Hungary’s government throws science academy into turmoil

Row over control of organization’s budget leaves scientists worried about how they will continue to operate in January.

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Colourful light created by Peter Kozma is cast on the building of Hungarian Sciences Academy in 2007

The Hungarian Academy of Sciences is engaged in a row with the country’s innovation ministry over its budget. Credit: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty

Researchers at some institutes in Hungary are panicking about how they will keep the lights on from January, after the ministry for innovation and technology said this month that it would withhold their running costs for at least three months.

The turmoil is the result of sweeping reforms to Hungary’s research system, instigated by the nation’s populist government. A decree approved by parliament in July ordered a complete restructuring in 2019 of how academic research is organized and funded — changes that mainly affect the 44 basic-research institutes run by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (HAS). But the government has still not agreed on how the decree will be implemented, say researchers, and has already missed key deadlines for planning.

“No one knows what will happen,” says plant biologist Éva Kondorosi at the HAS Biological Research Centre in Szeged, who is vice-president of the European Research Council (ERC) and one of this year’s winners of the prestigious international Balzan Prize. “The situation is unacceptable.”

The government, which was reelected in April, says the reforms are needed to promote innovation and increase the country’s global competitiveness. But scientists say they are not being appropriately consulted and that they are worried about the impact of the changes.

As part of the reforms, the government announced in June that from 2019, control of the academy’s 28-billion forint (US$98-million) research budget will be transferred to the ministry for innovation and technology — a move that researchers fear could result in a loss of autonomy over their institutes and their work. The decree also orders an evaluation of each of the academy’s centres by March. The outcome will determine whether each institute stays open, is merged with a university or is closed.

Political backdrop

The changes are set against a background of broader concern about interference in academic affairs by the government, some policies of which prompted violent protests in Budapest last week.

In October, the international Central European University in Budapest was forced to move most of its teaching operations to Vienna, after a long-running struggle with the Hungarian government. The government refused to sign an agreement with the university that would allow it to teach courses accredited in the United States on Hungarian soil from 2019.

And in August, the government banned the teaching of gender studies in public universities. Hungary is now close to the bottom of the European University Association’s ranking of university autonomy in 29 countries or regions. In October, prime minister Viktor Orban signed another decree creating an interdisciplinary research institute for ‘Hungarianness’ under the control of the government, a move that some scientists fear might play into nationalistic policies.

Overhead costs

Academy researchers’ major concern for the immediate future is how institute running costs — such as electricity bills — will be covered.

On 3 December — at a meeting to discuss the reforms with members of the academy’s leadership — innovation minister László Palkovics said that the ministry would release funds from the academy’s budget for the salaries of the academy’s 2,500 or so research staff for the next 3 months, until the “new structure and financing model” for research is put in place. But he said that the ministry would withhold running costs for the institutes in this period, and that money for overheads could be found from other academy resources. The HAS leadership says that legally, the academy’s money cannot be redirected in this way, and that as long as the academy is handing out grants, it must also be given money for running costs.

Scientists complain that Palkovics, who has been innovation minister since May, has not adequately consulted them about the impending changes. On 6 December, Palkovics cancelled his attendance to an extraordinary meeting of academy members — intended to discuss how to move forwards — only minutes before he was due to speak. In a letter to the participants, he said that “an unstructured, emotionally heated debate would not be honourable for either side”. Palkovics and the innovation ministry have not responded to Nature’s requests for comment.

At the meeting, the academy approved resolutions demanding that control of their budget be returned to them and criticized what many consider to be a takeover of science in a way that “undermines the trust of scientists in their future”. It declared its support for the idea of improving innovation in Hungary — the stated intention of the decree — but said it did not think that breaking up the academy would achieve this aim.

Grant fears

Despite low investment, Hungary performs relatively strongly in research. For example, the country has hosted more of the highly competitive ERC grants than any other former communist state in Europe.

Two years ago, the country launched a coherent plan to build up its research strength. For instance, the government’s National Research, Development and Innovation Office (NRDIO) launched a series of grant programmes that were designed to attract early-career, as well as experienced, scientists from different disciplines.

But some NRDIO grants have not materialized this year. The ministry has still not announced a list of 12 grant-winners of the most competitive and lucrative awards, which were agreed on in September.

The HAS’s budget also includes money for competitive research grants, for example its highly selective Momentum scheme, which is designed to encourage talented young scientists to return to, or remain in, Hungary. But the changes mean that calls for these programmes have been delayed. HAS scientists say that Palkovics verbally assured them that the 8-billion-forint budget for grants would be released to the academy.

Neuroscientist Peter Somogyi, an HAS academician who is based at the University of Oxford, UK, says that the ministry’s actions have created at atmosphere of uncertainty and fear.

The atmosphere threatens to drive away the talented scientists that Hungary had been trying so hard to attract, says Jozsef Palinkas, a former HAS president who headed the NRDIO before the new government replaced him last June.

Balint Virag, who studies the mathematics of uncertainty, concurs. In 2015, he won a Momentum grant and moved to the HAS Alfred Renyi Institute for Mathematics in Budapest, hoping for a permanent return to his homeland and an opportunity to improve the prospects for science there. But he has found the political uncertainty in Hungary to be too much. In October, he resigned and has now returned to a tenured professorship at the University of Toronto. “Things got worse rather than better,” he says.

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