On October 10 I published an open letter by 28 members of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences to László Lovász, its president. They expressed their “concern about the antidemocratic processes that have been taking place in Hungary in the last few years, especially the threat to freedom of the press.” They were troubled by the transformation of public radio and television into propaganda outlets and the makeover of Origo into a government mouthpiece. The final impetus for writing the letter was the shuttering of Népszabadság on October 8. They asked Lovász to “see to it as soon as possible that the leadership of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences initiates a discussion about committing itself to launching scholarly investigations as well as conducting debates concerning these urgent issues facing Hungarian society.” Within days the number of signatories had grown to over 160.
Prior to the appearance of this letter, several so-called outside members of the Academy, scientists in foreign countries, resigned. Again, the last straw was the closure of Népszabadság. The first outside member who resigned was Thomas Jovin, head of the molecular biology department at the Max-Planck Institute in Göttingen. He was followed by the Hungarian-born Stevan Harnad, professor of psychology at the Université du Québec à Montréal and professor of cognitive science at the University of Southampton; Israel Pecht, a biologist from Israel; and Torsten N. Wiesel, a Swedish Nobel laureate in neurophysiology.
The public may never have known about these resignations were it not for Stevan Harnad’s special relation to Hungary. He made sure that his and his fellow scientists’ resignations wouldn’t remain a secret. In the last two weeks the Hungarian media has been full of articles about the large number of academicians who are demanding the academy’s involvement in the defense of democratic values which, in their opinion, are being trampled on by the Orbán government.
Among recent presidents of the academy Lovász is perhaps the most distinguished. He is known worldwide as an accomplished mathematician. He is also highly thought of as a man of integrity. As one of his fellow academicians said, in the past to become the president of the academy was a great honor but, with Lovász, it is he who brings honor to the institution.
I’m certain that the political developments of the last six years are not to Lovász’s liking. While his two predecessors, E. Szilveszter Vizi (2002-2008) and József Pálinkás (2008-2014), had strong ties to Fidesz, Lovász tries to maintain a neutral position vis-à-vis the current regime. He heads an enormous organization that is totally dependent on the goodwill of the powers that be.
Lovász has given quite a few newspaper interviews lately, explaining patiently that politics has no place within the walls of the academy. As he puts it, half the academicians support the government, the other half don’t. An open debate would do harm to the institution. He is convinced that his election by the members had nothing to do with politics. That may be so, but whether Lovász likes it or not, the election of the president of the academy is not a purely academic matter. For example, Pálinkás was chosen by the academicians because he was a member of the cabinet during the first Orbán administration (1998-2002) and they believed his presidency would benefit the academy financially and politically once Fidesz is in power again. After 2010 their prediction was amply fulfilled. According to Stevan Harnad, the government used Pálinkás as an instrument of political pressure.
The problem with Lovász’s argument about the non-political nature of the academy is that since it is a state institution, it is by definition political. Back in May Viktor Orbán was a speaker at the yearly general assembly of the academicians, accompanied by János Lázár and Zoltán Balog. I remember that some people objected at the time. They argued that politicians had no place at their gathering. And what Orbán had to say at the assembly was not at all reassuring to anyone who cares about the independence of the academy and the scientific community. He talked extensively about “the alliance of science and politics” and “the joint effort of the scientists searching for truth and the politicians who want to create a more just society.” He emphasized the common responsibility, the common challenges. He said, “We are chained together. We can progress only if we move in the same direction. Let’s not beat around the bush: the future, quality, good name of Hungarian science is a political matter. A national political (nemzetpolitikai) matter.”
The fact is that the academy has been the captive of the Hungarian state ever since 1948. Prior to 1945 the academy was largely independent financially. It was established through the generosity of István Széchenyi, György Károlyi, György Andrássy, and others. The academy’s library was a private gift of 30,000 volumes. The academy received gifts from wealthy noblemen throughout the nineteenth century. For example, the academy’s gorgeous building came from a 1858 gift of 80,000 forints. Private donations kept the academy going between 1919 and 1945 as well. At the end of the 1920s a very rich man willed his entire estate to the academy–cash, stock holdings, real estate, and agricultural land that produced a handsome yearly income for the institution. This source of funding disappeared due to inflation during and after the war and the nationalization of the academy’s real estate and land.
With the communist takeover the independence of the academy came to an end. It was completely reorganized along the lines of the Soviet model. In the 1950s and 1960s a network of research institutes was attached to the academy. Today 15,000 researchers are employed in these institutes, some of which necessarily touch upon politics. For example, there are institutes of political science, history, sociology, philosophy, linguistics, and several other workshops dealing with politically sensitive issues. Lovász claims that they are not political workshops in the strict sense of the word. The researchers do their work guided only by the principles of scientific inquiry. But a few years ago, under József Pálinkás, the institute of philosophy was reorganized in such a way that certain philosophers were forcibly retired because the new director didn’t find their work useful or, rather, found their political views unacceptable. Scientific inquiry doesn’t always produce results that mesh with the views of the current Hungarian government. That’s why the Orbán government began establishing alternate research institutes of its own.
The storm at the academy is far from over. Lovász received a new letter lately, this time from Lajos Rakusz, former president of the Council of Research, Technology and Innovation. The letter was published in today’s Népszava. Rakusz accuses Lovász of remaining silent even as he witnesses the degradation of the Hungarian educational system. He reminds Lovász that he as a former employee of Microsoft should know that a country’s future depends on the acquired knowledge of its population. Yet less and less money is spent on education and research. Less money than the country could actually afford. As a result, Hungary’s competitiveness has been rapidly declining. Twenty-one years ago Hungary ranked 26th out of 140 in the Global Competitiveness Report published by the World Economic Forum. Today it is 63rd. The country is moving in the wrong direction, and it is incumbent on Lovász to raise his voice. “Your voice carries weight. But your silence is even weightier.” Harsh words. Moreover, Rakusz didn’t forget Orbán’s speech at the academy in May. “At this year’s general assembly the academicians applauded the prime minister when he declared that we, the government, and the academy ‘are chained together.’ Really? Does that deserve applause?” Lovász should respond, but can he?