The Collegium Budapest, modelled on the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study in the United States, was founded ten years ago. Today, it is a prestigious 'temple' of pan-European excellence and interdisciplinarity. Every year, it welcomes guest researchers in the life and social sciences, biology and theoretical physics for periods of between three and ten months. A genuine platform for the dissemination of knowledge, it also runs study cycles to which many renowned scientists contribute.
View from the institute showing the Trinity column on the Szentharomsag Square.
Far from the hustle and bustle of downtown Pest, the Collegium stands opposite the Church of Notre Dame of Budapest – better known as the Church of St. Matthias – overlooking the Danube from the top of Buda Hill. With high ceilings, huge windows looking out onto the baroque architecture of this medieval district, and offices with their imposing earthenware stoves, the atmosphere is one of calm and serenity, perfect for study and reflection.
For the past ten years, more than 350 researchers (both Hungarian and foreign) have benefited from this exceptional atmosphere of intellectual inquiry. Free of administrative burdens or teaching tasks, and housed with their families just a few minutes from the Collegium, these guest researchers are at liberty to pursue their research in the most diverse fields.
After initially concentrating on the human and social sciences (in particular anthropology, linguistics, sociology, history and economics), the institute progressively widened its field of research to include biology and theoretical physics. 'Hungary can pride itself on an excellence recognised worldwide in both these fields. This is why we decided they would benefit from a strengthening of the international dimension,' explains Eörs Szathmáry, member of the Collegium's permanent team of researchers.
Rebuilding bridges between the two Europes
Statue of Athena on the north-east corner of the Collegium
The institution's roots lie in the intellectual ferment of the early 1990s, marked by the coming together of the two Europes. It was clear that this reconstruction of the European identity would not be possible without a better respective understanding of the historical, cultural and structural specificities of these two territories, so long separated by the Iron Curtain. The initiative to create this centre for interdisciplinary research came from Wolf Lepenies, Rector of the Berlin Wissenschaftskolleg (DE), and Ivan Berend, President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Five countries (Austria, France, Hungary, the Netherlands and Switzerland), two German Länder (Baden-Württemberg and Berlin), and six private foundations agreed to finance this genuinely pioneering project in the context of the post-Communist world. With a governing structure modelled on that of Princeton in the United States, the Collegium is managed by the General Assembly on which all the donors are represented. An Academic Board of 16 members, all of them renowned researchers, decides scientific policy. A select committee of five permanent members oversees implementation of the institute's activities.
Special guests In 1993, the Collegium welcomed its first visiting researchers. It also launched its first series of interdisciplinary seminars which attracted many scientists of global renown. A dozen Nobel prizewinners have shared their thoughts within these walls, including the Americans Saul Bellow, Carleton Gajdusek and Robert Sollow, the Hungaro-American John Harsányi, the Belgian Ilya Prigogine, and the Swiss Richard Ernst. The subjects covered include “Economic transition after communism”, “Interaction between politics and economic policy during the post-socialist transition”, “Jews in modern Europe”, and “The structure and structuring of the European area in the Middle Ages”.
The Collegium also seeks to function as an international platform for scientific exchanges with other comparable institutions, such as the Princeton IAS, its European counterparts at Wassenaar (NL) and Uppsala (SE), the Berlin Wissenschaftskolleg (DE), the Vienna Forschungzentrum für Kulturwissenschaften (AT) and the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme in Paris (FR). At the European level, it has included EU enlargement among its priorities, working in close co-operation with the Commission. In 1997, it hosted the founding conference of the network of Centres of Excellence in the candidate countries and has organised meetings on forward studies (Carrefours 2000), the state of the social sciences in Central and Eastern Europe (2002), and preparations for integrating research policy in the adhesion framework (2002). The Collegium also co-operates with the New Europe College (NEC), a centre of excellence in the field of human and social sciences founded in Bucharest (RO) in 1994.
Interdisciplinarity as a state of mind
Imre Kondor, Rector of the Collegium: 'We want to counter the brain drain by encouraging scientific exchanges in the direction of west to east.’
The present Rector of the Collegium, Imre Kondor, was Professor of theoretical physics until the 1990s when he switched to… banking, where he applied his knowledge of methods of statistical physics to financial risk management. Describing himself as having a 'very low boredom threshold', he returned to research in October 2002, taking up the reins at the Collegium, where he is also responsible for activities linked to theoretical physics and economics.
'Interdisciplinarity is not just an intellectual requirement,' he believes. 'It is also a way of considering scientific or technical problems which can find very concrete applications.' He cites as examples two contracts awarded to researchers at the institute under the Sixth Framework Programme, one on robotic intelligence (the Ecagents project) and the other, conducted with Swedish telecommunications giant Ericsson, on developments in the internet and its infrastructure through to 2025 (the Evergrow project).
After a decade's existence, and in a changed context, these contracts are replacing the original state funding which permitted the institution's launch. From August 2004, the Collegium will also be charged with managing a Marie Curie training network on nanostructures. 'The times are changing, but our ambition remains the same. We want to counter the brain drain by promoting scientific exchanges in the direction of West to East,' concludes Kondor.
Under the Hungarian Socialist system, applied research was carried out by a number of technical institutes linked to major public companies. For material sciences alone, there were 18 entities devoted to aluminium, steel, plastics, etc. Following the ...
Under the Hungarian Socialist system, applied research was carried out by a number of technical institutes linked to major public companies. For material sciences alone, there were 18 entities devoted to aluminium, steel, plastics, etc. Following the privatisation of industrial consortiums in the early 1990s and the closure of the most outdated factories, a radical rethink was needed.
The bronze statues on Heroes Square, in Budapest, have been restored to their former glory after being taken down and treated by the Institute for Material Sciences and Technology (BayAti).
In 1992, the government took inspiration from the German Fraunhofer Instituten to launch the Zoltán Bay Foundation, named after the illustrious Hungarian physicist (1900-1992). He is famed, in particular, for developing radio tubes for the Hungarian company Tungsram in the 1930s and making the first radar observations of the moon(1). The foundation, which is independent of the state, was allocated start-up capital, the interest on which is used to finance applied research.
In 1993, the foundation opened the first two research institutes: one dedicated to biotechnology (BayBIo), and the other to products and logistics (BayLogi). Three years later, it founded its Institute for Material Sciences and Technology (BayAti) in Budapest, which is today its flagship institute. With 38 researchers and 12 students, it is active in just about all the latest fields: 3D steel sectioning using lasers (which enabled it to participate in the European VELI and IPcim programmes); nanotechnologies, with research on new zinc, iron and nickel alloys at the atomic level; new composite polymers of interest to the automotive industry; and the recasting of used plastics into new materials.
'One of the common features of all this work is the shared interest in phenomena which occur at the surface of materials,' explains the institute's Director, Erika Kálmán. She cites the example of the spectacular restoration work on the bronze statues on Budapest's Heroes Square. 'Using electronic microscopy we were able to determine the corrosion points at the finest level of the material, whether due to the reaction between the bronze of the statues and the iron of the screws, or atmospheric pollution.' After being dismantled and transported by special convoys to the institute for restoration, the sculptures, which were first erected in 1896 to commemorate the millennium of the birth of Hungary, once again stand resplendent.
(1) Despite his scientific renown, Bay was obliged to leave Hungary in 1948 and ended his career in the United States.