A renewing, proactive Academy, an increasingly active public body – President’s Report by Tamás Freund

“The changes in the external environment and, thus, in the situation of the Academy have forced it to revitalise itself, but MTA has consistently been able to act as a proactive partner and is now more of a master of its own fate than it was two years ago”, said Tamás Freund in his President’s Report at the 195th General Assembly of the Academy. The President of the Academy also announced the launch of several research programmes linked to social and national strategy priorities.

2022. május 16.

Mr Freund recalled that two years ago, as President, he took over the leadership of an institution that had suffered an extraordinary loss. “Our research network and our 3,000 researchers were taken away, and our grants and other funding were reallocated. The undignified and protracted struggle shook our public influence and sapped the creative energy of many of our scientists”, he said.

“But the moral integrity of the Academy has not been damaged,

and, as shown by the public opinion poll we initiated last year, the social prestige of science and scientists has not changed: no matter which social group you ask, we continue to rank ahead of all public institutions and professions – including doctors and even priests. It is this capital of trust that we have been able to build on with confidence, and will continue to build on in the future.”

Tamás Freund Photo: mta.hu / Tamás Szigeti

According to Mr Freund, the new situation called for a new strategy, for which the Academy’s mission statement, adopted in December 2019, provided an excellent basis. A few months later, with the election of the new leadership and the adoption of the presidential concept, they were able to start the implementation of the programme, the central element of which was to activate the unique public body of 18,000 members, including domestic and cross-border members, to improve the Academy’s social and political engagement and visibility and to expand its activities.

“In order to achieve our long-term goals and implement our new professional programmes, we needed to redefine our relations with the government and build a new cooperation strategy. This partnership, shaped by national interests and a commitment to science, has been strengthened by the growth of the Academy’s budget”, he said, referring to the way in which

MTA’s budget funding increased by HUF 7.3 billion from 2021 to 2022.

This, together with the amount of the Lendület (“Momentum”) grant application scheme that was returned from the Eötvös Loránd Research Network (ELKH), means that the funding has almost exactly doubled. Mr Freund called this an unprecedented increase in the Academy’s history. “The significant increase in funding is also a major responsibility, as only a small part of it will be used to improve the quality of our existing tasks. It has mainly been requested for new programmes starting this year”, he said. He cited as examples the doubling of the amount of Bolyai scholarships, the increase of the budget for Lendület grants from HUF 3 billion to HUF 3.5 billion, and the launch of a grant application scheme for high-risk research in the post-COVID field. He pointed out that part of his presidential programme was to launch research programmes linked to social and national strategy priorities, where an outstanding domestic scientific background exists, which are directly related to the mission and other programmes of the Academy. He announced that these would be launched in a few weeks

in four themes, with a total of HUF 3 billion in funding per year.

He said that the third phase of the National Brain Research Programme would continue as an Academy programme, with the main aim of addressing, as soon as possible, societal needs related to the intact and abnormal functioning of the brain, based on scientific excellence. A national programme will be launched to align technologies of strategic importance with sustainability, building on the Academy’s National Water Science Programme and the recommendations of the Presidential Committee on Sustainable Development. The National Science for the Hungarian Language programme will support research to preserve Hungary’s linguistic heritage throughout its historic settlement area and to put modern technologies at the service of Hungary’s mother tongue.

As a national programme, the scientific underpinning of the national post-COVID strategy and pandemic plan will also continue in cooperation with the government.

Mr Freund highlighted the elements of his presidential programme in which he has made significant progress. Discussing government relations, he said that they had become very intense and multifaceted. The MTA High School Alumni Programme has been launched to create a science-friendly society for the future and to promote scientific careers. In a few months, more than 1,600 members of MTA’s public body and 100 high schools have joined the initiative. The participating researchers have now given nearly 300 scientific presentations at their alma maters or the high schools that have invited them, talking about their work and the importance of scientific thinking.

By rethinking the MTA Centre of Excellence Award, which had initially expressed the attachment of its former research institutes, and creating the Qualification Council for Research Centres,

the Academy has developed a set of criteria for measuring institutional excellence.

In addition to the prestige it brings, the award is already an entry point for some of the Academy’s grant application schemes, but MTA’s aim is that, as in the case of the title of MTA Doctor, the recognition of a research centre’s excellence by the Academy should also represent a clear advantage in financing and grant application decisions outside the Academy.

Mr Freund praised the work of MTA’s scientific departments and presidential committees. He mentioned the Festival of Hungarian Science, a flagship of the Academy’s science communication and social advancement, which MTA successfully relaunched during the epidemic. Turning the forced switch to an online format into a virtue, the number of viewers rose from 4,000 in 2019 to 50,000 in 2020, and then to 116,000 in 2021 at events organised under the motto “Science: A Compass for a Viable Future”. He added that the Festival of Hungarian Science, like most public academic events, would continue to be organised by MTA in a hybrid format once the epidemic had passed. The organisers want to further improve the accessibility of the presentations and will also introduce a new, dynamic, TED-type lecture genre that will be of interest to the broader public and will be specifically targeted at a young and lay audience.

“A renovated Academy building is a truly worthy setting to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the Academy and its library”, Mr Freund said, adding that surveys in recent years have made it clear that the comprehensive renovation and functional renewal of the soon-to-be 160-year-old Academy building cannot be delayed. There are elements of this renovation that cannot be put off, such as the renovation of the third floor exhibition spaces, which are closed due to their life-threatening condition, or the renovation of building equipment. The planning and overall construction has therefore been broken down into phases. “We are confident that we can complete the first phase, which includes the most urgent tasks, by the end of 2024, provided the necessary government funding of around HUF 16 billion is available. The construction plans for this phase, which will be financed from our own resources, will be completed this summer. We will then launch the public procurement procedure for the construction. For the time being, there are still many uncertainties, but I am very confident that despite the unfavourable economic situation, we will be able to make a success of this project, which is also symbolic because of the bicentenary”, the MTA President said.

According to the President, the programme to help researchers fleeing the war in Ukraine showed the public body’s will to act as well as the Academy’s quick response and readiness to take action. In a matter of days, a scheme was set up to provide accommodation and board at Academy-owned properties for researchers and their families who are turning to MTA and to help run scientific and educational institutions in Transcarpathia as far as possible. He also thanked those who contributed to the extraordinary fundraising to supplement the funding of the Academy’s assistance and the success of the annual charity fundraising, which the General Assembly had approved almost unanimously at the preliminary vote. He announced that thanks to MTA’s appeal, donations of more than HUF 31 million had been collected so far, of which a total of HUF 600,000 had been given as emergency aid to families in need.

“Ever since its foundation, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences has been a symbol of our national identity, and today it has evolved into one of its main sources”, Mr Freund said in closing his report, quoting former academician and President of Hungary Ferenc Mádl. With this conviction, he said, we are seeking the widest possible range of partners for the tasks facing the Academy, and for this effort he continues to ask for the active support of all members of the General Assembly.

The General Assembly discussed and approved the report of the President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences on the Academy’s activities in 2021.