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Newly-Elected Science Academy President Wants Better Relations with Government

Ábrahám Vass 2020.07.08.

World-renowned neurobiologist Tamás Freund has been elected the new president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA). In the wake of the controversial restructuring, he said he aims to reintegrate the institutes but first he wants to build a “working relationship and mutual trust” with the government.

The government, namely the Minister for Innovation and Technology, László Palkovics, is set to restructure MTA after their triumph at the 2018 general elections. In July 2019, following one year of a one-sided battle and protests of the majority of MTA’s scholars, the Parliament, thanks to Fidesz-KDNP’s two-thirds majority, voted to strip Hungary’s no. 1. research center of its research institutes and properties and transfer them into a body called Eötvös Loránd Research Network (ELKH), where the government has more power and control. You can read more about it herehere, and here.

After outgoing president László Lovász couldn’t be further reelected, three academics went for the presidential seat. But after evolutionary biologist Eörs Szathmáry decided to step back days before the election, Freund only faced famed psychologist-linguist Csaba Pléh, whom he eventually beat by 82 votes (555 assembly members had the right to vote, only 429 of them voted). While Freund is said to be more friendly towards the government, Pléh, on the other hand, would have been more confrontational. Therefore, the election definitely had a political aspect too, and many speculated that Freund’s victory is probably what the government would have preferred too.

According to liberal Index‘s lengthy report, Freund, aged 61, is reportedly deeply religious with a moderate right-wing political orientation who has long been known in academic circles to have a good relationship with the Prime Minister. As the head of the Institute of Experimental Medicine (KOKI), he created the model that contributed in making Hungarian brain research world-class. Beside countless other awards, in 2011, he was one of the three Hungarian scientists to be awarded with the “Nobel Prize of neuroscience,” the ‘Brain Prize.’ In addition, he personally lobbied the government for the National Brain Research Program.

He promised a politically-neutral Academy and to normalize MTA’s relationship with the government: “MTA cannot be in opposition,” he insisted. Besides, he is a member of the aforementioned, newly-established ELKH, for which he was also criticized (from which he promised to renounce his membership). And still, he is nowhere near an unconditional supporter of the government. Freund, for example, consistently protested against stripping MTA of its institutes, even addressing Viktor Orbán in a letter. What is more, he exited the conservative, right-leaning Batthyány Society of Professors (PBK) for the same reason. He also claimed that Orbán hasn’t received him for two years now, despite his efforts to meet him personally.

Freund, however, also drew controversy when, for example, he harshly criticized social scientists. In a recent interview with pro-government weekly Mandiner, among other things he said that “social scientists who are not only lacking job offers abroad, but whose performance is inadequate by actual international standards, can only prevail under the guise of government criticism.” In response, 67 (mostly opposition-leaning) academics and scientists rebuffed his criticism.

Anyhow, he is still critical to the restructuring of the institute, and insists that Hungarian science performs well, especially in comparison to the funding it receives. At an online conference held after the results were made public, he said he aimed to re-integrate the Academy’s [aforementioned] research network into the MTA, but his first task was to build a “working relationship and mutual trust” with the government. “Mutually beneficial cooperation between science and politics is key to the country’s development,” he said, besides pledging to respect excellence in all fields of work regardless of political affiliation.

featured image via László Beliczay/MTI