Orban’s Government vs. The Social Sciences

Censoring scientific lectures in Hungary

A public talk that a PhD student, Orsolya Vasarhelyi, and I were scheduled to give on November 8, 2018 at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ (HAS) “Hungarian Day of Science” was censored by the Academy’s deputy secretary-general Beáta Mária Barnabás. In English, our talk’s title could be translated as “The role and success of men and women in computing occupations, based on big data.” All that was said in a letter from Barnabás’s office dated October 1, 2018 was that the “madam deputy secretary approves of the Computational Social Science event, with the exception of one talk,” citing ours. The only reason for disapproval was given in a parenthesized half-sentence: “because of other aspects of the gender theme.” The letter also censored a second talk at another event, focused on social media. I only read this letter after it was leaked on Facebook the day it was sent, and then again in the press the following day.

The Hungarian Day of Science at the Academy became an official event in 2003. Giving a talk at the event for most is considered a service. At it, participants have the opportunity to socialize over coffee breaks, gain insights into new projects and grants of peers, and more recently to gossip about the struggle between government and scientific institutions. As is true at most academic conferences, the kinds of talks range from exciting new ideas presented in cutting-edge formats to ones that still use PowerPoint templates from 1997.

The event our talk was supposed to be part of was organized by a new Computational Social Science thematic group, initiated by five research institutes of HAS and one department at Central European University — the Center for Network Science (now Department of Network Science and Data Science). This initiative connects social scientists with computer scientists, linguists, and physicists. The thematic group was approved by the president of HAS over the summer of 2017. The leading institution, taking on most organizing tasks is the Center for Social Science of HAS. The debut of this group was the Day of Science last year, when the whole program was approved by HAS, and researchers from the six institutions met for the first time for a whole day of presentations and networking.

This year turned out to be very different. Again, colleagues at the Center for Social Science took up the responsibility to organize, but in a very different climate than last year — a climate of fear and worry, facing an insecure future. Added to the sustained insecurities of Central European University, now the future of HAS itself has become uncertain. Researchers were shocked to see the much-respected president of HAS, Laszlo Lovasz, a world-renowned mathematician shown such little respect by the new minister of innovation, Laszlo Palkovics. First off, in August HAS had a meager fifty-three minutes to review the budget proposal for 2019. Then, Lovasz was shocked to see his budget cut in half: the research institutes practically taken out of the jurisdiction of HAS and placed under the new ministry of innovation. In a subsequent meeting Lovasz learned — only by accidentally peaking at a PowerPoint presentation — that there are plans to eliminate some research institutes entirely.

Adding to the rushed reorganization of HAS, media outlets tied intimately to the ruling party, Fidesz, started a smear campaign against social scientists. The weekly Figyelo, owned by a Fidesz oligarch, published an article featuring a list of social scientists working at the Center for Social Science to shame them and mock research on sexual orientations and gender inequalities. Laszlo Lovasz was smeared as well, described in the media as a possible foreign agent with American citizenship. Soon after, the government decreed defunded gender studies MA programs and eliminated the gender studies accreditation category. These tactics have all been used before against Central European University (Figyelo also published a list of “Soros mercenaries,” shaming scientists – mostly faculty at CEU). This past summer, Viktor Orban ordered a cleansing of cultural institutions, followed by the removal or disciplining of their leaders and the silencing of the journal Szazadveg (see Ivan Szelenyi’s article from September).

Amidst this changing climate, I was on a phone call with a key conference organizer Gabor Peli in early September. The theme of this year’s conference would be “crossing disciplinary boundaries,” so I proposed to present our research with my student, Orsolya, about gender inequalities in open source programming, based on data on eight million users on GitHub. We saw this paper as a cross from social science to computer science, both in respect to theme and methodology. Gabor paused at the other end of the line: “Well, this research certainly fits our agenda, but for such a sensitive topic these days, we need to work on the title and abstract together.” So, we proceeded to eliminate terms that could possibly irritate an imaginary government audience, from the perspective of the HAS officials who this year would need to act as another filter to approve our presentation. Out went any reference to gender. A favorite theme in the propaganda machinery of the government is a shaming and mocking of “gender pseudo-science,” closely following Russian templates. We even pondered eliminating reference to “men and women,” and to instead use “demographic background variables,” but we both laughed at the silliness of this level of paranoia. “I am sure this will be fine now,” Gabor said when we were through, then we sent the proposal to HAS for approval.

