Hungary's national science academy has been criticized for discriminating against scientists living and working abroad. The academy's attitude is frustrating not just researchers but also the Hungarian government, which is trying to reform the country's research system and attract more high-profile scientists.

The Hungarian Academy of Sciences is accused of putting scientists who publish abroad at a disadvantage. Credit: L. JANICEK/ZEFA/CORBIS

The Hungarian Academy of Sciences (HAS) in Budapest is Hungary's largest and best-funded public research institution. It awards a title, ‘Doctor of Science’, that is required by professors or lecturers at most Hungarian universities and academic research institutes. Applicants need a certain number of scientific publications, but Nature has learned that the academy's medical division treats non-Hungarian publications as worth only half as much as those published in Hungary.

“The rules basically exclude foreign researchers from competition with medical scientists in Hungary,” says Gábor Vajta, a Hungarian embryologist and cloning expert working at the Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences in Tjele. He says he has no intention of returning to his native country. “But if I did, I would practically have to start from the very beginning.”

“It's outrageous,” agrees Csaba Szabó, a pharmacologist who, after ten years in the United States and United Kingdom, returned to Hungary last year.

The policy is also against the spirit of Hungary's membership of the European Union, says Georges Bingen, who oversees mobility programmes at the European Commission's Directorate General for Research. “This looks like a severe obstacle to mobility,” he says. Last year, the commission set up a mobility charter for researchers in Europe, calling for countries to encourage researchers to work abroad. But the commission has no authority to force a scientific institution to do so.

The Hungarian government, which wants to strengthen Hungarian science, is also concerned. “Some of the academy's rules clearly disadvantage scientists who live and publish abroad,” says János Kóka, the Hungarian minister responsible for science.

They're used to spending tens of millions of euros without producing any results worth mentioning.

Kóka says the practice is symptomatic of the academy's old-fashioned attitude. “Its election committees still consist of academicians who were socialized in a totalitarian regime,” he says. “They're used to spending tens of millions of euros without producing any results worth mentioning.” The HAS spends a large portion of its budget on “inherited merits and obsolete institutions”, Kóka says.

Norbert Kroó, the HAS's vice-president in charge of foreign relations, counters that the academy has been reformed since the fall of Hungary's communist government in 1990. Staffing has been cut by 40%, he says, and about 170 new research groups have been selected by peer review. The HAS promotes researchers' mobility across borders and between academia and industry, he adds. He says he wasn't aware of the discriminatory rules, and that he'll ask the medical section to take action: “If these rules really are applied they need to be changed.”

“There are two major lobbies within the academy,” says Gábor Támas, a neuroscientist at the University of Szeged. “One faction wants changes, the other does not.”

Támas says reform is needed urgently. But he warns against dismissing the academy's performance. Some HAS institutes, such as the Institute of Experimental Medicine in Budapest and the Biological Research Center in Szeged, produce some of the best science in the country, he says.

Critics and supporters of the academy should stop blaming each other, says Ernõ Duda, president of both Solvo Biotechnology in Budapest and the Hungarian Biotech-nology Association. He agrees that the academy needs to change, but also that Hungary's overly hierarchical universities must open up. “Until a few years ago I would have said that financing was the biggest obstacle to biotechnology in Hungary,” he says. “Now the biggest problem is our obsolete and old-fashioned academic research system.”