Hungarian government takes control of research institutes despite outcry

Crowds protest government plans outside the Hungarian Academy of Sciences

Thousands of people protested in Budapest in June against the Hungarian’s governments plans to take over research institutes.Credit: Zoltan Balogh/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

After months of struggle between Hungary’s research ministry and its scientific community, the nation’s parliament ratified a law on 2 July that gives the government control over the 40 or so institutes belonging to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (HAS).

The government says that its aim is to make research more innovative. But the law, which also transfers ownership of the institutes’ properties to the new government-run Eötvös Loránd Research Network (ELKH), has prompted international outcry and raised concerns about academic freedom in Hungary.

Last month, thousands of scientists and their supporters demonstrated in Budapest against the proposed law. They said the takeover was unconstitutional and that it threatened scientists’ autonomy. In the past six months, scores of academies, universities, research institutes and other scientific communities from across Europe — including ALLEA, the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities — have written open letters in support of the HAS, which is responsible for most of Hungary’s basic research.

And on 1 July, the heads of Germany’s ten leading research organizations — including the Max Planck Society, its prestigious basic-research organization — wrote an open letter to Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, warning that the changes would harm science.

No comparison

The letter also disputes two assertions made by the Hungarian research minister, László Palkovics, to justify the law. He said that the changes introduced by the law mirror reforms made, after the reunification of Germany, to the research institutes previously run by East Germany’s science academy. He also said that the new government-controlled network of institutes in Hungary will operate similarly to the Max Planck Society.

The letter clarifies that the research institutes integrated into the West German system were immediately provided with scientific autonomy and guaranteed basic funding — as are all Max Planck institutes. Neither of these conditions applies to Hungary’s new network of research institutes, whose researchers will now have to compete for almost all of their funding, it says. “The planned restructuring could lead to a considerable decline in competitiveness and, as a result, a loss of quality,” says the letter. “The decisive factor is — and will always be — scientific freedom guaranteed through legislation and resources.”

In a 4 July statement, ALLEA says its academies “reject the claim of the Hungarian government that the ELKH will produce more innovative science”.

The law, which still needs to be formally ratified by Hungary’s President János Áder, is set to come into effect next month.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-02107-4


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