Hungary’s scientists outraged by government budget grab

Innovation ministry’s decision to issue grant call using money meant for Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ operations sparks protests.

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People raise science books in protest outside of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest.

Protestors flocked to support the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ battle to regain control of its finances.Credit: Tamas Kaszas/Reuters

In the cold afternoon sunshine of 12 February, hundreds of scientists and their supporters formed a human chain around the historic Hungarian Academy of Sciences (HAS) building in Budapest. The gesture was one of protection. Inside, academy members were holding an emergency meeting to decide how to handle what they say is a serious a threat to the nation’s science community.

The protests erupted after Hungary’s minister for innovation and technology said on 31 January that he would use the 17 billion forint (US$60.2 million) meant to pay for the academy’s running costs to help finance a 27-billion-forint, ministry-led call for research proposals. The call extends beyond the academy’s institutes to include universities and government-run research institutes across Hungary.

The move has provoked outrage among scientists and members of the academy, which is responsible for most of Hungary’s basic research — and marks the latest skirmish in a months-long battle between the academy and the nation’s populist government.

Academy members complain that the call, which has a deadline of 28 February, is too hasty — and that the ministry has not explained how submissions will be evaluated and selected. Critics also say there may be no legal basis to divert money budgeted for the academy in this way.

“This was unacceptable,” says László Lovász, a mathematician and president of the academy, which runs 15 independent research institutions and has more than 130 research groups in universities. “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.”

Rising tensions

For the past six months, tensions have been rising between the academy and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government, which scientists say is trying to take control of their budget and erode the academy’s independence. The minister for innovation and technology, László Palkovics, says that his department is carrying out a necessary reorganization of Hungary’s research landscape to improve innovation. But the academy says it has mostly been excluded from the negotiations about the reforms.

What’s more, academics say uncertainty about the future of science in Hungary is driving young talent away.

The HAS says it has resolved to directly challenge Palkovics. At the emergency meeting, the academy decided that Lovász will collect applications from academy research institutes but only pass them on to the minister if he guarantees to return their basic running costs.

The struggle between the academy and Palkovics follows a government decree passed last summer ordering a restructuring of the HAS’s network of institutes. In December, Palkovics announced he would withhold the running costs until the end of March, by which time a new structure should be in place — although academy members’ salaries are being paid. But scientists say that he has not come up with concrete proposals about how the reform process will work in practice, and has ignored their suggestions.

‘Detrimental effects’

The turmoil has provoked several letters of dissent, including one from ALLEA on 15 February, an umbrella group of European science academies.

On 7 February, about 100 winners of the academy’s prestigious Momentum awards — research grants designed to encourage talented young scientists to return to Hungary or remain there — published an open letter to Orbán. In it, they express concern about the radical restructuring of Hungarian research and complain that the reforms are being pushed through without negotiations with the organizations involved.

“It is our firm request,” it says, “that the hasty and ill-founded process of restructuring the funding of Hungarian research and innovation be suspended immediately. This is the only way to reverse the detrimental effects of the current instability, which is pushing more and more of us to consider leaving Hungary and continuing our work in another country.”

Another open letter initiated on 9 February by five leading Hungarian figures in culture and science condemns the government’s attempt “to direct the tastes and thoughts of citizens” and protests what it describes as over-hasty and poorly thought through reforms. More than 1,000 scientists, artists and educators have signed the letter so far.

A politically conservative group called the Batthyány Society of Professors also stressed in an open letter to Lovász and Palkovics that institutes must have guaranteed basic funding and should not have to rely on project money awarded through contests.

In its letter, the group also proposed the creation of a foundation to run the academy institutes, whose governing body would be delegated by the Hungarian government and whose scientific council would comprise scientists — a suggestion that Palkovics told Nature he endorses. Palkovics said that reforms of the research landscape are necessary because Hungary fares poorly on innovation scoreboards. “Protests occur whenever changes are introduced,” he said.

Lovász says that the foundation idea represents the first concrete proposal for a mechanism whereby reform plans could move forwards. “It is at least a tangible basis for negotiation,” he says. “But it could only be accepted under the conditions of freedom of research from political interference and a maintenance of the research network.”

Palkovics told Nature that he welcomed the opportunity to negotiate with academy leaders.

Widespread support

The academy says that it has received messages of support from around the world, as well as from the Budapest-based Central European University. The university has been forced to move many of its activities out of the country after an 18-month stand-off with Orbàn’s government.

Young scientists in Hungary contacted by Nature say that they are wary of speaking on the record, because they fear it could damage their careers.

One Momentum grant winner who is actively seeking a job abroad told Nature that he was finding it increasingly difficult to recruit foreign or Hungarian postdocs and PhD students to his lab because of the deteriorating political situation — even though he has a large grant from the European Research Council that allows him to pay internationally competitive salaries. It is getting ever-harder to carry out high-level research in Hungary, he says: “the forceful and ill-considered restructuring of the academy” played a big part in his decision to start looking for jobs elsewhere.

The past six months have been exhausting, says Lovász. “But I escape some weekends to do some mathematics.”

Nature 566, 306-307 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00586-z
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