Hungary passes disputed reform bill to tighten grip on scientists

Bill passed by right-wing Orban government enables takeover of research bodies run by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

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    Orban's critics say that since coming to power in 2010, he has tightened control over key institutions in Hungary [File: Julien Warnard/Reuters]
    Orban's critics say that since coming to power in 2010, he has tightened control over key institutions in Hungary [File: Julien Warnard/Reuters]

    Hungary's parliament has passed a controversial bill that puts the country's oldest scientific institute under the direct control of right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government.

    The bill, approved by 131 out of 199 legislators in the assembly on Tuesday, allows the takeover of a network of research institutes overseen by the 200-year-old Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA).

    The legislation, expected to take effect in September, will hand over 15 scientific institutes to Eotvos Lorand Research Network (ELKH), a newly-formed state network overseen by a board ultimately appointed by the prime minister.

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    The MTA warned the move could trigger a brain drain in the country. The takeover had been the subject of tough debate - and even street protests by scientists - since the ruling Fidesz party was re-elected in April 2018.

    Last month, MTA president Laszlo Lovasz asked the scientists to fight for the freedom to "pursue their research in Hungary, without any political pressure". 

    Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs did not respond to questions from Al Jazeera but insisted in a blog that the goal is to boost the funding and efficiency of Hungary’s under-performing research and development sector.

    "Our goal is to promote research that contributes to Hungary's economic growth and overall development, one that turns knowledge into tangible results," he wrote.

    The government has suggested it could cut or increase funding to MTA's research bodies depending on the areas they study.

    'Silence critical voices'

    Orban's critics say the push to take control of MTA is part of a wider, systemic takeover of Hungary's key institutions. The election system, judiciary and NGOs have largely been tamed, as has public media.

    Critics say control of academic and cultural institutions is now being sought in order to rewrite history and cement power for Orban's "illiberal democracy".

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    Human Rights Watch said the move against MTA highlights the government's "wider efforts to silence critical voices and discourage independent thought".

    Shortly after his re-election, the populist prime minister had laid out his vision.

    "We have been mandated to build a new era," Orban announced. "An era is determined by cultural trends, collective beliefs."

    Peter Kreko of the Budapest-based think-tank Political Capital told Al Jazeera that Orban had announced clearly he would concentrate on "taking over the national narrative".

    "To change the cultural course in a way beneficial to his government," he said.

    Fidesz party's political appeal is based on its assertion that only a strong leader can "protect" Hungary from globalist forces "threatening to flood the country" with migrants and "destroy its Christian culture". 

    Threat to academic freedom

    Orban's first major move towards tightening his grip on education came in 2013 when the national curriculum was put under centralised government control.

    The introduction of academic works by anti-Semites and fascists sparked large protests in the country.

    That campaign has recently been accelerated.

    Last year, university gender studies programmes were stopped and the prestigious Central European University (CEU), founded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros, was forced to move to Vienna following a long-running dispute with the government.

    A few days ago, CEU president Michael Ignatieff criticised Western governments for failing to act in support of academic freedom, warning it would lead to a "democratic recession".

    "In Orban's system, the institutions manufacturing this knowledge must be under control," said Kreko. "The move on the MTA is not an accident."

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    The MTA is not the only research institute fighting for its life. Last month, the 1956 Institute, named after a failed revolution against the communist regime and a depository of recent historical research, was folded into the government-run Veritas Institute.

    "This government destroyed the 1956 Institute and is in the process of doing the same to [the MTA]," wrote Eva Balogh, a Hungarian-born former lecturer on Eastern Europe at Yale university in the US.

    Kreko also pointed out the generous amounts of EU funds given to European academic and cultural institutions.

    Orban is reported to have built a network of friendly oligarchs to absorb subsidies coming from Brussels, home to the EU headquarters.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News