Hungary’s Philosophy Affair: Bringing It All Out Into The Open

Bohannon, John (2011) Hungarian Academicians Blast Government Over Inquiry Into Research Funds. ScienceInsider February 4, 2011

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…”

Let me try to describe the situation in a nutshell in 14 points, and then encourage all viewpoints to express themselves at the ScienceInsider site, openly — and then let the world scientific/scholarly community draw its own conclusions.

1. Hungary is a small country with a difficult historical past and a language comprehensible only to its native populace and a very few courageous foreigners.

2. In this closed system an ever-repeating cycle has evolved in which there is extreme polarization (“us vs them”) and blame for most problems is laid on the “enemy,” with most efforts directed toward punishing the enemy instead of solving the problem.

3. The polarization divides roughly along right-wing and “left-liberal” lines, but these are not quite the same as they are in western europe and north america — as will become evident if this discussion manages to bring the voices — which are currently expressing themselves only in Hungarian — out into the open.

4. I will point out only that the current government is right-wing, and has shown some inclination lately to control the press more than any other western democracy. I will also point out that the former government was left-wing, and highly corrupt. The government before that one was likewise corrupt, and that government happened to be the very same government as the current government. And before that was the communist government, for about four decades, likewise corrupt. And before that was the wartime Fascist government, likewise corrupt…

5. So mutual accusations of corruption are completely uninformative and unhelpful.

6. The present “philosopher affair” concerns this same recurrent pattern: The Hungarian research grant system is extremely inefficient (as it is in many countries, but probably even moreso in Hungary), as well as very low on funds (as it is in many countries, but probably moreso in Hungary) because of the global financial crisis. The philosopher affair concerns alleged irregularities connected with research funding.

7. All researchers, everywhere, complain about the funding system: It is unfair. It gives too much money to unworthy projects; it is biassed; some research and researchers are favoured over others. Let’s call these these complaints that rival researchers (and rival research fields) make about one another all the time, everywhere, the “generic” complaints.

8. Researchers (and their institutions, and also their funders and funding systems) are also notorious for being sloppy and inefficient (they miss deadlines, they over- or under-spend budgets, they make accounting and reporting errors, etc.). This too is familiar. But researchers are also mostly honest, everywhere, and they try to remedy their sloppiness once it is pointed out — or if the system becomes sufficiently efficient to make sure slip-ups are prevented from happening in the first place. Let’s call these these complaints about the implementation and efficiency of compliance with the funding system “systemic” complaints.

9. In addition, there occasionally occurs a genuine instance of major and intentional misuse of research funds on the part of researchers. If researchers do something that is against the rules of the research funding, their funds are revoked and they may have to pay a penalty. Let us call accusations of having done something like this accusations of “rule-breaking.”

10. If the intentional researcher malfeasance is not only rule-breaking, but against the law, then the researchers are taken to court. But such things are very rare, and serious, so charges of having done illegal things are not made lightly. Let us call accusations of having done something like this accusations of “criminality.”

11. Now it can be stated what is at issue in the philosopher affair in Hungary: A small number of philosophers has been singled out and accused of a bundle of things, but it is not in the least clear whether the things in the bundle are in the first two categories (generic and systemic complaints) or the second two categories (rule-breaking or criminal charges). The evidence has not been made known. The accusations are blurred and keep mutating. What is aired is mostly just generic and systemic complaints familiar to every funded researcher in the world — and those do not distinguish the accused philosophers in any way from any other funded researcher anywhere on the planet — and yet the blurred bundle keeps being treated as rule-breaking or criminal charges, and indeed police have been called in to investigate (with no result, other than researcher harassment by police investigations). They have also been looked into by a governmental research funding overseer (Gyula Budai).

12. The researchers involved are reputable researchers of long standing, some of them world famous. It is not stated why they were singled out for these accusations. The accusations and their targets are not the result of a global, systematic, random audit to detect malfeasance, within or between fields: They are simply a heterogeneous and constantly changing bundle of ad hoc accusations, levelled against these philosophers out of the blue, and then turned into a sustained press campaign of presumptive criminality and vilification by the Government-associated right wing press.

13. Since all the accused are of the “left-liberal” persuasion, and the two that are widely known internationally are also prominent critics of the current government (but also of past governments, including left-wing ones), the most likely hypothesis is that the accusations are yet again the result of Hungary’s unfortunate tendency to blame problems (in this case the inefficiency of the funding system? the corruption of the prior government?) on the “enemy,” and to punish the enemy for them — instead of solving the problem (by reforming the funding system, if that is the problem).

14. All indications — and of course this is the most worrisome aspect of it all — are that the campaign of accusation, police-intervention, and press vilification are taking place with the encouragement and involvement of the government, bent, yet again, on punishing its predecessors, critics and other “enemies” rather than on using their turn in office to solve the ongoing problems of the country — and using their turn in office to set an example of governing uncorruptly.

Discussion — but temperate discussion only — is now invited at the ScienceInsider site from all sides.

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