Hungarian Government Interference With Academic Freedom Worries Scientists

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán pictured in 2014 at a European People’s Party conference. (Wikimedia Commons)

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán pictured in 2014 at a European People’s Party conference. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Hungarian Minister of Innovation and Technology László Palkovics announced a reduction in funding for the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA), angering scientists and leaving many worried about academic freedom under the Orbán government, according to Reuters and Nature. The incident is one in a series of clashes between Hungarian academics and their populist government, reports the Scientist.

Palkovics plans to withhold 17 billion Hungarian Forints ($61.2 million) of funding from the MTA’s operational costs to help finance his ministry’s call for research proposals that extends to all universities and government-run research institutes in Hungary, according to Nature. He cites the very low number of patents filed by research institutes against the huge amount of money the state provides in grants as the reason, Emerging Europe reports.

In late January, Palkovics created the National Office for Research,Development and Innovation, which is under the ministry’s direct control. The recent changes he made would now require MTA’s research institutes to apply for funding to cover basic costs such as salaries and maintenance under the excellence program launched by the new office, according to Emerging Europe. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán claimed on his website that his government’s aim is to “channel resources toward research that spurs innovation and add economic value, without infringing on academic freedom.”

The move, considered by activists and academics to be a blatant money grab and an interference with research independence by the Orbán government, sparked massive outrage, according to Nature. Academics worry that the increasing uncertainty about the future of scientific research in the nation will drive young talent away, Nature reports.

“This was unacceptable,” says László Lovász, mathematician and MTA president, the Hungarian Free Press reports. “We would be competing for our own running costs—we wouldn’t be able to propose spectacular science, and spectacular science is what we need to be doing.” MTA has since received support from scientists across the world, according to Chemistry World. Thousands of protesters also formed a human chain around the academy’s building last month.

The Central European University, which recently moved to Vienna after a longstanding confrontation with the Orbán government, released an open letter calling the move “a further step in a process that aims at curtailing academic freedom of Hungarian institutions of research and higher education,” Chemistry World reports.

In an attempt to resolve the conflict, Minister Palkovics and MTA President Lovász signed a deal on March 14, which will put the academy’s research institutes under a new governing body chaired by an appointee of the prime minister, according to Science Business. Academics have given a guarded welcome to this deal.

“The [memorandum] is better than expected, and actually acceptable, but the future horizon is rather black,” said András Báldi, director of MTA’s Centre for Ecological Research, reported Science Business.