War on the Academy: The Hungarian Government’s Crackdown on Research Freedom

Originally published in June 2019 Newsnet

WAR ON THE ACADEMY: The Hungarian Government’s Crackdown on Research Freedom

by Stefano Bottoni, Hungarian Academy of Sciences

For years now, the nationalist-conservative Hungarian government led by Viktor Orbán has pursued a repressive grip on higher education, with the ultimate goal of exercising political control over research. Since 2014, a chancellor has supervised public universities. This position is only superficially similar to that of the administrative director. In fact, the chancellor - usually a scholar linked to the governing party - oversees expenditure, recruitment, and the general internal life of the university. This authority has paved the way for attacks against the Central European University (CEU).

An amendment to the higher education law issued in March 2017 forced foreign universities operating in Hungary to open a campus also in their country of origin. Founded by businessman George Soros in 1991, the CEU suddenly found itself in a legal limbo as an institution considered politically insidious. In December 2018, after a year and a half of futile negotiations with the Hungarian government, CEU President Michael Ignatieff announced the transfer of all graduate programs accredited in the United States from Budapest to Vienna, effective Fall 2019.

Until recently, the oldest and most prestigious Hungarian research institution, the Academy of Sciences, seemed safe because it is a national establishment. The Academy, which boasts over 400 academics and 5,000 employees, including 2,500 full-time researchers in 15 centers. Besides this, 16,000 persons in possession of a doctorate or equivalent degree participate in the consultative body that regulates Hungarian scientific life. Having labored for years under the illusion of being a national symbol rooted in the social fabric and national history of Hungary, they too have now become a target like the CEU.

This rude awakening began during the electoral campaign that led to the third consecutive triumph of Prime Minister Orbán on April 8, 2018. In January the weekly Figyelő (“The Observer”), owned at that time by prominent Fidesz-ideologue and historian Mária Schmidt, began to publish defamatory articles that listed individual researchers or entire research institutes as politically hostile, useless, or even “harmful” to society. Meanwhile, the government developed a network of research institutes, parallel to those of the Academy, particularly in the humanities. For instance, the “Veritas” historical institute (founded in 2014) is a government entity that employs around thirty researchers engaged in the period between the creation of the Dual Monarchy in 1867 and the end of the Second World War. In the same year, the National Memory Commission (Nemzeti Emlékezet Bizottság) was established to promote an official narrative and research agenda for the period 1945- 1990. The committee is made up of five members, strictly politically nominated, supervising a scientific body of about twenty researchers. Another institute commissioned by the government in 2014, Research Institute and Archives for the History of Regime Change (Rendszerváltás Történetét Kutató Intézet), researches the transition of 1989-90. These institutions, instrumental to political power and generously financed by the state budget, have been joined over the years by various think tanks in fields such as economics, geopolitics and migration, including the government-backed (fin de siècle) Századvég Foundation—a powerful machine of policy-making and propaganda that moves hundreds of millions of euros.

The Hungarian Academy of Sciences was founded in 1825 on the initiative of Count István Széchenyi to promote the Hungarian language and culture. Until the Second World War, this body functioned as an exclusive club for established scholars and in the interwar period openly supported the ultra-conservative orientation of the governments appointed by Admiral Horthy, excluding scholars of Jewish origin. In 1948-49, the Sovietization of the country made a radical change to the “parlor” of Hungarian science. The purge of intellectuals was accompanied by a rigid separation of roles, on the Soviet model, between higher education and academic research. In the early 1950s, the Academy became, on the structural level, a complex multi-level organization (academics-researchersmembers of consultative body) subject to strict ideological control. The Academy and its research institutes carved out a niche of freedom in the “soft” but enveloping dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s. The institutes of philosophy, history, sociology, and world economy employed dozens of internationally renowned scholars who, though barred from teaching in universities, were allowed to conduct their own research and publish in obscure journals.

The entry of the Soros Foundation in Hungary, allowed by the authorities through a memorandum of understanding with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences signed in 1984, marked the end of the public monopoly of the Communist state on research funding and scientific publications. In the following ten years, the Foundation sent 50 million dollars to Hungary. In addition to funding hundreds of economists, sociologists, and writers, it distributed 475 photocopiers to universities and research centers throughout Hungary. The state authorities retained influence over the recipients of scholarships and research projects granted in heavy currency, but, thanks to the Soros Foundation, the Academy of Sciences carved out a space of autonomy previously unthinkable.

