Defying Scientists, Hungary Will Overhaul Academic Network, Report Says

A months-long tussle between Orban's government and academics over the changes is moving towards its final stages with the submission of a bill to parliament expected in coming weeks

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban talks to the media after a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, Germany, July 5, 2018
\ AXEL SCHMIDT/ REUTERS

Hungary is preparing legislation that would strip the Hungarian Academy of Sciences of its body of research institutions, giving the government more control over scientific activity, the news website index.hu reported on Tuesday.

Hungary's oldest and largest academic institution, the Hungarian Academy (HAS) is solely funded by the government but self-managing, with a network of scientific research bodies employing about 5,000 people.

The planned measure, which has been resisted by academics and civil groups, would be the latest in a series of moves by the country's right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban, to expand control, including steps concerning the courts, media, economy and education. Some of his measures have drawn criticism from the European Union.

A months-long tussle between Orban's government and academics over the changes is moving towards its final stages with the submission of a bill to parliament expected in coming weeks, index.hu said, citing the draft legislation.

The government has said the changes are needed to help Hungary shift towards more innovative industries.

"The objective is that the additional resources devoted to domestic scientific research should be utilised in patents and inventions serving the Hungarian economy in earnest," the Innovation and Technology Ministry said in an emailed reply to questions about the report.

"The current system is inefficient and Hungary has fallen behind," the ministry said, adding it believed the planned changes did not harm independent research.

The European Commission said it supported the autonomy of academic institutions, both in terms of funding and self-government.

"The Commission continues to closely monitor the developments in the Hungarian public research system while urging the authorities to refrain from any decision restricting scientific and academic freedom in the country," it said.

A resolution passed by the Academy earlier this month said it disagreed with what it called the "political motivation for the arbitrary restructuring of the institutional network".

The academy, which carries out scientific research using a network of specialised research institutions, receives 40 billion forints ($137.27 million) a year from the government.

Index said the government proposal would move all the research units into a new public institution with a 13-member governing board comprising six government and six academy delegates. Orban would appoint the chairman based on a joint proposal by the board.

Scientists have called for only a third of board members to be picked by the government.

Index also said a new National Scientific Policy Council chaired by Innovation and Technology Minister Laszlo Palkovics, the architect of the academic overhaul, would make the proposals for main areas of research to be funded.

Under the legislation, the academy would hand over the buildings and assets of its research institutions to the new state-run organisation, the report said.