Hungary fights to retain top scientists

Hungary fights to retain top scientists
Hungarian Academy of Sciences president Jozsef Palinkas (far left) meeting the Singapore delegation, including (from right) Ambassador to Hungary M.P.H. Rubin; President Tony Tan Keng Yam; Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan; and Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs and Community, Culture and Youth Sam Tan.

HUNGARY, a country of under 10 million, has 14 Nobel laureates.

But look beyond this, and the picture that emerges is of a country that - not unlike Singapore - is fighting the twin battles of getting its people interested in science and then keeping them in the country.

In a way, the latter problem is not new. Many of Hungary's laureates were outside the country when they received the prize, some having fled during the World War II.

Today, the brain drain from a country known for its prowess in neuroscience, mathematics and physics is due partly to higher salaries and better infrastructure abroad.

"That's a big challenge for Hungary," Dr Jozsef Palinkas, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest, told Singapore reporters on Thursday.

His academy started a homecoming programme for young researchers in 2009, offering research grants to returning teams. This Momentum Programme has brought 79 groups home so far.

In this, Hungary is a step ahead of Singapore.

Last month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the Returning Singaporean Scientists Scheme, which aims to bring its top overseas-based scientists home with offers of funding and help to set up labs.

Singapore hopes to tap Hungary's expertise in scientific research, both by studying the academy's measures and by encouraging collaboration with its researchers.

The homecoming programme is a possible learning point, said Dr Lee Meng Har, director of biomedical sciences in Singapore's National Research Foundation. She is part of the group accompanying President Tony Tan Keng Yam on a seven-day state visit to Hungary and the Slovak Republic. The delegation visited the academy on Thursday before heading to Bratislava.

After meeting Dr Palinkas and heads of the academy's research institutes, Dr Tan cited sustainability, environmental science, physics and materials research in graphene - a form of carbon which both Hungary and Singapore are researching - as possible areas of collaboration.

There is no single reason for Hungary's strength in research, said Dr Palinkas, but history has shaped its fortunes.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the aristocracy had a strong interest in science and could send their children to top-notch high schools.

And in the post-war years under communist rule, science was seen as a promising career and a window to the outside world.

But the transition to democracy in 1990 changed things.

He said: "Now we are in a sense 'suffering' from the fact there are so many possibilities that talented people choose a different subject."

But he sees promise in changes to the high school system, which will allow students to choose between a focus on science and on humanities: "I hope the new curriculum will help to get the really talented young people, at an early age, towards the sciences."

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