Hungary is currently witnessing the emergence of a state-sponsored scientific pseudo-world in which the criteria of academic quality control no longer apply, but rather political loyalty. This raises serious questions for European research funding and academic cooperation with illiberal states.

  • Andrea Pető

    Andrea Pető ist Professorin für Neuere Geschichte am Institut für Geschlechterforschung der Central European University in Budapest, Ungarn, und Mitglied der Ungarischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Ihre wissenschaftlichen Arbeiten wurden in siebzehn Sprachen übersetzt. 2018 erhielt sie den „Madame de Staël“-Preis für kulturelle Werte der All European Academies.

When in summer of 2007 the Open Society Archive in Buda­pest reviewed its coll­ec­tion, they have iden­ti­fied 100 000 volumes published before 1989 and inhe­rited from the Library of Radio Free Europe that nobody read in the past twenty years. The archive announced a public free dona­tion, but still after that 20 000 unread books remained in their coll­ec­tion. Then art came to their rescue and they decided to make plastic book cubes from them. The cubes were donated to insti­tu­tions in order to serve as tables, chairs or just piece of art remin­ding the viewers of the falli­bi­lity of know­ledge produced in the state-controlled academia of Eastern Europe. Will the books produced now in the academia in Hungary and in other count­ries with illi­beral regimes end up soon in plastic cubes as objects of art? This paper argues that it is very likely.

“Poly­pore states”

A cube of unread books; Source:

Recently, two distur­bing and inter­re­lated events happened in Hungary. First, the Hunga­rian state the natio­na­lized and centra­lized the rese­arch insti­tutes of the Hunga­rian Academy of Sciences follo­wing the Russian model of insti­tu­tional reform. Second, it forced Central Euro­pean Univer­sity into poli­tical exile from one Euro­pean Union country to another. How will these deve­lo­p­ments influence rese­arch in the field of social sciences and huma­ni­ties, which are the main targets of illi­beral states?

The freedom of academic inquiry has always been a certain illu­sion, since some­body has to pay the salary of the rese­ar­chers. There are two diffe­rent models: one was made by Humboldt, where science is funded by the state, and one belon­ging to the Anglo-Saxon tradi­tion, where private donors are setting up funds. In both cases, however, the funding is usually managed by a board of scien­tific experts. Both systems have advan­tages and disad­van­tages of their own, but the new deve­lo­p­ment of state capture in Hungary has changed this constellation.

In the past decade, poli­tical scien­tists have been discus­sing in great length the termi­no­logy with which it is possible to under­stand recent deve­lo­p­ments in diffe­rent count­ries, like Hungary, Poland, Serbia, Brazil, US, and Turkey. With Wero­nika Grze­balska we call these states illi­beral poly­pore states based on their common modus operandi. Unlike other poli­tical scien­tists who are admi­ring these states because of their effec­ti­ve­ness we argue that the poly­pore states do not have any original ideas just taking ideas of others using them for its own purposes, which is self-maintenance.

The poly­pore state is working with three concepts. The first is secu­rity. In its public discourse the state secu­ri­tises all possible aspects of life and policy areas inclu­ding portraying gender studies and critical intellec­tuals as threat. Second is the ideo­logy of fami­lia­lism that state poli­cies are supporting selected, mostly middle-class fami­lies, consciously igno­ring the value of gender equa­lity. And third, which is the most rele­vant for academic know­ledge produc­tion, the foun­ding and funding of new rese­arch and teaching insti­tu­tions with the same profile as the already exis­ting one, is crea­ting a new pheno­menon: the poly­pore academia. In the past decade in these illi­beral poly­pore count­ries several new rese­arch insti­tu­tions, museums and univer­si­ties have been founded with exactly the same profile as the already exis­ting museums and univer­si­ties had. The diffe­rence between these poly­pore insti­tu­tions and the already exis­ting ones is that there is no quality assu­rance and the available funding seems limit­less, since funding from other state insti­tu­tions are pumped to these also state financed institutions.

The lack of quality control in these poly­pore insti­tu­tions also led to attacks on systems and insti­tu­tions of academic quality control in general as a part of the popu­list turn. In these count­ries, govern­ments are appoin­ting poli­ti­cally reliable commis­sars as leaders and members of quality assu­rance insti­tu­tions. The state syste­ma­ti­cally destroys any other mecha­nism of scien­tific evalua­tion. That explains the attacks against the Hunga­rian Academy of Sciences which awards the title of Doctor of Academy of Sciences (DSc) so far required for profes­sor­ships. By now, state univer­si­ties are busy dele­ting this requi­re­ment from their bylaws about promo­tion criteria. The personnel of these poly­pore insti­tu­tions is recruited via personal informal chan­nels and network and not via academic job searches.

