mta academy demonstration
Photo: MTI/Balogh Zoltán

In 2018 the government put forward a brand new agenda claiming that due to the lack of economic developement and transperency the Hungarian Academy of Sciences will be set apart and restructured to work more effeciantly towards the country’s needs. An absurd sentiment set in motion by even absurder means.

“You do not need to accept everything as true, you only have to accept it as necessary.”    – Franc Kafka, The trial

To all of whom who are unfamiliar with the work of the Academy, it is a scientific community focused on basic resaerch and is one of the most prestigous institutions of the country which has been at the epicenter of scientific discoveries since it has been founded in 1832, and which till this day on stands on the international forefront of research. This becomes rather selfexplainatory once we show that scientiscts of the academy have been involved in as prominent projects as the exploration of gravitational waves, numouros climate change studies, cancer research, soil erosions and even helped to clean up the infamous red sludge spill in 2010.

Yet despite all of this, almost exactly a year ago the acadamy recieved an email from the new Ministry of Innovation and Technology that left them 54 minutes to prepare an expert opinion on the amendments in the new upcoming law. 

The proposal aims to detach the entire research network from the Academy, meaning all 16 departments and their 5000 member sfaff in order to create a new national complex under the name of Eötvös Lóránd Kutató Hálózat (ELKH).

Prior to this the Academy consisted of a main body made up by 11 sections which oversaw the larger networks activity. Evalutions and performance reviews were all done by experts in the field in question, forming a reliable and constructive synergy between the supervisery unit and their members.

Compared to this the ELKH’s board would comprise of 6 delegates from the ministry, 6 MTA (Academy) delegates + a president.  All members are appointed by the prime minister, all cases are passed by a simple majority and all representatives of the research network are excluded from the decision making process.

The Academy tried to reach an agreement numourus times, allowing for stronger governmental control, increased evalutions of the establishment, and a vast number of structural changes, all of whom were dismissed because it does not fit in with the governments intention to separate the resaerch network.

The president Dr. László Lovász emphesized that during the year long seige of the institute no valid reasoning was put forward on why these changes are needed or why they are ought to be executed in this measure or paste. Press interviews by the minister and power point slides were all the means providing information on the plan. To the question why the split itself would be beneficail to the private sector or the research facilites the answer was a simple:

„Because.” In the president’s own words: „Maybe we should move passed childrens arguements.”

Nevertheless the Academy itself tried to disprove the two leading arguements advocating the changes.   

Starting with accusations that the Academy wouldn’t be transperent enough, it underwent an auidit ordered by the government, assured the public and their counterparts of the extensive vetting process which takes place within the academy, and reminded the accuser that it reports about all of his activities annually to the government and byannually to parliament. Furthermore government officials in the supervisory body of the research departments have never voiced any concerns regarding transperency or accuantability, and if this was not enough the sum of their performance is constantly accesabble on the website.

The second issue seems to be efficiancy, but to make sense out of this we first have to distinguish between the current model and the desired one, simply becuase the current is one of the best in Europe. The Acadamy wins an ever increasing amount of ERC grants, outperforms any similiar scientific community within the EU13 region, provides the highest number of scientific articles published by renown journals in Europe, and produces approximately 30% of the research output of the country.

„But it seems to be incapable of boosting the economy.”

Therefore the dispersion among basic research and applied research within the MTA will tilt in favour of the latter. Meaning the new approach is streamlining utility above anything else.

And this is where it get’s tricky, the structural modifications unfortunately do not intend to stop with decapitating the leadership, but seem to deminish the role of basic research which always stood at the core of the communities program.

In an interview Dr. Ádám Dénes, an acclaimed bioligist and member of the Academy revealed why this intuative step ends up hurting profit orientated progress in the long run.

He explained that by cutting down on basic research we dismentle the entire chain leading to the economic reward at the end. For any forthcoming applied researches and studies it is keen that the foundation on which this work is beeing conducted already has been laid down, plus it provides a much larger infrastructure to work with as well as a broadend international community which is involved due to prior projects.

This first unit in the chain is the solid bedrock from which every following exploration is fueled from. To get rid of it, or to cut back on it to the extent proposed would be as logical as to start interior decorations in a grassfield.  

Besides, there is not a shred of evidence that low innovation performance in Hungary would be in any way related to the scientifc performance of the MTA research network, on the contrary it’s outstanding performance is making a positive impact which is not met by the industrial absorption capacity.

