Interview with Ádám Török in HVG on 20 July 2018 – A summary

On 17 July Hungary’s parliament approved an amendment ensuring that the Academy’s 28 billion HUF budget for research will be put under direct control of the Ministry of Innovation and Technology (ITM) headed by László Palkovics. The exact details of this budget transfer had not been defined, and the Government’s objectives had not been revealed either.

The decision is unacceptable for the Academy. This new financial situation rids the MTA of their independence, as it appears that the research budget will be distributed by the ITM – but nobody knows what the criteria for distribution will be.

Mr. Ádám Török says Mr Palkovics’s communication is ambiguous. On the one hand he claims the autonomy of institutes will not be violated and the freedom of research will be guaranteed. On the other hand he says certain topics must be selected for research as state subsidies should not be used freely.

Furthermore, it seems the 2006 attack against the MTA by János Kóka (former Minister of Economy and Transport, 2004–2007 and Chairman of the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) 2007–2008) is being repeated. Kóka claimed that while state money was provided for research, science was not producing products useful for the country. He suggested incorporating the business community in research, and “hot water should not be reinvented”.

However, Mr. Török claims there is no point in measuring efficiency of basic research, as the positive results stemming from this type of research emerge only much later. Mr. Török’s own area of research is innovation and basic research. He is convinced that basic/exploratory research should be promoted without asking how and what it contributes to innovation. He thinks well-founded research groups are of primary importance, as well as the synergy among researchers. He also points out a contradiction – while basic research at universities is thriving, why should the same line of research be restricted at the Academy?

Mr. Török acknowledges that the community of researchers is similar to all other populations – while there are excellent and good researchers, there are also low achieving ones. However, it is difficult to judge – it might be the case that a researcher does not publish anything for 3 years, and a very influential book is published in the 4th year.

Mr. Török pointed out that salaries for researchers in the institutes of the MTA are much lower than in the business sector. If salaries get even lower, a lot of researchers will leave.

He is convinced that it is impossible to decide from above what topics should be researched, in the same way as the government cannot tell the National Museum which collections to maintain and which ones to burn. Naturally, no collections are ever burned as we never know when it may become important in the future.

Mr. Török points out that it is not valid to say that certain minorities in society should not be in the focus of research. If those minorities exist, we should research them. If the critiques think they do not exist, they should claim openly that these people do not exist – i.e. there is nothing to be researched. Mr. Török is convinced if something exits, it should be researched as we never know when information revealed by basic research is needed.

Mr. Török acknowledged that the MTA got into a cultural fight with the pro-government press. The style and methods employed in the articles in these papers are reminiscent of newspapers in the 1950s, which should be avoided.

The reporter from HVG suggested that according to Mr Palkovics the 2020 EU budget will provide even more money for innovation, and a possible explanation for the Government’s step is that they want to distribute this money even more effectively. However, Mr. Török thinks that Hungary already excels in winning grants for basic research from the European Research Council (ERC). He notes that the EU does not confuse basic research with innovation. Concerning innovation, Hungary’s performance is quite stable according to the European Innovation Scoreboard, though some countries in the same region have surpassed us, i.e. Hungary has dropped behind somewhat in the list. However, Mr. Török does not consider this to be a serious problem: a country with an “emerging economy” never has an outstanding innovation system.

Getting back to the Government’s decision, Mr. Török pointed out that certain research groups think the only solution in this situation is to flee. Not only because of the decision itself, but also because of its message: the autonomy of science can be violated any time in Hungary. If someone has vacillated whether to accept an invitation from abroad or not, now this step will push him or her to accept it. And it is extremely difficult to call researchers back, as it is difficult to have faith that in a research job as a stable source of income.

Now it seems the Government can do anything as they are in control of the budget. In contrast, the Basic Law (the constitution) ensures independence and autonomy of research. Thus, the Government’s step seems to be contrary to the mentality of the Basic Law.

The reporter asked whether the Academy will attack the decision at the Constitutional Court, but Mr. Török said that was a question for the lawyers to answer.

There was a suggestion that researchers should devote two fifths of their working time to topics selected by the Government, while three fifths to their own research topic. Mr. Török considers this absurd, as it violates freedom of research and present legislation.

Concerning the adoption of the German Max-Planck Model (there are state financed research centres), Mr. Török said it is not a good idea to separate natural sciences and social sciences. He also added that the present research system is regularly criticized for being a ‘Soviet system’. However, the so-called Soviet system is based of the German and French models of the 1920s and 1930s. Furthermore, he recalled that some years ago the Russian state tried to take away research centres from their academy, but the idea was dropped as they realized that no rational standards can be set for the performance of research.

The reporter suggested the Government’s step might be connected to the fact that MTA had stood up for the Central European University. Mr. Török said he is not familiar with the feelings of Government members towards the CEU, but he is convinced that the CEU is an internationally recognized university of Hungary, which contributes to Hungarian scientific life to a great extent. The CEU is run by a Foundation of Mr Soros, and Mr Soros does not control or interfere with the university.

The reporter asked whether anyone, especially Mr. Török himself, is going to resign from the Academy owing to the Government’s decision. Mr. Török said he will stay and support Mr. Lovász as long as he is President. He also hopes to proceed with negotiations with the ITM, but these talks should be bilateral, not one side telling the other what to do.

Mr. Török is fairly certain an extraordinary General assembly will be convened. In his opinion Mr Lovász will not resign but fight for the work of those 5000 people he was responsible for. However, he acknowledged there might be a point when the only thing left to do is resign.