A very Turkish coup

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Scientists around the world should protest efforts by the government of Turkey to erode academic autonomy. And the wider world should note the threat to democracy.

On the eve of a week-long holiday to celebrate the end of the fasting period of Ramadan, the Turkish government executed an extraordinary scientific coup. On 27 August, it issued a decree with immediate effect, giving itself tighter control of Turkey's two main scientific organizations: the funding agency TÜBİTAK and the Turkish Academy of Sciences (TÜBA), the governance of which is now so altered that it can no longer be considered an academy at all.

The move has startled and appalled Turkish scientists. It should also sound an alarm bell throughout Turkish society. The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is also taking greater control of other sectors through a series of decrees requiring no parliamentary debate. In the past few weeks, for example, it has brought under direct government supervision ten previously independent regulatory bodies, including some financial institutions and media regulators, as well as the Natural and Cultural Assets Conservation Committee, which determines environmentally protected zones.

TÜBİTAK, the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey, was already close to the government. Now that relationship has been reinforced and institutionalized. A triumvirate of president, prime minister and science minister will appoint some members of TÜBİTAK's decision-making scientific board, and nominate its president and two vice-presidents. The triumvirate lost no time, and on 30 August it replaced the incumbent president with electrical engineer Yücel Altunbaşak, rector of the TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara. The government will also have much more influence over the choice of other board members.

“The takeover must be challenged.”

At least TÜBİTAK is a state agency. It matters much more that the government is taking over TÜBA, which was founded in 1993 as an autonomous organization under the patronage of the prime minister. It has nearly 82 full members (from a total membership of 140) and has been doing all the things academies should do — including offering scientific advice to the government, publishing reports, and giving scholarships and awards. TÜBA has also been active in international organizations of academies such as the InterAcademy Panel, ALLEA (the organization of European academies) and the Association of Academies of Sciences in Asia (AASA).

A June decree transferred TÜBA to the Ministry of Science, Industry and Technology. The current decree raises the number of full members to 150. One-third will be appointed by the government and one-third by YÖK, the Higher Education Council, most of whose members are in turn appointed by the government or president.

The current decree also says that TÜBA will be involved in creating a series of basic-research institutes. What this means is unclear, because no budget for institutes has been announced, and the government has recently effectively closed down the only non-university basic-research institute, the Feza Gürsey Institute (see Nature 477, 33; 2011). If the intention to create basic-research institutes were sincere, it would be a welcome counterbalance to this government's naive encouragement of only applied research. But the academy would not be the right place for them. The Soviet model of linking institutes to national academies has been discredited, and post-Soviet countries quickly moved to separate the entities.

The government has made a big mistake in interfering with TÜBA's membership. Every democratic country requires an independent academy to provide independent scientific advice. But then this government shows little respect for expert advice. It did not consult the scientific community (or even its political opposition) on the wisdom of the move — just as it didn't consult when it created a catastrophic law last year (see Nature 464, 478; 2010) intended to regulate the use of genetically modified plants, but which unintentionally crippled all molecular biology research. (Scientists continue to work by ignoring the law.)

The academy is appealing to President Abdullah Gül to reverse the decree. Academies all around the world should write to Gül too. Many TÜBA members say that if this approach fails, they will resign as soon as the government's first appointments are made. They would be right to do so. At this point, international organizations of academies should formally derecognize TÜBA on the grounds that it no longer meets the membership criteria of self-governance and appointment solely on scientific merit.

Scientists around the globe need to respond to this. Although the fate of one academy may seem small on the world stage, it is symbolic of a general anti-democratic shift in a country that is pivotal in world politics. The takeover must be challenged.


  1. Report this comment #26394

    Mohamed Abdelgawad said:

    To supports the message this articles tries to perpetuate, opinions of current members of TUBA, both against and with this decision by the Turkish government, should have been cited. Without such debate, I am afraid this article only represents the opinion of its author which may be right or wrong.

