March 21, 2019 / 4:05 PM / 3 months ago

Hungarians protest against PM Orban's academic overhaul

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Around 1,000 people rallied outside the Hungarian Academy of Science (HAS) on Thursday to protest against government moves to overhaul the institution, which scientists say is the latest threat to academic independence.

People protest outside the Hungarian Academy of Sciences against government's plans to overhaul the institution in Budapest, Hungary, March 21, 2019. REUTERS/Tamas Kaszas

Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who took power in 2010, has tightened controls over Hungarian public life, including the courts, the media and the economy, as well as education and now scientific research.

The European Parliament’s main center-right bloc voted on Wednesday to suspend Orban’s Fidesz party amid concerns it has violated European Union principles on the rule of law.

Some of the protesters on Thursday carried EU flags and waved banners saying “Thinking does not harm your health”.

“The Hungarian Academy of Science is a trustee of the preservation and development of Hungarian culture and science,” the Forum of Academy Workers, a movement founded by HAS research staff, said on its Facebook page.

“Yet, our nearly 200-year-old national institution is left fighting for its survival.”

OVERHAUL

The second protest against Orban’s reforms in as many months followed an accord between the ministry overseeing the overhaul and leaders of the academy to separate the science research network from the academy’s teaching institutions.

The research arm would be run by a new management body, with members selected by the government and the academy, according to a joint letter of intent signed early this month.

But HAS staff said the accord, reached as a result of what they called government “blackmail”, was unacceptable.

The academy is solely funded by the government but self-managing, with a network of scientific research bodies employing about 5,000 people.

The rally was due to march to the Innovations and Technology Ministry to wave red cards at minister Laszlo Palkovics, architect of the reform, which is due to take effect at the start of next year.

Orban’s government says the aim of the reform is to reap more economic benefits from scientific research.

“My actions are driven solely by the desire to make the Academy and the entire Hungarian research ecosystem more efficient,” Palkovics told private broadcaster atv.hu.

Slideshow (4 Images)

The demonstrators rejected that argument.

“This is a pretty dangerous tendency when we talk about the need for science to turn a profit immediately and manage scientific life solely according to economic interests,” said 19-year-old student Milan Szabo.

Concerns over the erosion of academic freedom and other democratic rights in Hungary have triggered several anti-government demonstrations in recent months.

Reporting by Gergely Szakacs; Editing by Gareth Jones

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