People Political Sciences

Life Experience, Science and Passion: Europe Funds New Research on Health and Populism

, by Fabio Todesco
Gabor Scheiring has been an activist, a Member of the Hungarian Parliament and the shadow Minister of Finance before completing his PhD at Cambridge. Now a PostDoc Researcher at Bocconi, he has obtained a Marie Curie Fellowship to study the relation between economic change, public health and populism

Gabor Scheiring, a Post-Doc Researcher at Bocconi's Department of Social and Political Sciences and a Fellow of the Dondena Centre of Research on Social Dynamics and Public Policy, thinks that individual health can be read as an early warning sign of the health of European democracies. Thanks to this idea, elaborated in his research project PHASE (how is Populism and Health ASsociated in Europe), Dr. Scheiring has been awarded a two-year Horizon 2020 Marie Curie Sklodowska Individual Fellowship worth €180,000.

Dr. Scheiring was born in the early '80s in the industrial outskirts of Budapest, an area hit hard by deindustrialization when Hungary moved from a socialist to a capitalist economy, exposed to global competition. «As jobs were lost and people all around me – including both my parents - developed chronic diseases, I watched not only individuals, but an entire culture collapsing, and the social fabric being torn apart», he says. «As a kid I thought it was a unique thing, a personal issue, but later I realized that it involved a whole generation, all over Eastern Europe and beyond». Later on, between the 2000s and 2010s, he also experienced the emergence of illiberal populist movements, fed by people's disillusionment with the policies of the previous 20 years.

The association between ill health and populism could be bi-directional. On the one hand, as Dr. Scheiring assessed in his previous work on Hungary and Eastern Europe, socio-economic deprivation driven by economic change can lead badly hit populations to worse health and, then, to higher support for populism. On the other hand, populist parties, when in power, tend to discriminate against already precarious communities and can support health policies not based on evidence – concerning vaccinations, among other things – thus worsening the population's health.

With his research, Dr. Scheiring will test both causal directions and, through a qualitative case study, will single out and analyze the mechanisms at play.

His early experience in a deindustrializing neighborhood both informed Dr. Scheiring's research interests and drove him to activism. Since 2002, he was involved in green-left social movements tackling social, economic and environmental issues, while completing his education in economics and sociology at Budapest Business School, Central European University, and Corvinus University.

In 2009, he started his PhD in Sociology at the University of Cambridge and the green NGO he was involved in was transformed into a political party, with Gabor among the founders. «I never really expected to become a professional politician», he says, «but I had invested so much energy in the new party, that I decided to run for office and, thanks also to the proportional electoral system then in place, I was elected a Member of Parliament. I acted as shadow Minister of Finance, drafting bills and amendments on economic and social policy, and editing budget proposals». He developed important organizational and communication skills, and set up the party's policy research structure, but when his term in office expired in 2014 and the party split up, he left politics for good and went back to his Cambridge PhD.

«I doubt I've ever been a good politician», he concedes. «I've always had more questions than answers and a long-term, rather than short-term, view, that doesn't pay off in that arena». In his years in office, though, he observed first-hand the rise of the authoritarian populism of Mr. Orban's Fidesz party, which ignited his scholarly interest in populism.

«As a scientist, I generalize the suggestions coming from my experiences», Dr. Scheiring says. «I study how economic change, public health and populism are related. My research is driven by the desire to make the world a better place and I stay open to unexpected outcomes. My hypotheses have already been challenged by evidence, for instance in my doctoral thesis or in research about water services privatization in Hungary. That's the way science goes».