A virtual General Assembly meeting is possible – Interview with László Lovász

“Holding our General Assembly and electing the chief officials of the Academy without the actual physical participation of attendees is only possible if the law permits it and the members of the General Assembly agree to this unusual method,” said MTA President László Lovász to mta.hu. The Academy supports decision-makers in their fight against the coronavirus outbreak, while the president himself has begun carrying out mathematical research to find out more about the spread of the disease. In his opinion, tough measures are necessary, while we must also prepare for the time when these measures will inevitably need to be eased.

27 March 2020

mta.hu: It is now practically certain that there will be no General Assembly in May. When do you expect it to take place?

László Lovász: That is a question we cannot answer at this point. We will organise it as soon as we can because everyone would be unhappy with a long transitional state. Needless to say, the health of our members is an absolute priority, and, ultimately, the Presidium will decide upon these matters.

Is a virtual General Assembly possible?

We have explored this option as well. Current laws do not allow for the most important tasks of the General Assembly to be carried out in this way, like renewing its leadership and membership or discussing and approving the report of the outgoing management and that of the Supervisory Board. At the same time, we are not alone in facing this problem as there are many other organisations which are required to hold their respective general assembly meetings before the end of May. I do not know of any Parliament or Government decision in the making in this regard, but it is possible that the relevant regulations will be temporarily changed to allow virtual general assemblies.

How would this affect the Academy’s Statutes?

If the government decided to suspend the provision requiring the physical presence of attendees, this would also be applicable to the Academy, so an exception could be made to the Statutes. That said, I believe a virtual General Assembly meeting can only take place in very exceptional circumstances, even if the law provides for it. This would be the case, for example, if a major delay to the meeting would push it back to autumn or next spring, but even in this case we would seek the approval of the majority of the members of the General Assembly.

In this case, would this mean that the new leadership of the Academy would also be elected in a virtual manner?

It depends on exactly what the legal framework is and on whether our membership approves it or not. In my opinion, a long delay could have serious consequences. The official mandate of the current leadership, including myself, ends in May. If there is no new leadership by then, I can only continue in my role as a temporary acting president.

Have you discussed this possibility with the Academy’s other senior officials and the current presidential candidates?

Yes, but we have decided that in this current state of uncertainty, it would be too early to initiate any formal discussions regarding the matter.

When were members of the General Assembly informed of the situation?

We sent a letter on 23 March to every member of the General Assembly informing them that it is highly unlikely that the General Assembly can take place in early May and that at this point there is no way of saying anything specific about its new date.

In the event of a longer postponement, do you think that the elaboration of the Academy’s new strategy based on the previously accepted mission statement should begin in some form or should it in any case be left to the incoming leadership?

It is my opinion that we have to delay all major decisions and proposals until the next leaders take office and the General Assembly gathers in the usual way.

Is the Academy planning to modify the deadline for this year’s Momentum (Lendület) Programme?

The call for applications for the Momentum Programme has already been announced. The deadlines in the application procedure are now fairly tight – this is not to make things harder for applicants, but due to the fact that the call could not be published earlier. The reason for this is that we received the funding for the grant, that is, a legally acceptable guarantee of payment, quite late. Now the applications need to be evaluated and contracts need to be drafted and approved and so on. I am aware that the deadlines for these steps are hard to keep in the current situation, but I am confident that the scientific part of the applications can be prepared for in time. We will be more flexible at the administrative level: we will accept electronic signatures or signature verifications on official documents such as host institution declarations and other papers.

Without a research network, how can the Academy be of help to the public and to decision-makers in the current crisis?

Obviously, we cannot conduct research directly. What we can rely on is the expertise of the members of our Academy, be they academicians or members of our public association, as well as the network of their vast international connections. We are continuously following the deluge of publications on the epidemic, which of course vary in quality. From these, we are trying to select the ones that are important and trustworthy and to bring them to the attention of decision-makers as well as publish them on the Academy’s website. We are contacting experts in specific relevant scientific areas to ask for their specific input. We also provide support to those expert groups which have been mandated by the Government to assist in the decision-making regarding science-related issues, including medical issues and epidemiological models.

The educational material developed within the framework of the Research Programme on Subject-specific Pedagogy, which you have launched yourself, has been well received by the teaching community, who have now partly gained access to this in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.

We were very happy to be able to contribute to this, too. Teachers are taking this new situation very seriously, and they need all the help they can get to improve distance learning. Unfortunately, there is still a major shortage of teaching material for distance learning, so teachers will have a huge amount of work to do, for which they deserve a great deal of credit.

As one of the world’s leading mathematicians, you have studied models related to epidemics and their spread. Can the research results be used now or do you expect any new results?

Yes, the topic of our ongoing ERC Synergy Grant project, in which we are examining networks and their dynamics, does certainly have relevance in terms of the current crisis. Here, dynamics may be the spread of the epidemic itself, and the network may be a network of human contacts and contact. We are trying to join in the discussion in this respect, and to this end of course we are happy to cooperate either with the Government or with any other institution willing to collaborate.

Who from Hungary is participating in this new line of research?

This includes Miklós Abért and Balázs Szegedi, who are members of the ERC Synergy Grant research group at the Rényi Research Institute. We are also in contact with Péter Simon, who works at the Department of Applied Analysis of Eötvös Loránd University. He and his colleagues have already achieved research results on epidemic spread in networks, and Simon has already published a monograph on the subject. We are also liaising with Gergely Röst and his research group at the Bolyai Institute of the University of Szeged.

Based on your results so far, do you believe a more permissive or a more rigorous strategy is better in handling the epidemic? Although Hungary has chosen the latter, it has not yet taken the most stringent measures. Which do you think is the better strategy?

Unfortunately, a government has to act way before any reliable models can be outlined. My personal opinion matches those that are being recommended by experts everywhere: tough measures need to be introduced, and the sooner the better. However, we also have to be aware that these provisions cannot be maintained for too long. Therefore, in the meantime we have to prepare ourselves, especially from a medical perspective, for the period when they will be relaxed. The protection and isolation of the most vulnerable groups must be continuously ensured. I also hope that the issues concerning the production and continued supply of medical and protective gear will be resolved soon.

How are you coping with working from home? How can you manage the Academy without being present?

I am handling matters related to the Academy by phone and email. Of course, things have slowed down all around, and with the postponement of scientific events, many of our tasks have been put on the backburner. I have thus far considered staying home as a sort of forced sabbatical. I am not saying I have too much time on my hands, but without having to travel, I have extra time for other things. But the situation is starting to wear on me a bit even though it has only been a little over a week. This will just get harder and harder in the upcoming weeks, which is exactly when we will most likely have to be the most disciplined in abiding by the regulations in force, since this will be in the common interest of us all.