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Turkey’s coup

Europe’s science leaders should avoid megaphone diplomacy

Representatives of Europe’s science academies have been sounding the alarm over the Turkish government’s decision to disband its national academy, Tüba, and to create a new one in its place. Tüba’s members are outraged and may well set up their own parallel academy instead of seeking to join the newer state-backed one.

On the face of it this is an unacceptable violation of the principle that scientists in a modern developed state must have freedom of assembly in addition to freedom of enquiry. Europe’s academies, however, are treading carefully. By the time we went to press the European federation of national academies (Allea) had not stepped into the row.

This is sensible. The reality of science policy in Turkey is complex, not completely transparent, and at the same time changing fast. Better to wait and get the full picture before picking up the megaphone, if at all.

Over the summer break the Turkish government, fresh from a third consecutive election victory in June, set in course major reforms to the entirety of the civil service. The reforms, quite possibly the most far-reaching in a generation, include the creation of Turkey’s first-ever ministry for science, technology and industry, announced at the end of August.

The establishment of a cabinet-level ministry dedicated to science is an overdue move, although it’s one that has made Turkey’s scientific community deeply unhappy. That’s because until now both Tüba and Turkey’s main science-funding agency Tübitak were autonomous agencies reporting directly to the office of the prime minister. It was an arrangement that suited scientists well as it allowed Tübitak in particular to operate with the minimum of oversight. Now both will report to the ministry instead.

The government’s decision to create a science ministry in its third term is designed to exert greater control over the country’s strategic-level science and innovation policy. Having overseen funding increases to science in its first two terms, government officials have realised that greater funding will not on its own result in much-sought-after knowledge-based economic growth. What is needed is a strategy, which the new ministry is supposed to provide.

So far so good. Where the government has gone too far is in compelling Tüba’s members to adopt its new strategy, thinking that it can do so because Tüba is a public body. Tüba is a relatively young institution (founded in 1993) but quite conservative in terms of what it does and whom it elects. Forty-two of its 140 members are aged over 70. Its four flagship activities include the creation of a dictionary of scientific terms begun in 2002 and the translation of university textbooks into Turkish.

The Ankara government is clearly frustrated but, by now, will have got the message that closing down Tüba and reopening it with younger political appointees is not the way to go. Pressure groups representing scientists have rightly written to Prime Minister Recep Erdogˇan urging him to reconsider. Members of Allea and Academia Europea, however, could do more, for example by taking this opportunity to stress the value of independent academies, not via the newspapers, but through the newly created science ministry.