward in terms of funding, which was undoubtedly broken first by the pandemic and then by the war in our neighborhood. The brain gain has now started, HUN-REN itself has been working for years to attract top researchers, and we will put even more emphasis on this in the future.

Science is global, so the so called “brain circulation” is a natural and positive phenomenon.

It is a win-win situation for all parties if someone goes to other countries in the world when they are young, studies and researches there, and then returns home with the experience and excellence they have gained. For my part, I am optimistic and I believe that Hungary is on the right track and that there are huge opportunities ahead of us in the near future.

Rising sea levels are part of the network’s research. Photo: HUN-REN

My previous question would lead one to conclude that there is a direct correlation between the rule of law, a free research environment free of ideology and scientific achievements. This is not the case, however, as both fascist Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin produced outstanding scientific and technological achievements. Today, China, which is not a constitutional democracy, is a world leader in many scientific research activities. So what are the main components of scientific achievement at a national level?

These countries are all world powers with enormous resources, but even for them, extremes always leads to inefficiency. In short, lack of control leads to waste and total control stifles creativity. We have to learn from countries of our size, ones that have been able to develop over decades with a conscious strategy. If you look at them, you see that there is freedom of research, but the focus is on solving the real challenges of the country, with state-funded research, with strict scientific quality assurance and financial control. I am convinced that this is the right approach.

With the announcement of the János Neumann Program, the government has set clear strategic objectives for improving Hungary’s scientific and innovation performance. The program identifies healthy living, digitalization, the circular economy and security and defense as priority areas for development. To achieve this, the government is creating a more supportive environment for the domestic RDI ecosystem than ever before, and HUN-REN is the flagship of the program to contribute to the realization of these objectives.

The goal is to be among the top 25 innovators in the world and among the top 10 innovators in Europe by 2030.

I believe this is a good starting point for scientific advancement at national level.

Even old bomb craters are teaming with life, as discovered by Hungarian scientists. Photo: HUN-REN

We were a great power in terms of individual scientists, are we still a great power today? Do we see a future Albert Szentgyörgyi or Ede Teller within the Hungarian research community?

The two Hungarian Nobel Prizes last year tell me that we still are. Szentgyörgyi and Teller achieved world success by navigating the possibilities of their time, and the same can be said of current Nobel-winners Katalin Karikó and Ferenc Krausz. Their research is not equally linked to Hungary, but they all started, studied and built their careers in Hungary. And we can still see some of them today who could be in the running for a Nobel Prize in the near future. Aspirants must go their own way and we must give them as much support as possible.

HUN-REN is trying to encourage Hungarian researchers working abroad to return. What is the best approach that can achieve this, what is that receives the most positive response from scientists?

Specific programs have been launched to support researcher mobility and attract talent. Under the HUN-REN Welcome Home and Foreign Researcher Recruitment Program, launched for the first time in 2023, six Hungarian and one foreign researcher from the international top will come to Hungary to form a research team within the network to implement the outstanding scientific project of the winning project. These programs will be developed further, building on the experience gained, and we are constantly looking for other opportunities.

Good examples and best practices from the international arena show – and international studies confirm – that

attracting and retaining talent requires, first and foremost, charismatic personalities with outstanding knowledge and performance, who can attract young people to their field of interest and motivate and inspire them in this intellectual workshop.

Secondly, we need exciting topics that challenge researchers. Of course, it is also important to provide a supportive environment and adequate funding, which can and should always be improved. We are currently working to ensure these conditions.

Are you trying to attract non-Hungarian scientists to our country? If so, what are the criteria for such an invitation? Who is Hungarian science looking for?

Yes, as I have already indicated, this is one of our priorities and the process has already started. There is a need for outstanding personalities in all fields of science. In addition, it is important to mention that the scientific work of HUN-REN is supported by a number of world-renowned leading scientists and other professionals, including members of the Advisory Board and the President’s Circle. We have established an ongoing dialogue with the research community, discussing HUN-REN’s plans and objectives with researchers in strategic workshops. In addition, invited foreign researchers from the world’s top universities will give presentations on best international practices and trends, highlighting the role of science in modern society and the transformation in the way scientific performance is assessed. Two such workshops have been organized so far and the next one will take place in March.

How do you decide which research to spend your budget on and what are your priorities? Is it based on the needs of Hungarian medicine, the economy or industry, or do you use other criteria?

President Balázs Gulyás identified as a priority the strengthening of HUN-REN’s scientific and innovation capabilities in international competition, and increasing the social, economic and intellectual impact by integrating research and innovation results into the value chain.

On his initiative, a comprehensive assessment of HUN-REN’s 49 research institutes was launched in January this year, involving world-renowned international researchers, to provide an impartial and honest picture of our position on the international scene and potential breakthrough points. Based on the results of the assessment, and incorporating international good examples and best practices, we will work with the research centers to develop a research strategy that supports our objectives and provides a framework for research funding. Our aim is to introduce results-based funding from 2025 that encourages international progress.