  2. Report this comment #26396

    Stan Thompson said:

    Last year I had the pleasure of visiting Istanbul to work with the UN's UNIDO-ICHET, Bahcesehir University, Gaziosmanpasa University, and the Turkish National Railways at the Sixth International Hydrail Conference--and international effort to expedite transition of the world's railways from petroleum to hydrogen fuel cell technology for environmental and energy security reasons. Academic and governmental collaboration appeared seamless then. We non-Türks came home with a high opinion of the synergies between the national Government and science.

    In the time since then, several countries have taken note of the Hydrail Conference in Istanbul and, as intended, the technology has been moved forward noticeably.

    If this turn of events signals a dramatic interruption in Government/academic cooperation, not only Turkiye but the whole international community will lose by it.

    As an outsider, I would not presume to take sides; but, as one who wishes Turkiye well, I hope that whatever triggered this unfortunate rift can be reversed quickly before positions become irreconcilably hardened.

    Academies are among the brightest windows through which the world views a nation. When one gets "painted over," broken or even just cracked, the whole world is impoverished by the distortion.

  3. Report this comment #26403

    Mehmet Somel said:

    @Mohamed: TUBA itself is not very happy: http://www.tuba.gov.tr/en.html

    To the editor: You say 'The Soviet model of linking institutes to national academies has been discredited'. What is this claim based on? For instance, the Chinese Academy has its own research institutes, and at least some are doing pretty well – according to your own editorial last month (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v476/n7358/full/476005a.html).

  4. Report this comment #26415

    Ishtiyaque Ahmad said:

    This article is more political in nature than scientific. NIH is under US government control and director is nominated by the Prseident. Should there not be an alarm of government's meddling.
    The Turkish government is elected by people in fair and free election. If the policies are wrong people will throw the government in next election. Misinformation and discredited campaign by Nature is not required. The Editor should write similar stories on intervention and meddling by western puppet regimes globally. In such cases, it is called a state policy for efficient functioning. I am sure it happens in Jordan, Gulf nations and other "friendly Nations". Nature may not have clearance to write on friendly nations.

  5. Report this comment #26418

    Esref Cem Atbasoglu said:

    Despite some rational points made, I don't like the tone of this article. The use of the word "Turkish" as an adjective implies prejudice: the assumption that being Turkish "predicts" a tendency to oppressive political maneuvers. That is not correct.
    Many scientists throughout history have been in a constant state of startling and stumbling in world's relatively poor and unstable regions. So that my own ethical and practical consideratons aside I am not particularly surprised with the recent state of affairs, leave alone "startled".
    Being a democrat is not a constant human trait. Nor is it determined by nationality. Free thinking needs money. Therefore I would very much appreciate if some rich colleague helped me get my research funded, rather than helping me deal with the politics of science here.

  6. Report this comment #26419

    Sassan Darian said:

    You see, this is a greater issue with Turkey as Turkey under their current leadership has demonstrated not freedom and democracy but more authoritarian measures in moving towards the side of Islamism which is a grave threat for the future of Turkey as well to the international community – as instead of siding with secular values espoused by the great Ataturk, are siding with such terrorist and authoritarian regimes such as the Islamic Republic. This is another step towards that direction.

  7. Report this comment #26434

    Stan Thompson said:

    Missing in this dialog is a clear explanation by those who instituted the change (or support it) as to what it was designed to bring about, i.e., its perceived necessity. Could a knowledgeable commenter on the "pro" side provide such an explanation?

  8. Report this comment #26438

    Jacinto Rosas said:

    "The takeover must be challenged" is a decision it must be taken by turkish scientifics only. In the other hand, I have one question: Why turkish government want to appoint the members of TUBA?

  9. Report this comment #26439

    Ahmet Ozturk said:

    Sorry but this is just a propaganda of the old administrations. In addition, reflects the understanding of the old administration; make whatever you want to keep your rights. It would be much more better if people spend their efforts for increasing the quality of research,instead of being the part of the propaganda.