Well, we were wrong. The HAS deputy secretary decided not to allow the talk. On October 1st I was driving home in the evening and my colleague at CEU, Janos Kertesz, a prominent physicist, and member of HAS, called me. “Your talk got censored. But don’t be too proud, there was another one,” he said. When I got home, I saw deputy secretary Barnabás’s leaked letter. The next morning my phone was ringing off the hook. =All day journalists were getting in touch. Independent media outlets ran stories on censorship on their front pages. I shared our freshly rejected manuscript in English News outlets shared our manuscript link via Dropbox, one even translated the essence of it into Hungarian, despite that it is reasonably technical and dry. At that point my co-author was in Houston presenting the paper at a, so it fell on me to speak on two radio programs, and one TV talk show. Just one day after the news broke, a group of female IT security professionals, WITSEC, invited me to their annual conference, and hastily made time for me to give a talk and participate in a roundtable discussion. I received invitations to attend two university events, and a bar even contacted me to lead a public conversation about freedom of science over beers.

Meanwhile, our manuscript on Dropbox became a site of citizen science. At any given time about fifty readers were there, and started to mark up sections in the text, adding comments to the side, and even starting discussion threads. Most were either IT professionals or scientists, but some were just from the general public. Similar discussions about the content of our paper and disbelief of its censorship were going up on online, mostly on Facebook. There was a general sense of bewilderment about why the paper had been silenced — not embraced — by HAS and our government. After all, we wrote on the problem of how to involve more women in software programming, which should be a key concern of the ministry of innovation, given that there are tens of thousands of professionals missing from this sector.

Three days later the president of HAS gave an interview on the organization’s website, claiming that the Academy does not exercise censorship for political reasons, but noting that in the “current situation” it needs to be cautious. He basically acknowledged that the paper was censored for political reasons and therefore refused to overrule the deputy secretary’s decision. Meanwhile, the Center for Social Science was buzzing with intense discussions about possible courses of action. By the end of the week the director of the Center, Tamas Rudas, bravely decided to pull the entire event from the central schedule of the Day of Science, and to instead organize it at the Center on November 8th, with our talk included.

Subsequent media reports revealed that there were more talks censored at earlier stages of the Day of Science preparations about even more sensitive topics, such as migration and electoral politics. With the following weeks came further censorship, in some cases of entire conferences (a conference on Marx was postponed indefinitely). The CEU is a direct target — when Laszlo Lovasz, Laszlo Barabasi, one of the leading network scientists in the world and a visiting professor at CEU, and Jaroslav Nesetril of Charles University in Prague won a 10 million Euro Synergy Grant from the European Research Council, HAS and CEU sent a press release to the Hungarian Press Agency, MTI. However, when the Agency featured the press release on October 22nd all mentions of CEU were erased. It is clear now that far from an exceptional misstep, the censorship of our talk was the first instance of the re-emergence of manifest political censorship.

One might ask what can be gained by censoring science in Hungary in 2018? The first, obvious goal might be to silence undesired research output, and limit its circulation to academics and the general public. In our case this goal was not achieved. Rather, the opposite happened: I have never reached such a wide audience in Hungary than I have with the manuscript of the censored talk. Short of a Chinese level of technological sophistication controlling all channels of communication, silencing is hardly possible today.

A more achievable goal might be to intimidate researchers, and to compel them to engage in self censorship. While I was not directly intimidated by being censored (thanks to my affiliation with a private university), indirectly this goal was achieved. Colleagues at Academy research institutes think twice now about engaging in research not looked upon favorably by the government. My wife, who works at a public university, ties to keep a low profile about the fact that her husband was censored.

The deputy secretary’s most likely immediate goal is to please the government by displaying her eagerness to silence sensitive topics. While no one can really know the level of pleasure the government draws from observing science being censored, the goal of pleasing the Orban regime most likely backfired. HAS and the clumsy, unsophisticated practice of censorship became the center of attention, not to mention the boost of publicity for unfavored research areas. The goal of the government seems to be a multi-fronted offensive against science; to simultaneously keep CEU, HAS, and all public universities under attack — a recent plan communicated by Palkovics is to reorganize all universities and eliminate all state funded scholarships. Evidently, this strategy seems to work well. In the spring of 2017, when it was only CEU that was under attack, there were massive protests, and a wide front of solidarity from academics at HAS institutes and public universities. Now that all institutions are under attack, solidarity remains confined to online platforms, and no major demonstrations are taking place.

Where is Hungary headed after 2018? It seems clear that whatever the government has in mind for the regime’s subsequent evolution, the social sciences are not welcome to scrutinize it.

Balazs Vedres is the founding director of the Center for Network Science and Associate Professor of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Central European University. His current research follows how jazz musicians, video game designers, and software developers weave collaborative networks through their recording sessions, projects, and repositories.

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