Hungarians protest over government overhaul of academic bodies

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungarians took to the streets of central Budapest on Sunday to protest plans to overhaul the country’s leading scientific research body, which they see as part of a wider government attempt to curb academic freedom.

Slideshow ( 10 images )

Right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who took power in 2010, has tightened controls over public life, including the courts, the media, universities and scientific research, putting him on a collision course with the European Union.

In its latest move, the government has said it plans to strip the 200 year-old Hungarian Academy of Sciences of its network of research institutions and hand over their buildings and assets to a new governing council. News website reported on Tuesday that the government was now drawing up draft legislation for the plan.

The academy said on Wednesday that the government wanted “total political control” of vital research.

“If it was up to Orban, there would be no free thought in this country, and I can’t let that just happen without raising my voice,” Maria Lantos, a 45 year-old teacher said as a crowd gathered to march past the main institutions affected by the government’s moves: from several public universities to the Academy.

There appeared to be up to several thousand people on the streets, but there were no official or police estimates of the size of the demonstration.

The government has said it wants to shake up funding of research institutes to encourage more lucrative and innovative research.

“Nationalization is not innovation,” read one banner held up by one of the protesters.

“We will not allow government bureaucrats to decide about research, scientific work,” Judit Gardos, a member of the Academic Worker’s Forum, which organized the demonstration, told protesters. “That is unheard of anywhere in the democratic world,” she said. The forum is a group set up by scientists in January to protect their freedoms.

The European Commission said on Tuesday that it would monitor developments in Hungary’s public research system and urged authorities “to refrain from any decision restricting scientific and academic freedom.”

The planned new government council for the Academy - to be chaired by Innovation and Technology Minister Laszlo Palkovics - would set out areas of research that would receive funding, website said on Tuesday.

In recent years, Orban’s ruling Fidesz party also changed the law to force Central European University (CEU), a top international graduate school and liberal thought center, to move much of its activity to Vienna.

It also centralized the operations and curriculum of lower level education and banned teaching in subjects that are ideologically alien to its perceived Christian nationalist politics, such as gender studies.

While popular protests and diplomatic problems accompanied most of those moves, including a massive march of several tens of thousands of people in support of CEU two years ago, the government ultimately has gone ahead with its plans.

CEU was one of the main issues that led to the ruling Fidesz party’s suspension in the European People’s Party, a pan-Europe party, which has moved to isolate Orban and Fidesz as they drift further to the nationalist populist fringes of European politics.

Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Susan Fenton