  10. Report this comment #26440

    Omer K said:

    Although I am not on the "pro" side of the recent changes being instituted by the government, I will try to reflect my understanding of their side of the argument:

    Basically the government thinks that TÜBA needs to be transformed in order to better serve the country's "scientific" needs. They think that Turkey, as a developing country, should put its resources to applied sciences which brings in patents and money. They hope that this way the country may break free from its current status of being an assembly-based economy and start producing its own technology. The facts that the previous Turkish Ministry of Industry and Technology is now restructured into the Ministry of Science, Industry and Technology and that TÜB?TAK and TÜBA are now transferred under the new ministry's control is a reflection of this vision.

    In this respect I believe that the New-TÜBA's mission to create a series of research institutes is meant either to create applied-science institutes or to create basic science institutes with ''creation of a synergy and critical cooperation between basic sciences and applied science and engineering'' in mind. The quoted text is taken from a public declaration written by TÜB?TAK (which is already close to the government as mentioned in the article) to defend its decision to reorganize the Feza Gürsey Institute for Basic Sciences as part of B?LGEM (Centre of Research for Advanced Technologies of Informatics and Information Security). The full text is available here .

  11. Report this comment #26442

    Veli Vural Uslu said:

    The administration of the current Scientific and Technological Council of Turkey(TUBITAK) was assigned by the very same government. Similar objections appeared in the newspapers. Nevertheless, they were suppressed by the media and the people who claimed that those objections were propaganda of the old administration. Anyways, after 6-7 years, let's evaluate the quality of the Council. within this period, the idea of evolution and the articles on Darwin were censored. Pseudoscience was promoted among high school students, a ridiculous law that bans any research on genetically modified organisms(including bacteria) was legitimized and many more examples. You may criticize TUBA and TUBITAK, which I do a lot. You may suggest that the criteria to be a member can be more stringent to increase the quality. However, members being assigned by the government cannot be an alternative...

  12. Report this comment #26450

    Omur Kayikci said:

    First of all, as a scientist from Turkey I am very saddened by this development. Unfortunately, the current government is not aware of how science works, not only that but they also want to direct it with their non-sense rules and regulations, like they did last year. Since each and every government has a certain agenda (this one's pious) it would be very hard to conduct objective and valuable science under any government. This move by the government is a part of larger plan that will leave Turkey's future in the dark... will eliminate bright minds in Turkey and ones would like to go back to Turkey...It is really sad.

  13. Report this comment #26451

    Ishtiyaque Ahmad said:

    Current Turkey government is following right policies considering the ineterst of its people as well as regional and international goals. They should not be discouraged by loud and vocal minority global protests. If you dont toe the zionist line and are their agent, western media and agencies will discredit you. They offer great fora to such views to discredit reforms in line with national and global interests which does not seek western approval.
    Well done Mr Erdogan. Please keep the good work in the interest of your people and constituents. Ignore the loud irritants..

  14. Report this comment #26454

    Hülya Dogan said:

    I found this article very political and manipulative. First of all, where is the name of Author? Who wrote this article. This puts a question mark on Nature's ethical credibility. Especially the title is very proactive: 'The Very Turkish Cop'. What is so special about Turkish Cop compared with other Cops? As a Turkish academician what I knew is that TUBA was already corrupted organization doing almost nothing for years. TUBA needed a change but of course not in this way. Besides, it is Turkish Scientist business to fight for their right not others if it is necessary. I do not understand statement in the last paragraph; 'Scientists around the globe need to respond to this. ' So I condemn the editors of this magazine for publishing such irresponsible and careless article.

  15. Report this comment #26455

    Ufuk YILMAZ said:

    It's a very good and valuable article, thanks for that first of all. This is not first thing that our! government trying to capture a science matter. They have no clue about what the science is. For them, science equal religion. Their mind works only about religion, religious things and of course how can be put the religion into the science place in Turkey.

    Some people said at their comments that the people select at this government in the election but that doesn't mean anything in the science terms. German people choose the Hitler and look what he did. Being a first party in the elections don't give you the rights to put your noise in to every everything. But, yeah, in Turkey it does.

