The long road home

This morning I was catching up with some old podcasts from Science, and came across a report by John Bohannon, about scientists in Turkey. The report discusses how the country is trying to “attract expat Turkish scientists back home“, and Bohannon also makes the statement that “[t]he expat Turks that I have spoken to […] have plenty of criticisms of the current political environment in Turkey, but they really clearly love their homeland.“ (from the 26 July 2013 Science podcast).

This statement touched a nerve, because that’s kind of how I feel about returning to my home country, Hungary. Honestly, I’d love to go back: I love the people and the lifestyle. I think the country is full of potential (creative people with great ideas), which could give rise to amazing research if someone would tap into this goldmine. But when I think about returning I also instantly see all the problems of the academic system, which had motivated me to leave in the first place.

Mixed feelings about going home... Is there a Home, Sweet Home beneath the Dead End? (Ethan's door by Matt Davis, via Flickr)

Mixed feelings about going home… Is there a Home, Sweet Home beneath the Dead End? (Ethan’s door by Matt Davis, via Flickr)

Obviously, there is the money issue: funding is spread pretty thin (and unevenly). Then, there’s the problem of not having the right connections. I don’t know if there’d be someone at home who’d support me and my career wholeheartedly. Also, I’ve been out of the system so long wouldn’t know who will be a reliable collaborator, how to obtain access to specialised equipment, and which rules and regulations can be bent and broken (because that’s what everyone does anyway, so the authorities will turn a blind eye, ’cause that’s how we roll back home…).

But beyond these practical issues, what I find most depressing is the mindset.

Science in Hungary is not a meritocracy. For example, it is a well-known, unwritten rule that university PhD scholarships are primarily awarded to students from university, not to students from academic institutes. The rationale is that university departments compete with academic research groups for research grants, but since they have teaching obligations they are at a disadvantage, and thus deserve the PhD fellowship money to even out the field. It’s even more disgusting that some institutes exploit this system by contractually obliging their PhD students to continue work at the institute for some years after obtaining their degree, in return for paying the grad school tuition fee.

Then, there’s a generation of PIs and profs, whom I like to call dinosaurs, because they are fossils from the bygone socialist era, when mediocre scientists could get into leading positions based on their political connections. Many of these profs are in their late sixties or seventies and haven’t done any significant research in decades, but they have been holding on to their position, just for the sake of having power. Recently, many of these dinosaurs have been forced into retirement due to the austerity measures introduced by the Hungarian government, and I was very hopeful that this might bring a wind of change. In some places it has. This summer I was speaking to one new institute director, who told me that he wanted to replace all the old PIs with young group leaders, who would bring expertise from abroad. He said: „I want new recruits to be better than anyone in the institute, because how else should we raise our standards?“ Unfortuantely, this kind of attitude does not exist across the board. Another head of department told me that he would be replacing the retiring generation by giving the current teaching assistants a promotion. This annoys me, because I know that for some of those assistants their only achievement was to sit tight in that one department, and that they have no experience abroad and also no grand scientific vision. And these people shall raise the future generation of scientists?

More generally, creativity is simply not rewarded in Hungarian academia. At uni we mainly had to cram a bunch of latin names and equations. I don’t think I ever had a single class where out-of-the-box thinking was encouraged or even an advantage.  Not surprisingly, many of the smartest students from my uni decided to pursue a career abroad or outside of the academic system, because they didn’t want to put up with the conformist way of thinking. Now try changing a system, which is populated with people who thrived in that environment precisely because they were the ones who didn’t question the way things are done and never asked for change…

Methinks it'll be helluva long road home... (Long Road by David Locke via flickr)

Methinks it’ll be helluva long road home… (Long Road by David Locke via Flickr)

Thus, while I’d love to return home, I’m not sure that I could deal with a system that is so rotten from within. I know that I could probably try to stick my head in the sand, do my research, and pretend I don’t see any of those problems. But shouldn’t integrity and a merit-based reward system be a key element of doing science? I dread what I would tell my students: „No, you didn’t get that fellowship because you work at an academic institute and your ideas are too creative“ or „Sorry guys, we don’t have money for pipette tips because I didn’t suck up to the right people“? And how would that shape the way they see science?

So, for the time being, I think the road ahead of me is still pretty long before it’ll reach home.

PS. In case you were wondering: despite my rant, I think there are many great scientists back home (including many young ones). I think this makes it all the more tragic that the system is so broken – maybe they could be even more amazing, if these problems would be fixed?

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