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Greetings from the sinking boat of Hungarian academia

heti idezetek 1

The author of this article is historian working for the Hungarian Academy of Science's Research Centre for the Humanities. The original Hungarian version was published by Index on Monday.

As it had happened to many historians in the past, history has finally caught up to me.

Every sign shows that my beloved workplace, the Hungarian Academy of Science is threatened by closure in a couple of years and it is likely that I will have to say my farewells in a couple of months. Even though I have no need to explain the nature of this institution to my peers, I would like to let everyone else know that contrary to the popular belief, the Hungarian Academy of Science is not a gentlemen's club where honourable old men meet every month to discuss their new dentures and to ogle the backside of the new waitress with quiet admiration through the veils of their ageing eyes. Instead, it is a fallible but at the same time, truly respectable scientific institution that maintains ten research centres and five separate institutes, where over 5000 full-time researchers work every day. 400 of them are with us in the Research Centre for the Humanities, and approximately a hundred of them are my immediate colleagues at the Institute of History.

This is a particularly nice place to work, not because of the money we make of course, because the paychecks of most of us are comparable only to those of shelf-stackers at the local supermarket. 

It is nice because we get an opportunity to make research on what interests us - Hungarian history - full time, and to do that as members of a really inspiring and tight-knit community.

László Szentesi Zöldi, a journalist of Demokrata and others, recently published an op-ed in which - along with some views I agree with myself - wrote this about the historians of our institute:

"The key positions in Hungarian intelligentsia are usurped by representatives of mainstream science, the liberals and communists of the old days who still desperately cling on to their desks. Why would that be any different in the most important research centres of the Hungarian historical sciences? I can think of dozens of artificially hyped academic types who planted themselves at these universities, departments, and research institutions back in the era of single-party dictatorship, and it is obvious that they will only be dragged out of there after they die of old age. The facts that the world whizzed past them and that their research instincts have not been functional since around 1993 do not matter."

I was thirteen in 1993. I was a student of Kecskemét's reformed high school and I indeed did not have the faintest idea what research instinct is. The other shameful confession I am obliged to make concerns my connection to the previous regime: I was a member of the communist boyscout movement in elementary school on a compulsory basis, though I have been lucky enough to pass into adulthood without having to graduate to the high school version of the same thing. As anyone can check on the website of the institute, most of my colleagues are in their thirties and forties, so they were children, or at most, high school students at the time of Hungary's regime change. How on Earth would they have anything to do with single-party dictatorship?

Also, what kind of a nest of liberal-bolsheviks is led by a former student of Pannonhalma, a leading Catholic school of Hungary, whose deputy graduated at the Budapest Piarists and went on to study in the Vatican?

It is also widely known that Pál Fodor, the leader of the Research Centre for the Humanities is a key member of the ultra-conservative Batthyány Circle of Professors. We have researchers with left- and right-wing political inclinations, and this situation has never resulted in any serious conflicts, attributable in part to the human qualities and leadership abilities of our director. We have only ever been judged based on our professional merits.

When the crusade peppered with empty arguments and legal trickery started against CEU, an overwhelming majority of us started to feel that we entered into an entirely new, dark era of cultural policy where the only expectation towards us is our unconditional loyalty to those in power overriding the basic interests of Hungarian academia and of the whole country itself. We expected Hungarian academic institutions to have a tough time as we have already heard the news of the reforms of research networks from Putin's Russia by this point. We were not wrong.

The government finally came forward with their somewhat half-baked plans to restructure the network of academic research institutes. The 2019 state budget saw HAS's funding slashed, placing what was around two-thirds of the Academy's yearly budget under control of the Ministry of Innovation and Technology. This included the 20 billion Forints (~€63 million) that the Academy used to allocate for maintaining the network of research institutes. The minister, engineer, and Academy member László Palkovics provisioned the disintegration of this network - as an apostle of applied sciences, he demanded representatives of all disciplines to present ways their findings can be put to direct and tangible use. It would take an unnecessary amount of space to go into the details of the debate that unfolded between the Board of the Academy and Palkovics, who communicated with all the confidence his possession of the treasury keys had lent him. The final result of this debate, however, was the Program of Thematic Excellence - a 27 billion Forint (~€85 million) hat in which most of the money taken away from the Academy ended up.

Research centres and institutes will have to enter into tenders in order to secure their funding - provided they want to keep operating. The minister cites Western European examples to explain this new system, but in actual fact, there are no research institutes in the world that operate without at least some basic funding to cover the expenses coming with maintaining a facility, including the salaries of management and the administrative staff. Without such foreseeable basic funding, we cannot talk about a permanent institute. The rejection of even a part of the tender can basically mean that the institute in question is finished. We can say that this system is truly a testament to the Hungarian spirit of innovation, there is nothing quite like it in the world.

The program's description, written in heavily decorated newspeak, clearly reveals that this is no tender by the ordinary definition of the word. This is just a request for financial support. There is no way to know who will be making the final decisions, there is no way to know what the tender's time period is, and there is no way to know how this new system will affect the state-employment contracts of our tenured colleagues. This program, full of legal and logical inconsistencies, threatens all academic research institutes, but it might be posing the greatest danger of all to economic and social sciences, as well as to the humanities. Why is that? Well, the tender invitation allocates only 3 billion Forints (~€9.5 million) for areas included in its "Culture and Family" chapter, which amounts to 60% of the accumulated base funding received by the three research centres and one separate institute (the Institute for Linguistics) contained therein. The Research Centre for the Humanities alone received 2 billion Forints (~€6.3 million) to cover wages and utilities in 2018. These are strong austerity measures, and the Academy will have no other choice but to do the dirty work themselves and start firing researchers one by one.

