Hungarians protest against proposed government takeover of science

Thousands of people march against government proposal to take control of nation’s leading research institutes.

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People protest outside the Hungarian Academy of Sciences against government's plans to overhaul the institution in Budapest

People protested outside the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest on 2 June against government plans to overhaul the institution.Credit: Bernadett Szabo/Reuters

Thousands of scientists and their supporters marched through the streets of Budapest on 2 June to protest against a proposed law that would give the Hungarian government direct control of the country’s top research institutes.

The proposal is the latest move in a months-long battle between the government and the independent Hungarian Academy of Sciences (HAS), and part of a worrying trend of restricting academic freedom in the country, say the protesters. The HAS runs a network of some 40 research institutes that do much of the country’s basic science.

The draft law, presented by research minister László Palkovics to the HAS on 27 May, would give the ministry control of the institutes and ownership of the academy’s properties. Palkovics, who did not respond to Nature’s requests for comment for this story, has said that the changes are needed to improve innovation.

Detrimental and unconstitutional

But the proposal has prompted an outcry from academy members. In a statement posted online, the HAS argues that the loss of autonomy in research will be detrimental to the government’s aims of improving innovation, and that the property takeover is unconstitutional.

The proposal comes after the Hungarian government last year ordered a restructuring of the research system, as part of its bid to improve innovation. The government also transferred the 2019 budget for the HAS’s institutes to the Ministry for Innovation and Technology.

As part of the restructuring, Palkovics had proposed breaking up the academy’s network of institutes; some institutes would be transferred to universities, some would be closed and the rest would become part of a new organization in which the government would participate.

The ministry and the academy began negotiations in April about how the new institute network should be organized and governed, but they failed to agree on fundamental points. The academy’s 2,500 or so research staff have been in a state of uncertainty about the future of their institutions and budget.

The draft law now says that the institute network will be governed by a panel of 13 people appointed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The body would make all major decisions about the institutes, including appointments of their scientific directors.

‘Extraordinarily harmful’

In an open letter published on 29 May, winners of the academy’s prestigious Momentum grants — which are designed to encourage talented young scientists to remain in or return to Hungary and run their own research groups — urged the prime minister and government not to support the draft law, which they said is “ill-considered” and “extraordinarily harmful in its present form”. More than 100 research group leaders have signed the letter.

The demonstration was also intended to draw attention to the general erosion of academic freedom in Hungary in the past five years, says Márton Zászkaliczky at the HAS Institute for Literary Studies in Budapest. The march passed several universities in the city, including the Central European University, which has lost its right to teach most of its courses in the country. Hungary is now close to the bottom of European rankings of university autonomy.

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