Hungarian Academy of Sciences rejects conference proposals on political grounds

In the increasingly surreal world that is Hungary in 2018, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences has banned two presentations that would have formed part of an annual series of events where scholars present their research to broader, often non-academic audiences. The series, entitled “Give a Night to the Sciences” (in Hungarian: “Adjon egy estét a tudománynak!”) is scheduled for November and will include conferences, presentations and book launches. Researchers looking to participate were required to submit abstracts or proposals for review. Some have just learned that the Academy decided to reject their proposal on political grounds–and made no secret whatsoever of this rationale.

Beáta Mária Barnabás, the Deputy Secretary General of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA), rejected two proposed presentations. The first was entitled “The Role and Success of Men and Women in Computer Science, From the Perspective of Big Data.” The rationale for not permitting this presentation to proceed was due to the “other aspects of the thematic of gender.” The presentation was proposed by Balázs Vedres of CEU and Orsolya Vásárhelyi. The two academics purposefully chose about the most innocuous title possible for their talk and eschewed the word “gender.” The problem was that the content of the presentation looked at the under-representation of women in the computer science field of open source coding and this topic is now anathema for the Academy. The second rejected presentation was entitled “The Legal Side of Social Media.” In this case, according to Ms. Barnabás, the presentation could not proceed due to the “political angles” of the subject matter.

Beáta Mária Barnabás. Photo:
MTA – Tamás Szigeti.

According to two unnamed academic sources speaking with the Qubit news site, after several months of tension between the government and the Academy, in light of the threat of losing public funding and the elimination of accredited gender studies programs in Hungary in August, the current move is an attempt by the Academy to salvage its financing by appeasing the government of Viktor Orbán. In other words, academics are engaging in self-censorship, in order to save their research funding.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of academics in Hungary have been economical in their displays of civic courage over the past eight years. Scholars are mostly civil servants in Hungary, living on modest incomes and ever mindful of not attracting the displeasure of the state that pays their salary. The academics that have felt free to speak out have been those with potentially less to lose: these include retired scholars or ones working in very low-paying, specialized fields. The current climate of labour shortages would make it exceedingly difficult to replace them.

The Orbán regime is very much built on this type of self-censorship by people who have too much to lose. At present, there is little need to employ rougher tactics used by full-blown dictatorships.

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