Hungarian scientists are on edge as country is poised to force out top university | Science

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Hungarian scientists are on edge as country is poised to force out top university | Science

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, recently re-elected, has overseen budget boosts for science, but many researchers distrust his government’s intentions.

AP PHOTO/DARKO VOJINOVIC

In early April, several days after Viktor Orbán secured his third consecutive term—and fourth overall—as Hungarian prime minister with a landslide victory for his conservative party, the pro-government paper Figyelő; published a list of more than 200 people it called “mercenaries” of George Soros, the American-Hungarian billionaire philanthropist. The list included investigative journalists and human rights advocates—and 30 academics from the Soros-founded, Budapest-based Central European University (CEU). Diána Ürge-Vorsatz was stunned to find herself accused.

“I have no idea why I am on this list,” says the CEU environmental physicist, who was a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change when it won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. “I have had a very good working relationship with the Hungarian government for decades, and I want to maintain this.”

Ürge-Vorsatz is one of many Hungarian academics unnerved by their government’s aggressive nationalist agenda, and the intensifying political pressures it is imposing on science. CEU, which attracts top students from Europe and elsewhere for its English-language graduate classes and has 17 research centers focusing on social sciences, business, environment, math, and other topics, has become a prime target, subject to tightening restrictions that some fear could force it out of Hungary. The main grant-funding body for Hungarian science, praised for its independence and transparency in a recent European review, has been replaced by an agency that scientists worry is more susceptible to political influence. And some researchers suggest that the government is increasingly wasting scarce funds on scholarship that promotes a particular agenda or controversial theories of national origin.

Many scientists fear reprisals if they complain publicly—Ürge-Vorsatz had participated in a large pro-CEU protest before she was accused. But Hungary’s academic community has not been silent. “Search for truth, freedom of research, civic activism and support for those in need are crucial social values,” more 500 Hungarian academics declared in a recent petition. And the Hungarian Academy of Sciences quickly challenged the newspaper’s naming of CEU academics. “We find the issue of such harmful listings unacceptable, especially given their bitter resemblance to similar practices in Hungarian history,” it said in a statement.

Government spokespeople declined to answer specific questions about CEU, but did address another flash point: the country’s growing embrace of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). On 16 April, Hungary’s University of Szeged signed an agreement with the Shaanxi University of Chinese Medicine in Xianyang, China, to bring TCM researchers, medical experts, and lecturers to teach in the region. The University of Pécs in Hungary has had a similar arrangement since 2015.

Last year, the Hungarian government also announced plans to allocate about €4.5 million ($5.3 million) to build a new institute with a whole floor dedicated to TCM at Semmelweis University, one of the most prestigious medical schools in Hungary. The government says it wants to bridge the gap between Western medicine and Eastern alternatives to improve Hungarian health care, and also strengthen the economic, political, and cultural ties between Hungary and China.

In May 2017, protesters in downtown Budapest rallied against government actions threatening Central European University.

AP PHOTO/BALAZS MOHAI

At the end of April, however, Zsolt Boldogkői, head of the Department of Medical Biology at the University of Szeged, lamented TCM’s growing influence in the country in an open letter to the president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. “Acupuncture is based on pseudoscience and a technique unsuitable for medical purposes … teaching it on a university level is seriously damaging the reputation of science and fact-based medical treatments,” he wrote.

The government has also been channeling significant funds to research institutes seen as backing its nationalist agenda. For example, the Migration Research Institute opened in Budapest in 2015, when an influx of immigrants caused a crisis in Hungary. Since then, it has published many analyses documenting the downside of immigration and the efficacy of the barbed wire fence along the southern borders of Hungary, and questioning the legitimacy of a 2017 European Court of Human Rights decision that said Hungary had wrongfully deported Bangladeshi asylum seekers.

Academics are also wary of the recently announced László Gyula Institute, named after a historian who studied Hungarian national origins. The research institute hasn’t opened yet—no site has been chosen nor staff hired—but it reportedly will be managed by the National Institute for Culture, which is run by a private foundation established by Sándor Lezsák, deputy speaker of the Hungarian Parliament. Lezsák is an outspoken nationalist who has supported ideas on the roots of Hungarians opposed by most historians, including the theory that they are related to the Huns, Asiatic nomads who were a feared enemy of the Roman Empire.

Hungarian archaeologists complain that the new institute will compete with the efforts of a research unit, run by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, that already focuses on the same period. “Little is revealed about this [new] institute just yet, but naming it after a publicly well-known archaeologist sounds like a publicity stunt,” says one Hungarian university archaeologist, who requested anonymity.

For now, the scientific community mostly trusts the independence of its major national funder, the National Research, Development and Innovation Office (NRDI) in Budapest, which has a budget of about €260 million ($310 million) for research and innovation this year. In 2015, the previous body, the politically independent Hungarian Scientific Research Fund, merged with the much bigger NRDI, and many researchers at the time feared that the decision would open the way to political influence over funding decisions. The president of NRDI has substantial decision-making power over NRDI’s funds—by law, 3% can be directed to anything they want, for example—and personally appoints the members of peer-review committees that approve grants.

The current head of NRDI, physicist József Pálinkás, has proved to be a strong advocate for science. Since he took over in 2015, NRDI has created regular grants to encourage basic science research, reward excellence, and support young scientists. Hungary still heavily relies on EU funds to develop its research infrastructure, but Pálinkás next year plans to request a doubling of the national research and innovation budget to more than €520 million. His term ends in 2020, however, and some scientists express concern, in private, that the government will replace him with someone more political.

By then, CEU may have started to pull up stakes. In April 2017, the government amended the nation’s higher education law to require, among other things, that CEU have a second campus in New York, its home state, and obtain a bilateral agreement of support between the Hungarian and U.S. governments. In response, CEU rushed to set up classes at Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. In the next few weeks, Orbán’s government is due to decide whether CEU has complied with the law and can enroll new students. The university believes it has but is nonetheless making backup plans to move its classes to Vienna, CEU Provost Liviu Matei said last month at the Scholars at Risk Network Global Congress in Berlin. (CEU hopes to retain its research centers in Budapest.) “It will be a very traumatic event,” he added.

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