Hungarian scientists fear for academic freedom with new government interference

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Staff members of the historic Hungarian Academy of Sciences said their academic freedom has been threatened by a new deal giving the nationalist government influence over its research institutions.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a conservative leader who came to power in 2010, has tightened control over Hungarian public life, including the courts, the media, the economy, as well as education and now scientific research.

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

On Friday, MTA President Laszlo Lovasz and Innovations and Technology Minister Laszlo Palkovics announced that they had reached an agreement to separate the science research network from the academy’s teaching institutions. The deal ends several months of uncertainty over how the MTA would be reorganized.

The research arm would be run by a new management body, with members selected by the government and MTA, according to a joint letter of intent signed by Lovasz and the minister.

The deal fails to guarantee the independence of research, the Forum of Academy Workers, a movement founded in January by staff of the MTA’s research institutions, said on its Facebook page.

“The points in the letter of intent do not include any guarantee that can be taken seriously… about maintaining the scientific and organizational integrity and professional independence of the research network,” the Forum said in a post.

Concerns over the erosion of academic freedom and other democratic rights in Hungary have triggered several anti-government demonstrations in recent months.

In December, the Central European University (CEU), founded by billionaire George Soros, said it had been forced out of Hungary in “an arbitrary eviction” that violated academic freedom, and it confirmed plans to open a new campus in Austria.

Renewed government support for the CEU to stay in Budapest has been one of the conditions set for Orban’s ruling Fidesz party to stay in the main center-right party in the European Parliament in a growing row.

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