After the post-Communist transition, the Academy chose the path of a gradual renewal, eschewing purges or abjurations of the Communist past. A law approved in 1994 secured freedom of public research through the Academy’s full managerial and financial autonomy. Under the chairmanship of two historians, the conservative Domokos Kosáry and the socialist Ferenc Glatz, the Academy struggled, not without success, to harmonize its traditional “national” profile with the challenges of technological change and the globalization of knowledge. In 2011-12, a comprehensive reform consolidated the network of research institutes into 15 administrative and scientific macro-units, the research centers. The one for humanities, for example, brought together seven previously independent institutes (including that of history) and today employs 440 researchers and administrative staff members. Over the years, the weight of external funding has progressively grown to approximately one third of the budget of the research institutes.

Despite these changes, the Minister of Innovation and Technology, the engineer and academician László Palkovics argues that the public research system in Hungary is still affected by the legacy of the Soviet system. Palkovics believes that the Academy enjoys excessive “freedom,” while research in the humanities, a supposed luxury for a small country of modest wealth, should be replaced by technological innovation in support of industry.

However, international statistics tell a different story: public research carried out in the institutions of the Academy is among the most productive on the continent, if we compare the modest budget of less than 200 million euros per year with indicators such as publications or European project grants in the last decade. Hungary stands out among the countries of Central-Eastern Europe with 69 ERC and Horizon-2020 grants (compared to 29 in the Czech Republic and 27 in Poland), 32 of which were won by the Academy’s institutes.

Not surprisingly, the first battle between the Academy and the Ministry of Innovation and Technology was fought in the summer of 2018 over management autonomy. In June, Palkovics proposed a technical amendment aimed at diverting more than two thirds of the Academy’s annual funding to the Ministry’s budget. The real objective of this move was very clear: to transfer funds for basic and applied research to the Ministry in order to obtain full financial control over the Academy’s research network. These logistical and financial premises were eventually used by Palkovics to achieve the suppression of the Academy’s autonomy, which also led to the humiliation of its president, the world-famous mathematician László Lovász. The minister has in fact granted the legal department of the Academy just 54 minutes to view and comment on the bill, approved a few days later without any modification despite the protests from President Lovász and numerous academics. Starting from 2019, the minister would have linked the granting of funds to a “general assessment” of the functioning of the research network carried out in the first months of the same year by an equal commission made up of academics and experts appointed by the Ministry.

Events took a dramatic turn after the extraordinary meeting of the general assembly, the Academy’s self-governing body, on December 6, 2018. Although entitled to attend the minister did not show up, probably for fear of a confrontation, and the academics, wounded in their professional and corporate pride, approved by a large majority a resolution that committed President Lovász to reject the reform plan and ask the government to respect the autonomy of the Academy. Irritated by the unexpected resistance of a traditionally staid body, Palkovics opted for direct retaliation.

Since January 2019, the Ministry of Innovation and Technology holds “temporarily” (until March 31, the last term of the “general assessment” of academic efficiency) the sums previously allocated in the budget law to the institutions. The Academy can therefore provide only the basic salary of researchers and the administrative staff. A month and a half after the introduction of this punitive measure, numerous laboratory activities have been suspended, the editorial projects of 2019 have stalled, and applications to European funds are impossible due to the uncertainty regarding the availability of overheads. According to the legal department of the Academy, the government is violating not only the 1994 law on the functioning of the Academy but also its own budget law. To remedy the problem, Minister Palkovics announced on January 31 a “public tender” in which each research center must present a proposal of research activities planned until December 31, 2019. All this in 5,500 characters, spaces and financial tables included, by February 28, 2019. The Ministry suggested “culture” and “family” macro-sectors as research topics for the humanities and social sciences. As you can guess, the Academy was in fact forced to participate, to earn its own budget, in a scientific farce. Furthermore, the “tender” for the approximately 85 million euros available, which is more or less equivalent to the “old” budget, is open to other competitors such as universities, public institutions, but also the previously mentioned alternative think tanks. However, unlike the Academy, these other actors have regular financing, while the Academic research centers are in fact private as of January 1, 2019.

At the time of writing, the future of the Academy of Sciences is completely uncertain. The political will to punish the academic world, considered insufficiently aligned, has stimulated an unprecedented bottom-up reaction. The thousands of researchers (with an average age of just 41 years) who represent the operating arm, though often forgotten, of the Academy of Sciences, feel betrayed by their superiors have self-organized, joining the trade unions for the first time in decades and forming a civil initiative called the “Academy Staff Forum.”