    And some Arab people in the comment, find this '' coup '' right. And they talk about the zionism and some crap. Please, look at your countries, what do you know about science? Isn't that illegal to say this word in your beautiful! countries? If you like Recep Tayyip Erdogan than take him as a president, king, whatever it is.

  16. Report this comment #26459

    Kursat Tuncel said:

    To Hülya Do?an: Editorials are intentionally unnamed articles, it reflects the opinion of the periodical. Usually, an expert about the subject writes these kinds of editorials. The periodical protects the identitiy of the writer in order not to be attacked by political oppoments. Secondly, it's not "Cop", it's Coup, as in "military coup".

  17. Report this comment #26462

    Erju Ackman said:

    TUBA is an ad hoc organization that hijacked the Science Academy in name only. Their rejection of Prof. Serif Mardin to membership made their hidden agenda obvious and lowered their academic level to almost zero.Their aim is not scientific. They target the elected governement with shameless distorsions and propaganda as an unelected body of politically biased so called scientists. Your magazine knowingly or not, is now a tool to the same black propaganda by believing a few false friends.

    Turkey needs a properly formed Academy of Science. And Science needs properly researced articles.

  18. Report this comment #26463

    SR Kara said:

    Some commenters claim that TÜBA was not a functional organization and was "not doing anything" about anything. It appears that this is also the government opinion on this matter. But then again, this is how it is supposed to be in the first place. An Academy of Sciences is by definition a bunch of old and accomplished scientists getting together and discussing academic matters. Occasionally, if anybody asks them, they give out an expert opinion on something. But this is really all that an academy of sciences is about everywhere in the world. You can't seriously expect an physicists, a social antropolog and a pharmacists to collaborate on something.

    Also I do not agree that it is only Turkish scientists' business to deal with this. Science is a collective effort of humanity. In fact science is all about collaborating in order to achieve the truth. Whether it is about E=mc^2 or about the ethical value of keeping politics out of scientific matters.

    We should also keep in mind that science usually advances not thanks to political figures but usually despite of them. Scientific communities are small and frail in each country. Only by acting together we can survive political turmoils like this one.

  19. Report this comment #26464

    SR Kara said:

    I would like to add a note for those who talk about democracy: The current government of Turkey is democratically elected, yes. However, the change in TÜBA's status was never discussed in the Parliament. The new law was passed based on a general warrant which temporarily gives the government authority to make laws without a vote in the Parliament. Also one should keep in mind that some elected members of Turkish Parliament are currently in jail and some other are not attending the sessions in order to protest it. Personally I think that the title of the article makes justice to the situation.

  20. Report this comment #26473

    Vladimir Escalante said:

    It is incredible that more than 20 years after the destruction of the Soviet Union, Nature is still using anticommunist hysteria in order to make a political point. Present day Turkish policies have nothing to do with the Soviet Union. In fact Turkey has always been pretty much on the capitalist side since the start of the Cold War. Phrases in this article like "The Soviet model of linking institutes to national academies has been discredited, and post-Soviet countries quickly moved to separate the entities." make Nature sound like a pamphlet of political propaganda. The American model has not been able to convince Republicans of global warming or natural evolution, so I would have have my doubts about its viability.

  21. Report this comment #26506

    John Stiglitz said:

    On the contrary, scientists around the world should protest the editor to abuse Nature and its readers for his political views instead of the Government of Turkey. Anyone who looks at all major indicators in Turkey, she will see that economic, academic, religious freedom are expanding with placing more emphasis on education for the last 20 some years. It is obvious that TUBA incumbents asked the editor to pick up on this issue.

  22. Report this comment #26514

    Yahya Buyukasik said:

    ?A very Turkish coup?. This is a very un?Nature?al heading. I have never seen such an offensive style in the scientific literature.

