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Academics warn of ’loss of an entire generation of scientists’

In an open letter to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán signed by over 100 grant winners of the “Lendület” research program of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA), academics express “absolute incomprehension” with regard to the draft law that the government aims to present to Parliament on scientific research in Hungary.

A protesterʼs placard on Sunday, June 2, reads "MTA not ATM," alluding to the government plan to take control of the academyʼs assets (photo: MTA Communications / Tamás Sziget).

As reported on May 28, the government is planning to tighten the reins on funding and control of the MTA by introducing legislation in Parliament that enters into effect on August 1. The proposal includes taking away all 15 research institutes from the MTA and the creation of a new state research network to which the 15 institutes would belong, controlled by a 13-person body, with six appointees from the academy, and six from the government, but with a president appointed by Orbán personally, based on a joint proposal.

Furthermore, the government aims to create the National Council of Scientific Policy (NTT), headed by Minister for Innovation and Technology László Palkovics, who will be in charge of appointments. The MTA would only have a single representative on this body.

Perhaps most controversially, the MTA would be obliged by law to hand over the buildings of its research facilities, as well as its infrastructure, tools, and possessions for “free use,” a move which critics say is tantamount to nationalizing the dominant part of the research sphere.

Direct appeal to Orbán

“We, the principal investigators of the ’Lendületʼ program for excellence in research, have read with absolute incomprehension the draft law that László Palkovics (Ministry for Innovation and Technology, or ITM) intends to present to Parliament regarding scientific research in Hungary,” reads the open letter from the academic grant recipients, the full text of which can be read in English here. “The draft law aims to restructure scientific research in Hungary – in particular, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA) and its research network – without the agreement of those affected, and despite their explicit objections.”

“We emphatically urge You not to support the aforementioned ill-considered draft law, which is not justifiable by professional reasoning, and, as such, is extraordinarily harmful in its present form,” the letter continues. “It cannot be in the interest of Hungary to affect a restructuring which the overwhelming majority of the Hungarian scientific community opposes and rejects on professional grounds. The draft law throws aside the results of the negotiations of the past months – which were accepted even by the ITM – and goes directly against the recommendations for reform accepted by the Assembly of the MTA, which took into account the publicly articulated professional requirements of the Government.”

The letter goes on to criticize the “unilateral restructuring, proposed without a comprehensive analysis or impact study and pushed forward despite opposing professional arguments,” and notes that the draft law “places scientific decision-making under direct political control, in stark contrast to the principles of research policy based on the self-governance of the scientific community.”

In conclusion, the letter warns of the consequences of acceptance of the proposed legislation.

“If the draft law were to be accepted, irreplaceable national values would be lost, and even in the short term, irreparable scientific, cultural and economic damage would be done. The continually deepening crisis of confidence threatens to lead to the emigration of our internationally competitive young researchers, and ultimately to the loss of an entire generation of scientists.”

-  Open letter to PM by Lendület grant winners 

Protesters march in solidarity

On Sunday, a demonstration in support of the MTA was organized in Budapest by the Forum of Academy Staff, a civil initiative of researchers from the network of research institutes of the MTA, state news agency MTI reported on Monday.

In a message read aloud at the demonstration, MTA President László Lovász said “we still do not know whether the Academyʼs efforts to preserve scientific autonomy will be crowned with success,” but added that he trusted decision-makers “are not only listening to, but also weighing” the Academyʼs arguments, which he said enjoy the support of “an overwhelming majority of the entire sphere of Hungarian researchers.”

“We must not lose sight of our main goal: for researchers of the network of institutions to be able to continue their research in Hungary, free of political pressure, free to pick topics [of research] in line with international norms, with predictable material support,” Lovász added.  

According to the MTA and news reports, several thousand people participated in the demonstration, which took place from 2 p.m. until early in the evening on Sunday, starting from Corvinus University on Fővám tér and proceeding along a route ending in front of the MTA building on Széchenyi István tér.