The Hungarian Academy of Sciences and politics

I don't find it surprising that politicians want to spread their influence into the arenas of culture, media, arts, and science. In brief, all facets of life. I already wrote at some length about how Fidesz managed to build a media empire while the socialist-liberal side made no attempt even to hang onto some of the properties they inherited from the Kádár regime. Because, let's face it, the reform-minded journalists of the old regime became the leading spokesmen of the media after 1990.

Although building a sympathetic media was the first order of business, there were other fields Fidesz wanted to influence. For example, art and architecture. In 1998 a new national theater had been designed and the foundations dug. But Viktor Orbán's government decided that both the modern architecture and the location were wrong. Politically conservative people like old-fashioned things. So came this atrocity:  (Sorry, Typepad still doesn't want to recognize that there are serious problems with its latest tinkering.) The same thing happened when it came to the memorial erected for the 1956 Revolution: The right-wingers didn't like it. They erected, with government help mind you, another one that resembles Michelangelo's Pietà.

After the Fidesz sweep at the local elections in 2006 came the firing and hiring of theater directors in those larger cities that could boast a theater. Very often, against the wishes of the staff, directors were named who were close to Fidesz. Most likely the winners submitted proposals that were more to the liking of the local conservatives who were familiar with the established repertoire and had an aversion to all that modern stuff.

Next came the arts and sciences, especially the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. In the last twenty years there have been four presidents: two historians and two scientists. The historians were on the liberal side: Domokos Kosáry and Ferenc Glátz. Kosáry died a couple of years ago at the ripe old age of 94, lucid to the very end. I had the privilege of meeting him when he visited Yale University as part of his American itinerary. He was an impressive man and an impressive historian. Kosáry's only involvement with politics was in 1956 when he became president of the revolutionary council of the Historical Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. After the failed revolution he spent two years in jail. His successor, Ferenc Glatz, on the other hand, was deeply involved in politics. In 1989-1990 he accepted the post of minister of education in the government of Miklós Németh. Since then his name has often been mentioned as a possible MSZP candidate for the post of president. He lost out in 2005 to Katalin Szili; as we know, SZDSZ subsequently opposed Szili's candidacy and László Sólyom was elected.

With Glatz's departure the liberal era at the Academy came to an end. Szilveszter E. Vizi, his successor, was sympathetic to the right, though he wasn't directly involved in politics. The same thing cannot be said about the current president, József Pálinkás, a physicist. He started his political career in MDF and initially his views tended toward liberalism. When MDF split in 1996 into a liberal and a more conservative wing, he joined the former. However, four years later, in 2000, he joined Fidesz and his rise within the party was rapid. A year later he became minister of education. A post he filled for only one year because Fidesz lost the elections in 2002. However, in 2006 Fidesz put him on a county list (Hajdú-Bihar) and he became a member of parliament.

So when the members of the Academy chose him, a full member since 2004, to head the Academy they were well aware that they were putting an active politician at the helm. Most likely they chose him because he was a politician. Perhaps, they figured, if MSZP loses the elections and by 2008 that eventuality seemed likely, having Pálinkás, a Fidesz politician, at the head of the Academy will come in handy. A direct link to the governing party, indeed to the prime minister himself, might bring benefits to the Academy. What the Academy needs is money. Lots of money because the Hungarian Academy, unlike other western academies, functions very much like the old Soviet Academy of Sciences. A lot of money is spent not only on the "salaries" of the academicians (yes, salaries!), but running the several institutes employing hundreds of researchers is also costly. Just a few figures. The Research Institute of Philosphy has thirty-four employees and receives 201 million forints per annum. The Institute of Literary History has 66 employees and gets 438 million forints. The Institute of Political Science, with 52 employees, gets 276 million forints. The psychologists get 294 million, the sociologists 273 million and last comes the real biggy: The Institute of Historical Sciences has 105 employees and the government helps them out to the tune of 474 million.

This year there were several institutes that needed new chairmen. Earlier advisory councils had recommended names for these posts. Pálinkás decided to ignore these recommendations and instead he consulted with the Council of Research Institutes, a body made up mainly of scientists. They were the ones who decided who should fill, for example, the position of chairman of the Research Institute of Philosophy. The philosophy advisory council complained when Pálinkás appointed János Boros (I admit I have never heard of him) instead of György Gábor with whose name I am familiar. Pál Tamás, chairman of the Institute of Sociology, was applying for another term but received only a one-year extension which he declined.

The biggest upheaval followed the appointment of János Boros instead of the recommended György Gábor. Gábor is a well-known liberal whose interest is the philosophy of religion and church history. He often writes about church-state relations in dailies and weeklies. Pálinkás objected to these activities although he claimed that he hadn't read any of them because he doesn't read such things! Pál Tamás's reputation is also that of a liberal sociologist. The third institute where a change in leadership occurred is the Institute of Political Science. Instead of József Bayer Pálinkás named András Körösényi. I don't know much about Körösényi but I became a bit suspicious when I heard that the new chairman wants to put an emphasis on such questions as "the evaluation of the performance of a government" or "the accountability of politicians." That sounds ominous to me.

János Boros wants to focus the Research Institute of Philosophy on issues of the day. According to him "philosophy should be actualized." He wants to have closer working relationships with other institutes and to develop dialogues on such topics as global warming and gene technology. He would like to get answers to such questions as "whether the government may do everything that science allows" and other uplifting topics.

By the way, József Pálinkás was well within his rights to act as he did. When he became president of the Academy he immediately embarked on the creation of a new "law governing the activities of the academy." That law came into force on April 6 of this year. The researchers busy with their own subjects never paid the slightest attention to the provisions of this new law. If they had read it and thought about it, they might have had a few words to say on the subject. Pálinkás widened the authority of the president. He could ignore all recommendations and make appointments as he saw fit. A brave new world at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Especially in the world of the social sciences.