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Academic freedom once again in danger in Hungary

Budapest, Hungary – After the passing of the Hungarian government’s highly controversial bill in 2017, the so-called ‘lex CEU’ that prohibits the operation of the Central European University in Budapest, academic freedom is once again in danger in Hungary.

A new bill proposes to drastically restructure the functioning of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (Magyar Tudományos Akadémia – MTA), both from a financial and an executive perspective. MTA consists of a renowned network of scientists, experts and intellectuals and is responsible for the majority of independent academic research carried out in the country. It is composed of multiple institutes and research bodies, comprising around 3,000 researchers.

The bill obliges the Academy to ‘submit its intellectual property’ to the state for free and requires the separation of the Academy’s 15 research institutes from the main academic body. These institutes will be controlled by a common governing board, whose members will be partly delegated by MTA and partly by the government. However, the bill ensures that Fidesz-appointed officials will always be in majority in the decision-making board in comparison to MTA-appointed experts. From the government’s perspective, it is this separation of the research bodies from the main institute that justifies the significant reduction in the Academy’s public funding forecast (from the annual amount of 56,1 billion HUF to 16.9 billion HUF). Moreover, the bill establishes the foundation of a ‘National Science Policy Council’ led by the current minister for technology and innovation, László Palkovics. Its members would be exclusively appointed by the prime minister, leaving the Academy little or no influence over choosing the delegated ‘experts’.

The bill in question has sparked debate and controversy all over the country. The Academy has held an international press conference, condemned the new bill in multiple public statements and even proposed amendments to the new law to the members of parliament.

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In February, scientists protested government efforts to take control of their research funding, a move they say endangers academic freedom. Credit: AP

On 2 June, thousands of people protested on the streets of Budapest against the law amendment. The speech of the actor Áron Molnár held in front of the CEU emphasised the similarity of ‘lex CEU’ and the MTA bill: in both cases, the government’s goal has been to systematically break down the last gatekeepers of academic freedom in the country and to ‘silence those who do not have the means to defend themselves’.

By 20 June, hundreds of university professors from multiple Hungarian universities signed public petitions that urge to take the bill off the agenda. Professors from the Budapest University of Technology and Economics (BME) expressed their concerns about the bill, claiming that ‘the uncertain future of the Academy of Sciences can impede the future technological advancement of the country’. Along with 150 signatures from professors and experts, János Kertész physicist and member of the MTA addressed an open letter to Manfred Weber, leader of the European People’s Party, in which he urges Weber to put pressure on Orbán to withdraw the bill in question.

Despite the countrywide and international support for the MTA, the new draft law is projected to come into force by 1 September 2019. While the government has denied the claims that the bill would restrict the freedom of the Academy or decrease funding, MTA’s Supervisory Council has pledged to initiate a constitutional investigation if it is necessary. However, the results of are unlikely to contradict government decisions, given the lack of the separation of powers in today’s Hungary.

The case of the MTA signals the extent to which Fidesz is afraid of independent thinking and ideas. Its obsession with centralisation and its distrust of non-governmental actors has undoubtedly reached an unprecedented level. Today, it is not only social sciences or gender studies (taught at CEU or ELTE), subjects that are perhaps more directly ‘related’ to the field of politics, that are deemed as threats to the government but also matters of technology, science or innovation. However, it is important to note a key difference in CEU’s and MTA’s case; as the president of the MTA László Lovász put it, ‘the Academy cannot move to Vienna’, as CEU did. Instead, it will be simply dismantled and merged into the government apparatus.

Overall, it has become clear that objective knowledge and the free flow of ideas are the number one enemies of Fidesz. Its attempts at the constant refabrication of truth are in stark contradiction with academic freedom. Its aim to break down Hungary’s most prestigious research institution shows Fidesz’s lack of interest in the country’s future and feeds well back into their narrative of political paranoia in which everything and anything non-Fidesz related is regarded as inherently dangerous.

Written by Zsofi Borsi

A Budapest-born politics and economics graduate of Durham University, UK, Zsofi Borsi wrote her thesis on conspiracy theories present in Hungarian online political discourse. Zsofi has worked as an intern at various political and non-governmental organisations in Hungary, such as Political Capital Research and Consultancy Institute, Tom Lantos Institute or Klubrádió. To check out her latest articles, it’s right here!

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