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Hungarian academic freedom faces uncertain future as parliament discusses new law

Exactly one year ago the Hungarian Academy of Sciences received an email from the country’s ministry for innovation and technology regarding a new law that would severely reduce the academy’s independence.

The controversial law is now under discussion in the Hungarian parliament. Although the academy has in the meantime offered a number of potential solutions and compromises, Minister for Innovation and Technology László Palkovics has repeatedly said that they are unacceptable to the government.

“We do not want to strip [the academy] of its network, just put it on a new track,” he said.

The most relevant change regards the creation of a National Office for Research, Development and Innovation, which would oversee the academy’s research institutes.

“The academy is not just a club of old scientists, but a group active in all stages of research,” said its president László Lovász.

“There is no valid reason behind this, the rights of the academy were violated and the methods of negotiations we experienced last year are questionable. All of this threatens the academy and mutual trust is eroded,” he added.

The government believes that Hungary’s scientific performance had failed to advance over the past decade and the country lacks innovation. The academy has recognised that a structural changed is needed, but does not see the need for its research network should be separated from its main body.

“In the bill, there is no strategy, nothing that connects the fact that dividing the academy from its research institutes will improve the country’s competitiveness,” Mr Lovász continued.

The network will be controlled by a council, half of whose members will be directly appointed by the government. The country’s prime minister Viktor Orbán will choose its president. Additionally, the state will create a National Council of Scientific Policy headed by Mr Palkovics himself. The academy will only have a single representative on this new body.

“It is the scientist himself that knows what has to be done, what is the level of international research. Now, RDI priorities will be set by the ministry, advised by a council where only one-third of the members are scientists,” argued Mr Lovász.

If the law will pass, the areas most at risk are social sciences.

“Social sciences are more focused on the country, they conflict with politics as their research can contain criticism of certain policies. But here there is an important distinction between politics and policies and it is not always completely understood,” explained Mr Lovász.