But this is not yet the full story at all. The aforementioned hat with the weird stage name is open not only to academic research institutes but also to church- and state-funded universities and state research institutes. The original plans also included private foundations performing research activities (such as government-linked Századvég), but this was ultimately taken out from the proposal's text at the one-after-the-last moment, after its publication. Still, this means that the 20 billion Forints labelled originally for the Academy but taken into the Ministry's custody will be shared between the Academy and a significant part of the rest of Hungary's scientific community, in violation of the current laws governing the area. Putting this small legal problem aside (as is customary under the current government), one might ask why this is a problem. Does a merit-based approach lead not to a more just procedure for distributing funds? Let us forget about the fact that we do not even know the name of the decision-making body. 

The main problem is that academic research institutes and research centres will be making requests for the basic funding that ensures their very survival, while for other contenders these are just extra resources, as they get their regular funding from other sources—without anyone calling the reason and use for their research into question.

I am afraid that my workplace, the Institute for History will draw the shortest straw in this cruel game of chance that turns researchers and disciplines against each other. I am saying this because the government had been opening one history research institute after the other in recent times. How would you decide if you had to choose between your own lovely children and the mean brats that live next door? Your children are nicer and smarter than them, aren't they? It is not an easy task to estimate the outcome of such a dilemma in these unforeseeable circumstances, but it is entirely possible that the Research Centre for the Humanities will only receive 20-30% of last year's funding, and researchers will be playing hide-and-seek in the large, empty halls of the institute's building that was opened just last year with a pompous ceremony. It is not hard to see that this reform started under the flag of competitiveness is only a lay-off in disguise. The government is reluctant to take upon themselves the odium of nationalising and destroying the network of academic research institutes, so they opted for creating a situation where the Academy is forced to tear down its own institutes due to being put in a tough financial situation by the new funding system and the Wunderwaffe that is ministerial bureaucracy. This modern version of the biblical story ends with Abraham actually sacrificing Isaac. This way, the ministry can start building on the smoking ruins as soon as the dust settles, establishing a structure that caters to their tastes, selecting leaders not necessarily based on their professional merits. We can hardly hope that the government creates new humanities institutes after rearranging the scientific playing field. The government often talks about eliminating parallel structures: in this equation, we represent the parallel to be eliminated.

The Board of the Academy can still decide to reject this new system until 12 February, which would probably lead to a swift execution instead of being bled out slowly and painfully, but the probability of this option is rather low. Representatives of disciplines that do not seem to be so exposed to politics probably believe they are not in so much danger as we are, maybe with the exception of theoretical mathematicians and physicists who were also cast for the thankful role of parasites living off of society. The most realistic scenario is that the Academy, after some obligatory grumbling, goes to sulk in the corner designated for them and in an attempt to save the other institutes, slowly accepts to let go of the less useful disciplines, such as ours. I would like to quietly note that I do not think this attempt will be particularly successful—the remaining institutes will inevitably be forced out of the academic framework in the long-term. It is also clear that the prerequisite for innovation in the business world is mostly a calculable economic and legal environment, and that is not something that could be achieved by any kind of restructuring of the scientific community. But what does this mean for Hungarian historical sciences as a discipline done in a national framework?

In short: A disaster.

The institute is expected to shrink and ultimately wither, and that is likely to set research back in several areas by years. It is impossible to gather such a brilliant team again in the near future. It seems like an empty phrase suited for end-of-the-year speeches that even colleagues silently smirk at, but it is true: The Institute of History is the leading, and, in many respects, central intellectual workshop of Hungarian historical sciences. We publish a number of periodicals on history, including an internationally acclaimed scientific journal in English as of 2012. (The Hungarian Historical Review) We are the publishers of the majority of Hungarian specialist books about history, including books by authors outside the Institute, and in recent years, we have taken special care to make the achievements of Hungarian historians available in the most widely spoken languages of the world. If we lose the Institute, we lose its well-established international connections and the results of the long-term research programs. On top of this, there are areas and historical periods that no other institutions study, and there is no other institution that can cover the entirety of Hungarian history like this one. The colleagues teaching at universities or working at archives, libraries, or museums hardly have the capacity to fill the void the Institute would leave behind. Obviously, I am not talking about brain capacity: there are brilliant experts among them. But they simply have a way more limited time for research, and history is a science that demands not only a well-functioning brain but copious amounts of time as well. It is hard to comprehend how a government that labels itself as working in the interest of the nation can conclude that this could be beneficial. The reason behind this is most likely to be the rather unoriginal notion that it is better to create the past than to research it. Well, good luck with that!

I do not think that the slow suffocation of humanities institutes is the greatest tragedy unfolding in contemporary Hungary. I know full well that there are more severe problems, I know that education and healthcare are falling into disrepair, I know that teachers in high schools, elementary schools, and kindergartens are ridiculously underappreciated both regarding income and reputation ; I am familiar with the statements coming from above that there is "no" shortage of teachers, just as we have "enough" doctors and nurses; and I am aware that those firefighters and paramedics who still take up service are sacred lunatics that deserve all our respect. I am also aware that we have become a country of irrefusable offers and bashfully kept secrets, slowly and silently, and that everything owned by the public is really owned by someone, and that the intricate network weaved by the state-party has spread across the pillars of society like fungus on the crossbeams in some century-old downtown Budapest attic. This is how one imagines a nation that has lost all hope. Still, I am a historian. Not being able to practice my vocation, or to just practice it in a limited way—that is a true tragedy for me. And a waste of money for the community, as I cannot put all the resources invested in my education to good use. It seems like this is an end of an era for me personally as well. I am engaged to the past, it is only fitting that I become part of it. It is my greatest wish to be proven wrong.

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