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Nov 11, 2019 - Zoltán Kovács

A group of scholars moved their research to Sweden and apparently the world is ending

Worry not! Hungary’s academic freedom is safe and sound.

Here’s a quick story for you that’s been trending this week on Swedish public media. Spoiler alert: It’s about Hungary and yes, it’s about those oft-repeated liberal concerns for our academic freedom.

This topic never gets old, but we should keep some things straight: The state has the freedom to decide on the direction and priorities for state-funded research, and that doesn’t impinge upon academic freedom.

An article published on Sweden’s public media portal SVT.se features remarks by a certain Hungarian sociologist named Károly Takács. The researcher claims that he had to move his research out of Hungary – together with his fellow scholars – because they allegedly came under fire by something Takács labels “government-loyal media.” These voices, he says, have been saying that their research is “not desirable.”

According to Takács, skilled Hungarian researchers – mainly in the social sciences – run the risk of having to apply for grants abroad. Takács himself apparently felt forced to leave Hungary (he is now working in Sweden) because of the increasingly tough political attitude towards academics at universities in Hungary.

Takacs adds that it’s the social sciences that are coming under fire, particularly study of gender, inequality, and the integration of Roma.

At Sweden’s Linköping University, Professor Per-Olof Brehmer, the vice rector for research, said, “We saw it as a self-evident matter to receive him and the research team. Protecting free research is part of our mission.” He added that he had never heard of a research team having to come from another EU country because they were, in his words, unable to work there. But there’s nothing preventing Takács from working in Hungary.

“This really tragic situation for social scientists in Hungary has been extremely positive for us,” said Professor Peter Hedström at the Institute of Analytical Sociology, adding a little dramatic flare. “It would have been very difficult for us to get him otherwise.”

It’s too bad that this Hungarian researcher decided to relocate to Sweden, but that’s his choice. He may have been in one of those fields that is no longer a priority for state-funded research, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t free to conduct his research here.

Yes, Hungary is modernizing its 80-year-old research system. Sadly, despite Hungary’s reputation for academic prowess, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences has been underperforming. In 2018, for example, the number of starting grants awarded to Hungary in the European Research Council’s support program waszero. Meanwhile, Israel won 23 in the same year. Similarly, anEU report on one of the most important indicators of scientific performance, the number of highly cited publications compared to all publications, shows that the work of the Academy (widely known by its Hungarian abbreviation MTA) is well below the average, scoring somewhere in the bottom 20 percent.

It was high time to make some changes and innovate. Our goal is to promote research that contributes to Hungary’s economic growth and overall development, one that turns knowledge into tangible results. And to make that happen a long-overdue update was needed.

Mind you, we have spent well over a year working with the leadership of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The new research network would be governed by a council comprising 13 members, with an equal number of members nominated by the Hungarian government and the MTA. In addition, the government would have to nominate at least four of its six nominees from the accomplished scientific community.

Furthermore, contrary to what the MTA has said, research funding will be expanded. Already in the 2020 budget, the Orbán Government has set aside an additional HUF 32 billion (EUR 99.3 million) to support scientific research. However, more money is not the only answer to the challenges we face. Greater efficiency is also required. This is why we have proposed a unified, performance-based distribution system.

The Orbán Government’s goal in restructuring the framework for research here is to have more research from more money, as well as research that reinvigorates Hungary’s competitiveness in the field of academia and benefits Hungary’s development overall.

If there are those who see their work better served elsewhere, then so be it. To be blunt, just because the state is setting new priorities for state-funded scientific research doesn’t mean we’re curtailing any academic freedom.