Turkey is engaged in negotiations for membership of the European Union (EU), and the first such talks, which opened on 18 October, were centred on science and technology. But they took place at a time when many Turkish scientists are at loggerheads with their government, led by the mildly Islamic Justice and Development Party. They say the government is, by stealth, allowing Islamic influences to infiltrate the constitutionally secular academic system.

When the Turkish Republic was founded by national hero Kemal Atatürk in 1923, it could boast only a few dozen trained physicians and engineers. Its citizens were dirt-poor, and education available to but a few. This legacy of the sultan-caliphs was put into sharp reverse by Atatürk. His modernization programme was unmistakably Western, and could almost have been conceived with membership of the EU in mind.

He changed the alphabet to Latin script that would be readable by Europeans. He introduced education for all, forcing the literacy rate up from less than 10% to 33% within 15 years. Now 86.5% of Turks are literate. He also abolished the wearing of the veil by women (but not the headscarf), and introduced a constitution solidly anchored in secularism.

At Turkey's western edge, it borders the EU; at the east it borders Iran. As religiosity has grown in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution, political tensions in Turkey have grown too. While pragmatically aiming for EU membership, Turkey has also had to deal with the rising confidence of Islamic groups and their growing numbers.

The academic élite — proud adherents to Atatürk's vision — fear this confidence, and their response has been defensive. When headscarves became more common in the 1980s, the Council of Higher Education banned the wearing of them in universities. As the number of special secondary schools for training imams (religious leaders) grew, the council raised the university entrance qualification requirements for students attending these schools above those for normal state schools. The storm over the arrest of the rector of the 100th Year University in Van (see page 8) reflects the bitterness of the struggle within universities to keep Islamic influence at bay.

The academic élite also resents recent government interference in academic appointments. Since his election in 2003, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has passed two contentious laws that affect universities. One allows the government to appoint members of the board of TÜBITAK, Turkey's main research agency, which is a major player in the current EU talks. Critics say that subsequent appointments have been politically inspired, and charge that aspects of the agency's current set-up are unconstitutional. A second law requires government approval of university appointments. The government says this is aimed at ending cronyism in the academic world, but critics fear that it will damage academic freedom.

The opening of negotiations for EU membership offers the best hope for the continuing development of science in Turkey.

Given this delicate situation, the opening of negotiations for EU membership offers the best hope for the continuing development of science in Turkey. Turkish scientists have little choice but to place their trust in these negotiations.

The government has, to its credit, doubled the science budget in anticipation of the EU talks, and it already pays for Turks to take part in EU Framework programmes as equal partners. Under the watchful eye of EU negotiators, Turkish science will have to be seen to be open, competitive and democratic.

The negotiations will no doubt be protracted, but if they are successful, science in Turkey will be a winner — and part of Atatürk's dream will also have won through.