Today, Hungary’s parliament approved an amendment that makes it legally possible to transfer a large part of the budget of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA) in Budapest to the country’s newly established Ministry of Innovation and Technology (ITM). The vote is the first step in a process that may bring almost €88 million of MTA’s €124 million annual budget under direct control of ITM; the next step is a parliamentary vote on the science budget itself on Friday. The government’s proposal is widely expected to pass.
Minister for Innovation and Technology László Palkovics has said the transfer will unite Hungary’s innovation and science policy and end fragmentation of research budgets. But many scientists see the move as a power grab by an increasingly authoritarian regime that would extend political influence over science spending and research agendas.
Last week, ScienceInsider talked to MTA President László Lovász, who has negotiated at length with Palkovics in search of a last-minute compromise. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Why is this budget proposal unacceptable for the academy?
A: The majority of our budget—mostly for the maintenance of our research institutes, recruiting new researchers and some of our grants—would be distributed by this new ministry. Minister Palkovics has said that means the ministry will determine which areas to focus [the budget] on. Unfortunately, this is a very broad statement. We were promised everything will remain the same, but then I don’t understand why they need to be changed.
What worries me is there will be a very complicated financing system where, let’s say, we’re the owner of the buildings, but if we want to repair a roof we would need to run to the ITM. I can’t understand why they couldn’t take the prestige of the academy into account when they decided on these changes. To say we cannot finance ourselves shows a lot of distrust.
Q: How has the scientific community responded?
A: We want to avoid taking the whole debate to a political level, but many international institutions have expressed their concern and solidarity. The academy’s presidium—which has about 25 members with various political views—has unanimously adopted a resolution [to boycott the governmental proposals]. I believe this shows clear support from the Hungarian scientific community.
Q: Do you see this as retribution for public criticism of the government by MTA or its members?
A: I don’t think so. Our criticism, for example, on the education system was based on evidence. The right-wing media have attacked the academy on many occasions, but if there is any claim about us expressing antigovernmental opinion, then it is a misinterpretation because this was never the case.
Q: You negotiated with Palkovics for weeks. How did it go?
A: We were asked to draw up alternative proposals. As a compromise, we made them an offer in which they would take over the budget for the academy’s science grants, allowing the government to implement changes in science policy, while we would keep control over the basic financing of the academy’s institutes.
Q: Last week, the minister rejected MTA’s proposals. What’s next?
A: Unfortunately, Minister Palkovics has taken a hard line in the case, and we couldn’t reach a compromise. If the budget and the amendment get approved, of course, we will comply with the law, but I’m afraid this will result in the need to fight for the recognition of certain types of research on a daily basis. By now, it’s clear the minister and I have different perspectives on bottom-up research. He doesn’t support such projects for some reason, regards them as endless and haphazard to some extent, while the academy believes they are essential for the advancement of science and for Hungarians. They help ensure that the country does not lag behind cutting-edge science by decades.
Q: What will be the future of Hungarian science?
A: The new ministry doesn’t even have “science” in its name. Based on that alone, I cannot see the guarantee that they will remain responsible for science in the long term. I can trust the promises of Minister Palkovics, but guaranteeing the independence of academic research must not depend on one person. It will become more difficult for the Hungarian scientific community, but I hope the prestige of the academy and the joint efforts of scientists will help us continue scientific research according to the current standards.
*Update, 20 July, 3:20 p.m.: Hungary’s Parliament voted 20 July to approve the government’s 2019 budget, including the transfer of the majority of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’s budget—€88 million of its €124 million total—to the Ministry of Innovation and Technology.