The network’s research is now published in top scientific journals. Photo: HUN-REN

Under your leadership as CEO, what steps are being taken to better support research?

As of 1 January 2024, we have started the transformation of HUN-REN’s governing body into a Headquarter. We are working to move up a level in the support of research sites and to become a true hub, relieving researchers of some of the administrative and bureaucratic tasks they are burdened with, including in the areas of monitoring, assessing and exploiting innovation potential, communication and management. Our aim is that from 2025, HUN-REN will move to a structure that supports research more efficiently than at present.

The emergence of artificial intelligence, like many other areas, will fundamentally change the world of research, and we will start immediately to develop a comprehensive AI strategy for HUN-REN.

It is a technological revolution that represents both a huge development opportunity for those who recognize its importance in time and a huge risk of falling behind for those who do not. This is true not only for research, but also for science management: AI can play an amazing role in reducing manual administration, which is why the HUN-REN Headquarters are among the first to incorporate emerging new solutions into its own systems.

In our country, almost everyone would agree that we should spend on science and have Hungarian results. But when you read that HUN-REN has spent 500-600 million forints on flatworm research, then you hear the familiar objections about how many kindergartens could have been built and how many medical instruments could have been bought from that sum. How can the scientific community capture the majority of society and justify the huge sums of money that science often spends on abstract, less ‘fashionable’ subjects?

It would be easy to dismiss the question by saying that building a kindergarten or buying medical instruments is a demagogic comparison, but I think it is a perfectly legitimate demand from taxpayers if they want to understand why our research is useful to Hungary. Of course, only those involved in scientific research are entitled to determine the value of scientific research, as the Fundamental Law states. However, we at HUN-REN attach importance to the stakeholder approach, and our most important stakeholders are the Hungarian taxpayers. We expect researchers to be able to articulate in a clear way what the social, economic or intellectual impact is that contributes to improving the lives of the Hungarian people.

What is the most outstanding achievement of the HUN-RENs so far, which has had the greatest international resonance?

HUN-REN research headquarters are members of several major international consortia, for example the HUN-REN Wigner Research Centre for Physics is involved in experiments at CERN, the HUN-REN Centre for Energy Research is involved in fusion experiments in Europe and the world. Nuclear fusion-based energy production is one of the great challenges facing humanity, and the development of related solutions is therefore of paramount importance.

The HUN-REN network also includes two EU-funded centers of excellence that form a close consortium with leading European research centers. The first is the EPIC (Centre of Excellence in Production Informatics and Control), coordinated by the HUN-REN Institute for Computer Science and Control, and established in partnership with the German Fraunhofer Institute. The second is the HCEMM (Hungarian Centre of Excellence for Molecular Medicine), established in partnership with the HUN-REN Biological Research Centre, Szeged and with the European Molecular Biological Laboratory (EMBL) as a prestigious international partner.

But there are also good examples from the field of brain research: researchers at the HUN-REN Centre for Experimental Medicine have pioneered the role of microglia in the regulation of cerebral circulation, which is crucial for understanding the mechanisms of the brain circulatory disorders that often underlie neurological diseases such as stroke, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, epilepsy and dementia.

In total, HUN-REN research sites collaborated with nearly 1,100 foreign partners, including more than 230 partners outside Europe in 2022.

Our aim is to find niche areas in all disciplines where we can excel on a global scale.

The HUN-REN Centre is an active player in European science diplomacy, representing the interests of the domestic research ecosystem in major European networks. This enables us to participate directly in the shaping of strategic programs such as the European Union’s Framework Program for Research (Horizon Europe), or the broad cooperation initiated and supported by the European Commission to coordinate the process of research assessment reform.

Lastly, what message would you send to our academics and Hungarian professionals working abroad? How can you help if a Hungarian researcher abroad is considering a return home?

I would encourage them to study, research and gain as much experience as possible in the world’s leading institutions. Then they should come back and put their knowledge at the service of the Hungarian people, help to train the next generation of researchers and put Hungarian research at the forefront of the world. HUN-REN supports the return home with an ever-expanding program.


The HUN-REN Centre is an independent budgetary institution established by the Hungarian Parliament on 1 August 2019 to manage and operate a centrally funded, independent research network, which is the cornerstone of Hungarian scientific life. HUN-REN’s 9-member independent Governing Board is chaired by a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and the majority of its members are academics.

HUN-REN’s eleven research centers and seven research institutes, as well as 116 funded research groups in universities and other public institutions, carry out basic and applied research in a wide variety of fields, from mathematics and natural sciences to life sciences, humanities and social sciences. Its mission is to ensure that the publicly funded network operates more transparently, efficiently and effectively, while preserving researcher freedom, and to ensure that research is carried out to the highest possible standards of excellence.

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Featured Image: HUN-REN

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