MTA: latest government proposals do not guarantee freedom of science, and separation of research network still unjustified

On 4 June 2019, the government submitted its proposal to Parliament that would fundamentally change the Hungarian research and development system and the structure of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The Academy hereby calls upon all MPs to consider the Academy’s observations regarding the bill. It is the Academy’s belief that if the proposal in question is passed in its present form, the freedom of scientific research will be violated and basic scientific values crucial for the country may be lost. The MTA calls upon everyone who is concerned about the freedom of science and sympathizes with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences to offer and show their support.

In the past weeks the MTA’s President, leaders and civil servants did everything in their power to amend the proposal drafted by the ITM concerning the restructuring of the Hungarian RDI system for it to correspond with the resolutions brought by the MTA’s General Assembly and the Presidium, as well as with the views of the MTA’s researchers, leaders and employees. The MTA never gave up its original standpoint: to keep the research network within the Academy. Bearing this objective in mind, the MTA presented suggestions to the proposed law so they would guarantee the freedom of science, the role of the Academy, the operation, management and financing of the research network.

The following sections compare the MTA’s suggestions and the published version of the law proposal.

  1. The bill would separate the research network from the Academy

The MTA stands by the resolutions passed by the 191st General Assembly, and protests against the separation of its research network.

No substantive reason has been communicated to justify the separation of the research network, and why the researchers of the Academy should be forced to leave their internationally and domestically highly renowned Academy, which has centuries-old traditions in the field of scientific research and has been politically independent for decades.

On the other hand, there are several crucial arguments that support the public body of the Academy and the research network being kept together. Although the Academy’s public body does not take part in the direct management of research, the several-decade-long cooperation has resulted in a number of synergies in the following fields: (i) international relations; (ii) popularizing science; (iii) quality assurance of research projects; (iv) organization of national projects; and what is more, (v) management of crises (such as the red sludge catastrophe). The new law would disband these synergies.

The separation of the research network poses several legal and organizational problems, beginning from the validity of research contracts to the use of real estates.

In the light of constitutional law it raises concerns that the legal provisions governing the Hungarian Academy of Arts (MMA) and those governing the MTA would become immensely different (e.g. the MMA operates state-financed research institutes without restrictions).

The only public task explicitly assigned to the management organization of the new research network (Secretariat of the Roland Eötvös Research Network) is to “maintain and operate the network of research institutes”, for which the assets should still be provided by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences according to the new law. So what is the point in establishing a brand new institution?

  1. The new management system of the research network

The 191st General Assembly suggested a new management system for the research network. The new setup would guarantee a more flexible operation of the research network and respect the government’s need for achieving their innovational aims more effectively. These suggestions – especially the one on the Managing Body (IT) of the research network – heavily rely on the joint resolutions made by the cooperative committees of the MTA and the ITM. Several crucial points of these resolutions were left out of the law amendment.

The MTA considers the principle of self-government crucial when it comes to the direct representation of the research network, as well as the principle of proportionality through the composition of the Managing Body (MB): besides the president, one third of members should be delegated by the government, the MTA, and the research network, respectively. However, the proposed law does not include the representation of the research network.

The MTA considers it crucial that the MB decide with a two-thirds majority on the following issues: (i) the establishment or dissolving of independent institutes and centers; (ii) the appointment of directors for research institutes; (iii) modification of the budget of a given institute exceeding 15%. However, the draft law requires only 7 “aye” votes of the 13 member board.

The text of the bill also lacks the Academy’s suggestion that besides defining the sphere of authority for the MB, it should also include the clause that “these spheres of authority are nontransferable”. Another clause suggested by the MTA also missing from the proposal: “representatives should take part in the work of the MB based on their scientific conviction. No member of the MB eligible to vote may be substituted by another person, a board member’s right to vote is nontransferable.”

  1. Basic budget

The following sentence was added to the proposal: “within the budgetary chapter it is necessary to assign a sum to cover the overhead costs of the research network.”

According to the MTA, it is necessary to lay down the elements of the overhead costs in an itemized fashion, and besides operational costs, this should also include the salary of regular researchers and of employees assisting in the research, i.e. the community that would remain unchanged during the dynamic restructuring of the research network.

The MTA has stated time after time that basic financing is indispensable in order to finance a research network performing basic research. All similar European research networks function this way. It is this structure that guarantees the availability of senior researchers, the participation in tenders and the launching new, long term research topics.

  1. The MTA’s property and estate

The following sentence was added to the proposal: “Unless otherwise agreed, the real estates that serve to house entities financed by the central budget according to Appendix 2, as well as research network properties and the assets serving the operation of the research network owned by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the assets used at research sites should all be allowed to be used free of charge by government entities according to Subsection 5 of Section 42/B.”

The MTA’s movable property and real estate has always been, and to this day is, in the service of Hungarian science. However, the MTA protests against restricting its property rights devoid of compensation. According to the Academy, this point is in breach of the Fundamental Law of Hungary (the constitution).

The Academy’s request to Members of Parliament and all supporters of scientific freedom

The Academy expects negotiations to be pursued in a manner worthy of a widely respected and august institution. In the past year, no detailed reasons have been given to the Academy that would justify its separation from the research network. The justification in the proposal consists of some general sentences in half a page, which emphasize the importance of innovative performance. The Academy has acted as a partner in reaching this objective from the very beginning. However, in the past year or so, no detailed professional plan was ever presented by the ITM. In the past year the ITM exercised pressure on the MTA by withholding a part of the basic budget of the Academy, which is guaranteed by law.

Hereby, the MTA calls upon all MPs of the Hungarian parliament to consider the Academy’s comments on the proposal. The MTA states that if the proposal is passed in its present form, the freedom of scientific research will be violated and basic values crucial for Hungary may be lost. The MTA requests everyone who is concerned about the freedom of science and sympathizes with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences to offer and show their support.

The Hungarian Academy of Science will shortly be organizing an international press conference.