On February 12, 2019, the Forum organized the first protest demonstration ever carried out by the Academy’s employees in downtown Budapest, attended by over 3,000 people: not only scholars but also ordinary citizens indignant over the insult to the most ancient and prestigious national academic institution. That same day, the Academy Bureau, at the end of a dramatic meeting, decided - despite pressure from the crowd and the media - to reject the “thematic tender of excellence” proposed by the Ministry if it illegally withholds public funds already allocated for the research institutes. In the Hungarian press, detailed reports on the attempted dismemberment of the current research centers have appeared. Rumors circulate of a gigantic public foundation, the control of which would be entrusted to the government, that will hijack the Academy’s research centers. The Ministry’s plans include the transformation, scheduled for July 1, 2019, of the Corvinus University of Budapest (formerly “Karl Marx” University), which specializes in economic sciences and international relations, into a foundation called “Maecenas Universitatis Corvini.” Financed by a share package with a total value of over 1.2 billion euros, all the real estate and securities matrimony of the Corvinus University would come together in this foundation. Minister Palkovics has already outlined the unbundling of the research institutes and their transfer to a new foundation, telling the president of the Academy Lovász, that this is the basic prerequisite for reaching an agreement on research funding not only for 2019 but also for the foreseeable future.

Thus, the question of the Academy has acquired the dynamic of power-opposition. The leading bodies of the Academy, without offering a formal legitimacy to the Workers’ Forum, received the message of the protest, and on February 26, 2019, the Presidency of the Academy of Sciences resolved almost unanimously to refuse to participate without written guarantees from the Ministry.

This gesture of dignity further raises the stakes as it puts the government at a crossroads: opting for a tactical retreat, implicitly recognizing the foolishness of the project, or accelerating on the same path to crush the resistance of scholars. The Academy has the financial resources necessary to cover the budget leaks for a few months but no more, and at the moment the government intends to guarantee the payment of salaries only until March 31, 2019. Thousands of researchers are therefore at the mercy of a conflict, now fueled by government propaganda, that the Academy tried to manage in an accommodating way before realizing that the government was aiming, not for a compromise, but a total victory.

On May 6, 2019, the General Assembly of the Academy of Sciences delivered a series of resolutions stating that the research network should remain under the purview of the Academy, even if the government is delegated substantially more power in their management system than at present. According to General Assembly’s resolution, the Academy set up several conditions for agreeing to the new management system: a start date of January 1, 2020, at the earliest; the exclusive inclusion of institutions currently within the Academy’s research network; the preservation of the independent legal status of current institutions until that date; and the retention of public servant status of Academy’s staff. Finally, the Academy called on the government to allow independent international partners to take an active part in the development of the new research structure.

The government has rejected these demands and seems determined to realize its centralization plans by overturning the 1994 Academy Law. The standoff continues, while the Academy staff has been living and working for almost one year under existential risk.

The question of the Academy concerns not only scientific policy, but also the freedom of research and expression. The fate of research institutes assumes a national political relevance, while the Academy Presidency is flooded with declarations of solidarity from Hungarian and especially international partners.

What are the reasons for the government’s war on the Academy of Sciences? We can identify two closely related motivations: struggle for resources and ideological ambition.

The Hungarian government knows that with the next European budget Budapest will surely lose a significant part of the development funds provided by Brussels: an estimated 6 billion euros between 2021 and 2027. The only significant exception is the funds allocated to research and innovation, several billion euros of which will flow into the country. The forced detachment of research centers from the Academy structure eliminates an autonomous competitive entity and guarantees the implementation of the so-called “vertical of power” on the crony management of this enormous amount of public money.

In any case, the most penalized are already the humanities and social sciences sectors: not because of their (low) cost of management but because they still represent an autonomous and critical factor for government policies in fields such as economy, demography, and the politics of the memory. What is at stake in the war launched by the Hungarian government on its own Academy of Sciences is therefore not just the management and financial autonomy of the latter. It now concerns the government’s attempt to remove the islands of autonomy, criticism, and freedom in a country that the recent Freedom House report has downgraded, for the first time in the EU’s history, from “free” to “partially free.” Depriving the Academy of its research institutes is tantamount to destroying its social representation and indispensable function as a source of criticism and political stimulus.

Stefano Bottoni is a Senior Research Fellow at the Research Center for the Humanities of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He was visiting fellow at the Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung (Potsdam, 2012) and Fellow of Imre Kertész Kolleg (Jena, 2015). He is the author of Long Awaited West: Eastern Europe since 1944 (Indiana University Press, 2017), and Stalin’s Legacy in Romania: The Hungarian Autonomous Region 1952-1960 (Lexington Books, 2018).