Grave conse­quences

What will be the conse­quences of buil­ding up this new poly­pore academic network in social sciences and huma­ni­ties? First, the mascu­li­ni­sa­tion of the profes­sion, since the recently appointed are all young and very ambi­tious men who are well-connected to the elderly men spear­hea­ding these deve­lo­p­ments. They are looking for young men who look very much like them­selves but 25 years younger. Second, obvious diffe­rences emerge in payment: faculty of these poly­pore insti­tu­tions are earning at least twice as much and have access to rese­arch and travel grants in their insti­tu­tions. Third, change in scien­tific orien­ta­tion: As the offi­cial requi­re­ments for profes­sor­ships are only speci­fying that acade­mics should have publi­ca­tions in foreign languages and expe­ri­ence in teaching abroad, these poly­pore acade­mics are publi­shing in self-published English language jour­nals in Central Asia, Russia, Iran or China, and teach in Hunga­rian in univer­si­ties lavishly supported by the Hunga­rian govern­ment in neigh­bou­ring count­ries with Hunga­rian mino­ri­ties. These jour­nals are not the usual ‘preda­tory jour­nals’, which are simple shady busi­ness enter­prises but jour­nals which are publi­shing works of a closed circle based on poli­tical loyalty without any quality control.

But the most important conse­quence is that this new academic system is influen­cing the choice of topics and academic ques­tions raised, which is the return of self-censorship as far as selec­tion of rese­arch topics, parti­ci­pa­tion in public discus­sion or even giving a Face­book post a like In poly­pore academia loyalty to the in-group secures access to funding – and this funding is available, secure, abun­dant and easy to obtain, unlike Euro­pean rese­arch grants. The only precon­di­tion is that the rese­arch proposed should be compa­tible with aims of the poly­pore state: secu­ri­tizing the discourse and supporting the ideo­logy of familialism.

The role of the EU

Will the books produced in Hungary and other count­ries where the poly­pore state hija­cked the state and academic life end up in a plastic cube as nobody will read them? As I said: Very likely so. But this process also raises serious ques­tions for the Euro­pean scien­tific and academic coope­ra­tion as a whole. First, about the united Euro­pean evalua­tion system. These insti­tu­tions at first glance look like academic insti­tu­tions but they are not as they recruit only reliable colle­agues who are for diffe­rent reasons ready to apply self-censorship. Second, this process will add an extra twist to the already present corpo­ra­tis­a­tion of Euro­pean rese­arch. The poly­pore academia is not only using the resources of social sciences and huma­ni­ties for ideo­lo­gical reasons, but also STEM for mate­rial conside­ra­tions. The recent natio­na­li­sa­tion of the rese­arch network of the Hunga­rian Academy of Sciences means that under the newly estab­lished umbrella of corpo­rate and academic colla­bo­ra­tion, very much promoted by the govern­ment in the frame­work of excel­lence and impact, private compa­nies will receive and spend state and EU funding in a non-transparent way supporting poli­ti­cally loyal, reliable rese­ar­chers – again without any trans­pa­rent quality control

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Third, there is the ques­tion of exis­tence or rather non-existence of those insti­tu­tional mecha­nisms helping those mostly young and middle-aged acade­mics who refuse to colla­bo­rate, resis­ting to the exis­ten­tial pres­sure of impo­ve­rish­ment and lack of rese­arch and travel grants. The insti­tu­tional system of helping scho­lars at poli­tical risk is based on the model deve­loped during the Second World War and works on the assump­tion that the period of being an academic in exile will last only for a few years and the scho­lars will return to their count­ries in order to continue their work. This will not be the case with poly­pore academia, since the insti­tu­tional and the evalua­tion systems have been funda­men­tally trans­formed. This lost gene­ra­tion of scho­lars or as they call them after Open Society Insti­tute and Central Euro­pean Univer­sity left Hungary, “the left behind acade­mics” will not produce books or journal articles. In the long run they cannot get access to resources as the poly­pore state uses all of it. If they emigrate, they will have access to academic jobs in the noto­riously diffi­cult academic job market only in excep­tional circum­s­tances. Ther­e­fore, the crucial ques­tion is if the repre­sen­ta­tives of poly­pore insti­tu­tions will meet appease­ment in the Euro­pean context as they bring in lavish finan­cial state support in the proposed coope­ra­tion, or with rejec­tion and despise. If not the latter is the case, then it is very possible that the poly­pore is infec­ting other insti­tu­tions with its Machia­vel­lian approach to values and moral. Then in the long run we can only hope that the plastic cubes will be made of their lavishly financed books, and not of ours.