  23. Report this comment #26521

    PINAR BALCI said:

    To the Middle Eastern commentators,
    Are you aware of yourselves?
    Have you ever thought about your situation with respect to modernity?
    Turkey has a unique place in the world. Secularization is the most important impact factor in its statue when compared with the other Islamic countries.
    Science and science policies must have armors against popularism in order to protect rationalism. Democracy has no place in science and scince policies. Independant councils in science should be governed by scientists themselves. Both TÜBA and TÜB?TAK may be the subject of discussion whether their quality satisfactory or not. But, government-dependent academy is not solution for higher quality at all.

  24. Report this comment #26542

    Sami Sozuer said:

    One of my favorite Nasreddin Hodja stories goes like this: Two men have a dispute and go to Nasreddin's house. One of them tells his side of the story, and Nasreddin tells him that he is right. The other also tells his side of the story and Nasreddin tells him that he is also right. His wife who has been listening in objects that they both cannot be right. Nasreddin turns to her and tells her that she is also right.

    The common thread behind the story about all this TUBITAK, TUBA and other scientific institutes in Turkey is that we, the citizens of Turkey have not fully digested the spirit of democracy. Science is about using the right method, it is not about having the "right" people, or party in institutions. What I have seen over and over in Turkey is that, when a certain group or party takes over, they do not change the system or the method of doing things. They simply change the individuals who rule those institutions and now the system, that up to that point marginalized them, now works for them. The same broken system, the same broken rules and methods are now used to marginalize the previous benefactors of that same system.

    Frankly, I have never thought of TUBA as an institution of the same caliber and standards as the Royal Society or the American Academy of Sciences. It always seemed to me as a bunch of chummies and cronies who simply did not bother looking for many excellent scientists to consider for membership. TUBITAK has improved somewhat but still is stifled with bureaucratic hurdles. Just to make the point, a proposal to TUBITAK is examined by 5 jurors, but only 2 of them actually reads your proposal. The other 3 simply listen to the two who have read it and mostly go along with what the two fellas have to say.

    Unless and until firm policies and practices of promotion and of reviewing funding proposals are put in place, both TUBA and TUBITAK are bound to be essentially the same---inefficient and inconsequential. The only change could be who benefits from the public funds that they dispense.

    I am not interested in who rules and manages these institutions. I am interested in HOW those institutions are managed. In that regard, the best we could do right now is keep our fingers crossed.

  25. Report this comment #26553

    Huseyin Aktas said:

    As I read th?s art?cle, I was amazed by the ?mpun?ty w?th wh?ch the Turk?sh government would act; I thought such an act would not be poss?ble. As I read the comments, I came to my senses. As a person who grew up ?n Turkey; as a sc?ent?st w?th ongo?ng collaborat?ons, and as a person w?th extens?ve fam?ly and fr?ends network ?n Turkey I should have known better. Most people, ?nclud?ng those ?n sc?ence, do not pocess the autonomy one would expect from a fully grown adult. They are beholden to and are puppet of econom?c, m?l?tary, and/or pol?t?cal el?te of the day. In such a place ?gnorance re?gns supreme, demogagray ?s the rule and everyth?ng powers to be want ?s poss?ble. Just look at the compar?son of these recent changes ?n the structure of TUBITAK and TUBA to appo?ntment of NIH d?rector by pres?dent. How could any sane person compare structure of NIH to that of TUBITAK where everyone ?s appo?nted by the government of Turkey. Those ?ngnorent (and ?f I may add d?shonest) commentators would ?gnore the fact that not one s?ngle member of Nat?onal Academy of Sc?ences ?n the US ?s appo?nted by the pres?dent or that study sect?ons have noth?ng to do w?th US government.
    To be sure there are many ?ssues w?th the way TUBITAK or TUBA ?n part?cular and the way sc?ent?f?c commun?ty conducts ?tself ?n general . Reform ?s surely needed. But empower?ng government to run these ?nst?tut?ons anyway they see ?t f?t ?s not the way to go.

  26. Report this comment #26585

    Sami Sozuer said:

    I propose a simple formula for election to the Turkish Academy of Sciences. For each journal paper a scientist publishes, one can calculate the "points" she/he earns by

    points=[ X * (impact factor of the jornal) + Y * (# of cites the paper receives) ] / (# of authors)

    where X and Y are relative weights of the paper and the citations.
    Suggestion: X=5 and Y=0.5

    No formula is perfect but at least this formula is fair and objective and leaves no room for any
    political or otherwise preferences.

