ZOiS Spotlight 32/2019

Academic freedom under pressure in Hungary

by Péter Balogh 04/09/2019
On 2 June, thousands of protesters demanded academic autonomy in front of the headquarter of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest. Péter Balogh

By 1 September, the handing over of the management of Hungary’s largest network of research institutions from the autonomous Hungarian Academy of Sciences (HAS) to a new body called Eötvös Loránd Research Network (ELRN) was completed. The Hungarian government set up the new network specifically to manage the research institutes unbuckled from HAS. This development is the final major milestone in a fourteen-month-long struggle between the academy and the government.

How did it come to this situation, and how might it evolve? These questions are particularly relevant as the whole process, including the government’s exact plans and the future of thousands of HAS employees, is characterised by massive uncertainty.

Resource reallocations and promises

The conflict between the academy and the government has been closely monitored by international—including German- and English-language—media, prestigious journals such as Nature, and this author. In June 2018, the government announced it would significantly reform HAS, with the goal of making Hungarian science more innovative and lucrative. The academy was given just fifty-four minutes to comment on the proposed changes, and the government reallocated the academy’s share of the 2019 budget to the Ministry of Innovation and Technology.

The minister responsible claimed that academic freedom would not be hurt by the move, but he also said earlier that the Central European University would not be ousted from Hungary; in fact, teaching is about to start on the university’s new campus in Vienna, with only a few research units and the library remaining in Budapest. At the beginning of the conflict, a weekly magazine close to the government portrayed HAS scholars as a leftist-liberal bunch who mostly research immigration, LGBTQ, and gender—never mind the fact that most HAS employees are not even social scientists (and of those who are only a few work on these issues).

Lack of trust and transparency

These and other developments and practices have contributed to a lack of trust on the part of many researchers towards the government’s real intentions with its so-called reforms. It is indicative of the lack of transparency that the ministry responsible has so far failed to present in writing what exactly the reforms would entail: the only document that has leaked out was a presentation in January by the minister responsible, in which he claimed Germany’s Fraunhofer Society would be a model. The Society is also mentioned as a role model in current Polish efforts at reforming scientific institutions, but the Poles have reportedly been ‘engaging in a thorough consultation process with research institutes and entrepreneurs to figure out how best to shape the new system’.

Several months into the conflict, negotiations were taking place between leading representatives of HAS and the ministry, but these yielded few results. In the spring, the academy was under pressure to accept a compromise whereby it would nominate half of the members of the managing body of the new Eötvös Loránd Research Network. Yet in May, the academy’s general assembly—its sizable highest decision-making body, which meets twice a year—overwhelmingly voted against the government’s plan to handing over its research institutions. It can be seen as a punishment that the managing body now consists of a president appointed by the Hungarian prime minister, six people nominated by the ministry, and six by HAS—while the whole body is approved by the prime minister.

At the end of August, the academy’s president turned to the Constitutional Court of Hungary, a move that is unlikely to lead to any changes but is seen as a precondition for subsequent appeals to international mediating bodies.

What does the future hold?

The further impacts of the changes are highly unclear. One speculation, fed recently by reports of the president of the new network having met university representatives, has been that the research institutes will be amalgamated into one or several universities. Another scenario is similar to that of the recently privatised Corvinus University, which, however, is a business school and may be easier than HAS to adapt to market conditions. In any case, HAS employees’ current status as public officials may change, implying reduced job security.

Internally, cohesion among employees has been strengthened by an emerging grass-roots group working in favour of the integrity of HAS and its research institutions. Externally, the academy has received a large number of support letters from prestigious institutions across the world. The European Commission is also looking into the issue. The Rectors’ Conferences of Germany, Poland, and Austria have called on the Hungarian government to withdraw its law on academia. The biggest pressure could be exercised by leaders of powerful nations; yet given the recently improved relations between German chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, who not long ago were political foes, effective pressure is unlikely.

Péter Balogh holds a PhD in Human Geography and is currently a research fellow at the Institute for Regional Studies of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.