Hungarian Academicians Blast Government Over Inquiry Into Research Funds

John is a Science contributing correspondent.

An ugly political situation in Hungary has spilled over into academia, prompting an investigation of supposed financial misdeeds on one side and claims of harassment on the other. Humanities scholars are under investigation by the government for alleged misuse of research funds. But their supporters say they are the target of a government crackdown on critics.

It began last summer with what authorities describe as an anonymous tip to police that taxpayer-funded grants for philosophy research were being misspent. A police investigation began, but nothing was heard about it until last month. On 8 January, the office of the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, announced to the press that it was launching its own investigation into the use of grant money awarded to five Hungarian philosophers. The scholars have received grants totaling 440 million forints—about $2 million—to support dozens of research projects, postdocs, and students. The commissioner in charge of the investigation, Budai Gyula, did not name specific charges but implied that there was evidence of wrongdoing.

Outside Hungary, some journalists have called the move a government attack on dissidents. But the right-leaning Hungarian media took a different tack, according to critics. "The press has depicted these philosophers as a criminal gang," says István Bodnár, a philosopher at the Central European University in Budapest. One of the accused philosophers, Agnes Heller, has appeared on YouTube (in English) to make the case that they are being persecuted.

Academics have rallied to support the philosophers. "The goal of the accusers, says Bodnár, is "harassment." High-profile philosophers such as Jürgen Habermas have called on the European Union to investigate (in German). And an open letter is circulating, currently signed by over 60 scholars, most of them external or honorary members of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences along with several Nobel laureates. Their letter aims "to defend the accused, on principle, from this singling out for arbitrary retrospective harassment and to oppose the police-state-like interventions," says one of the signatories, Stevan Harnad, a cognitive scientist at the University of Québec in Montreal. He worries that other politically outspoken academics in Hungary, including scientists, could be targeted next.

In a 31 January press release (in Hungarian), the president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, physicist József Pálinkás, called for restraint: "[W]ork in progress is threatened by unprofessional and ill-considered comments, and by deliberately generated political mud-slinging, be this from the world of academia, from public administration, or from the activities of the media."

But in an e-mail exchange today with ScienceInsider, Pálinkás seemed to backpedal. "In one case, the misspending has been proven by the Internal Financial Auditing Office of the academy," he says. And when asked whether the investigation is politically motivated, Pálinkás was adamant that it is not. "In one case, the principal investigator has made harsh and unfounded political statements about the new government, and now the political press are suggesting that this is the reason. But I do not believe this. I do not have any evidence from government officials that this would be the case."

Meanwhile, the Hungarian government is not backing down. Last week the investigation expanded to funding for history researchers.

Posted in Europe