    After calculating the total points for all the papers a scientist has published, one can set a lower limit for associate membership and a lower limit for full membership.

    No need for quarrelling over who gets elected by whom and why. Plain and simple.

  27. Report this comment #26679

    allan lindh said:

    Strongly worded editorials certainly do elicit vigorous debate — one which in its range and diversity almost sounds healthy, if one really believed that anyone in the government might even read it. However as Turkey slowly desecularizes the society which Ataturk built, they might ponder the recent erosion in the power, wealth and prestige of the US, which has for three decades been suffering a slow desecularization of their own. Substituting "religious truth" for empirically derived knowledge is not a recipe for long term prosperity, or societal well-being.

  28. Report this comment #26688

    Cevher Baum said:

    Thanks for another political article from Nature. It is no different what the government is doing! Judging without meeting any scientific criteria. Did the writer know that in order to be a member of TUBA you have to hate the government. There are many really good scientists out there which meet the scientific criteria well but not basically meet the real criteria that TUBA secretly asks for. Even though you are an excellent scientist, if you like the government or even neutral, you cannot be a member, e.g., Serif Mardin and many others. TUBA was not already functioning how it supposed to be like the other academies in the world, please keep in mind that. The title should actually be "A very Turkish institute"!. Besides, what have had TUBA done in its entire lifetime. It became popular among citizens when this issue started. Before that, they were group of scientist, locking themselves into a prestigious club (world thinks like that) and doing basically nothing for the sake of science in Turkey. What was that for anyway!

  29. Report this comment #26878

    eugen axinte said:

    Turkey and turkish are OK.Good scientists,beautifull men and women.
    We,Romanians was humiliated and fu12ed. I love you , my turkish friends, I 'm with you and i think the greatest mistake for you 'll be tto do is _to adhere to UE.
    12 ... ck

  30. Report this comment #26880

    eugen axinte said:

    I appologize for some lexical and gramaticall mistakes . Turkey and turkish are OK-is my opinion. A great history : the sultans with their opullence ;the modern history, with The young turks, with the great general Kemal Attaturk,the father of the actually Republic of Turkey.
    Good luck, my friends !

  31. Report this comment #27398

    Bilal Kerman said:

    There may be problems to TUBA (i.e. efficiency) but the way to solve it is not direct government take-over. I also am advocate of Turkey having a sound science policy that's targeted towards goals that our country needs. Yet again government take over is not the answer. The way to do that is to have research grants for certain areas and then let groups of scientist who are known in their fields to decide who receives how much and evaluate the continuity of the grant on the grounds of scientific results. A prime minister however much vote he/she got is not qualified to judge scientific merits and quality of people not only in Turkey but in any country. If he/she takes over that job that suggests a hidden agenda. I'll leave it at that as I don't want to and won't get into political discussions.

  32. Report this comment #35093

    Frank Itsmel said:

    Turkey is that we, the citizens of Turkey have not fully digested the spirit of democracy. Science is about using the right method, it is not about having the "right" people, or party in institutions. What I have seen over and over in Turkey is that, when a certain group or party takes over, they do not change the system or the method of doing things. They simply change the individuals who rule those institutions and now the system, that up to that point marginalized them, now works for them. laser hair removal nyc

  33. Report this comment #41073

    Gauran Kangan said:

    Strongly worded editorials certainly do elicit vigorous debate ? one which in its range and diversity almost sounds healthy, if one really believed that anyone in the government might even read it. However as Turkey slowly desecularizes the society which Ataturk built, they might ponder the recent erosion in the power, wealth and prestige of the US, which has for three decades been suffering a slow desecularization of their own. Substituting "religious truth" for empirically derived knowledge is not a recipe for long term prosperity, or societal well-being Pictures of Jesus | Love Quotes .

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