Following the example of the chain there are numourus other organs which are almost inmeditately connected to the private sector and function with a number of flaws, like the higher education sector, or the restrictive administrative environment.

So why focus on a institution which is not even primarly involved with the problem you want to solve? Why would you examine it under a narritve which is only an inderict consequence of its task, and why would disregard all other aspects of their work?
The entire premise of the allegetions resembles more to the trial of Joseph K than a serious cause to heighten innovation.

In the interest of counter-advocacy it would be apprehensible to enhance development with the help of internationally recognised experts and their facilites by guidelining their agenda to the problematic area. And this is exactly what the Academy suggested as mentioned earlier.

All of which took place during a period of a year long negotiation process between the MTA and the ministry, where they even found commen ground and bypartisanly signed a compromise, as we found out from Dr. Gergely Szakács leader of the Momentum (Lendület) institute operating within the Academy and who particaped in creating the agreement.

Sadly this deal had no impact, as it was later dismissed in the draft law which got to parliament.

All of the above mentioned aspects lead to the sumber conclusion that the government’s involment might not have much in comen with the preclaimed objective.
As shown by their unwillingnes to step back from false presumptions as well as their insistence to stick by the entirety of their program, which apart from other organisations singularly targets the Academy.  

This becomes painfully evident once we see that the neglection of basic resaerch (among other things) also builds the justification to rearrange financing.

Before the bill the Academy recieved an annual operational fund which was accepted by parliament and was directly allocated from the national budget, following the structure of any independent entity inside the state’s sphere.

This operational fund provided the needed constistancy for the acadamy’s long lasting research agendas including staff celery, equipment costs and even such elementary expenses like the heating or the electricity bills.

In 2018 at the same time of the ominous email these very funds have been miracoulosly transfered to the ministry which in a number of unlawful attempts tried witheld these and decided to pay them out in monthly instalments, which caused a number of problems in the facilities schedules.

Basically 20 billion forints (approximately 62 million euros) which make up  2/3 of the Acadamy’s total budget were frozen and denied in order to gain an upperhand in negotiations which were later disregarded by their employer.

This on it own is fairly disturbing, but the situation turns from bad to worse. The Minister Dr. László Palkovics has expressed his desire of eliminating basic institutional funding entirely on several occasions. Instead the MTA should maintain itself from project based funding, and this is where real dependency is forged.

Project based or competitive funds are distrubuted by the National Research, Development and innovation Office (NKFIH). A formerly autonomous institution that came to be placed under the supervision of the ministry last year, where with the same pen stroke its president Dr. József Pálinkás, the former head of the academy was removed from the his duties.

Considering that the Academy has been criticised on several occasions for being politically active and presenting research results that do not support government policies it would be obscene to assume that the chances of them winning in such a competition are fair or even real.

For an example just earlier this year new research insititutions were created whose mission is to perform research in social sciences and humanities serving government ideologies, focusing on fields that are already covered by research instituttes of the Academy.

It is due to these parallel structures that the MTA becomes truly defenseless in this fight, as those most likely will retain the majority of these funds, and thereby make independent research a fairytail.

One cannot not see the reaccuring patterns of concentration left behind on the blody trale of powerlust. Formerly independent or autonimous institutions are systematically knocked down and transfered into outlets for the party’s ideology and propaganda. A similiar road let down the way to the media monopoly, the curruption in public investment or the proposed changes in the judiciary system.

The notion of free thoughts seems to be a particularly itchy thorn in the eyes of  authority as hungarian academic freedom has suffered a tremendous amount in the last decade. Starting with ceasing the budget of the universities, followed by demoliting the working conditions necessary for the CEU, after wich gender studies got prohibited, and now apparently even scientists follow a propostious goal with their western-liberal ideas.

No cost is high enough for Victor Orban’s party to reconsider their egocentric actions, or to show some remorse for the liberties beeing dispatched.
To the protests which turned the capital on its head with thousand of demonstraters the prime minister wrote an open letter claiming that no ideological changes will accure inside the MTA and the new ELKH, and all changes are strictly necessary means to help the economy.

„You have misunderstood me. You are under arrest certainly, but that not need to hinder you from going about your business.
Nor will you be prevented from leading your ordinary life.”                      

-Franc Kafka, The trial

The only question left is wether the take-over is fueled by motivations to fight reality or genuene paranoia, but either way it does not change the state we are in or what the consequences will be.

Written by: Philip Pollak

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