One country’s influx is another country’s brain drain

The people of Budapest seem despondent about the state of Hungarian science. Will there be a positive fallout when Britain quits the EU if East European scientists working in the UK are forced to uproot and look for new berths?

It is often a good idea to know how others think. Where the talk in Britain on the subject of Brexit seems concerned with the fear of being swamped by migrants and controlled by an unelected bureaucracy, anxieties in Budapest seem to centre on fears of a brain drain to Britain and the West, and there seems to be a hankering for lost glories generally.

The Hungarian-British humorist George Mikes once had a joke about his people: a Hungarian was someone who entered a revolving door behind you and came out in front of you. They were manoeuvring and opportunist. These kinds of books about national stereotypes served up to cold war austere, still bowler-hatted Britain have now gone out of fashion, even when written tongue firmly in cheek. But the Hungarians were the consummate imperialists of South-Eastern Europe once upon a time. They had a very privileged position in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Budapest was built up, by engineers and architects, into one of the great European metropolises in the second half of the 19th century.

Would George Mikes recognise the defensive despondency of the Hungarians today, full of introspection and a certain defensiveness towards the biens pensants in Germany and Britain whose mainstream media have dubbed Hungary a semi-dictatorship along the ‘Putin lite’ model?

Another worry is that all the clever young people seem to have left for the West, and with the country’s low birth rate that’s no good thing. Everyone from cleaners to waiters says that their quicker and brighter counterparts have gone to Western Europe where wages are higher.

But since this is an engineering magazine, what is it with Hungarian STEM professionals? Hungary receives a minute proportion of the EU’s research grants, especially the coveted ERC grant, awarded by the European Research Council, which calls itself the Champions League of European science and which gives a lucky few young researchers enormous amounts of money. Britain is the number one here. Researchers at British universities receive about a quarter of all ERC grants, ahead of German universities, reflecting both the pressure on British scientists to raise money as well as the fact that British universities are enjoying a self-reinforcing competitive advantage on the European science scene. Many of the brightest and best of Eastern Europe head to Britain to populate its science and engineering faculties – and prosper. The Russian team of Andre Geim and Konstantin Novolesov won the Nobel Prize for Physics for the discovery of graphene a few years ago. They were based at the University of Manchester.

Hungarians who do stay at home complain that they can’t reach out to an international scholarly audience because translating papers into native-speaker-standard English costs too much of a struggling academic’s salary. The professor I am staying with in Budapest at the moment – she resides mostly in Western Europe – has no sympathy with her “whining compatriots” who offer up these kinds of explanations. “They should bloody well go and learn to write English.

Presumably as a woman who has grown up in Hungary she is familiar with certain bourgeois academic male arrogance and it was reacting to that. Still, it is a problem that the British will never experience and probably find hard to understand: to be the prisoner of a small language.

But Budapest is a glorious city, with architecture to die for, still much cheaper than London and with a youth culture that seems much more conservative, appealingly so. It’s a shame, though, that a country that produced some of the most prominent scientists on the American Manhattan project (Leo Szilard, John von Neumann, Edmund Teller), and was part of an empire whose sons produced and contributed so much to British philosophy and science after the war – Imre Lakatos, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Popper, Karl and Michael Polanyi, to mention a few – seems to be a bit in the doldrums.

I know that Wittgenstein and Popper – heroes of mine at university – were technically Austrian but there was a great similarity of culture with Budapest just down the Danube river.

Anyway, if Britain leaves the EU what will happen to that pole position in getting ERC grants? Will Britain be excluded from the scheme, and if so will the Hungarian and other East European scientists come back to their home countries – or will they land in Germany instead? If they did return home, there will be, I guess, lot of Hungarians happy to get their best and brightest back.

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