Hungarian scientists protest against government plans to streamline Academy

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungarian scientists held books above their heads as they protested on Tuesday against government plans to reorganize the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ research and funding to try to reap more economic benefits.

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Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a conservative leader who came to power in 2010, has tightened his control of Hungarian public life, such as the courts, the media, the economy, as well as education and now scientific research.

“The current situation, which keeps 5,000 MTA researchers and staff in an existential and scientific limbo, threatens the future of the entire Hungarian scientific community,” academy workers said in a statement on their website.

The government last year decided to reroute funds from the academy (MTA), and last month it launched a tender for the funds instead of allowing research institutions to allocate them as they saw fit.

The academy, which carries out scientific research using a network of specialized research institutions, is solely funded by the government, receiving 40 billion forints ($142 million) a year.

Orban posted an open letter on his website on Tuesday in which he addressed some of the criticism leveled at his plans.

“The guarantee to generate economic benefits from knowledge is still missing from the research and innovation system,” he wrote. “The increase of domestic industry’s added value is possible only if they concentrate their resources.”

The protesters in Budapest held up signs saying “MTA is not an ATM”. They brought scientific books with them, which they held aloft in a reminder of the importance of independent science.

Orban’s move to revamp various parts of society have drawn criticism from international partners, including a resolution in the European Parliament last year to sanction Hungary for flouting EU rules on democracy, civil rights and corruption. Orban has rejected that.

He last clashed with the education establishment over the Central European University (CEU), founded by billionaire George Soros, which said it was forced out of the country.

Its shift to Austria was the culmination of a long struggle between Hungarian-born Soros, who promotes liberal causes through his charities, and Orban’s government.

Physicist Zoltan Berenyi said the MTA may have proved to be too independent for Orban.

“We see that in today’s Hungary many things can be done even in the university and scientific fields. We see what happened to the CEU,” he said.

“One thing I am certain this isn’t is an attempt to make research more efficient.”

($1 = 281.5300 forints)

Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Alison Williams