Turkish academics fight government interference


13 September 2011

Ned Stafford/Hamburg, Germany

A delegation of as many as six members of the Turkish Academy of Sciences (TÜBA) are set to meet with Turkey's president later this week to try to convince the government to reverse a controversial decision to reorganise the academy. Members fear the reorganisation will compromise the academy's independence.

The government of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced details of what it described as 'reform' of the academy on 27 August. The changes include transferring authority to appoint the academy's president from academy members to the government. Furthermore, the number of academy members, previously appointed only from within the academy, will nearly triple to 300, with appointments divided equally between the government, the Council of Higher Education and principal academy members.

Turkish academy fights government control

The Turkish government wants the authority to appoint members to the country's science academy

Namik Aras, a US-trained nuclear chemist who is an honorary member of the Turkish Academy, tells Chemistry World that the Turkish president Abdullah Gül plans to meet with him and other academy representatives soon. 'This is a good sign,' says Aras, who after earning his doctorate in the 1960s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology held several positions at the Middle East Technical University, Ankara, including chairman of the chemistry department.   

Currently, when principal members reach the age of 70 they become honorary members and retain voting rights. Under the new changes, the age limit for principal members is 67, and honorary members no longer retain voting rights.   

The International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies sent a letter to prime minister Erdogan expressing its strong support for the Academy, saying: 'We are deeply distressed to learn of the recent government decree that appears to restructure TÜBA and effectively remove its independence.'   

The reasons behind the government decree remains unclear, but academy members don't think that it is attempt by the government to silence them on topics that could intersect with religion, such as evolution. Aras says the government appears to believe the change 'will help development of science and technology in Turkey'. The Turkish press has quoted some scientists saying that the academy has developed into a 'club' that has excluded prestigious academics.   

'It is not possible to call this a "reform",' says Yücel Kanpolat, president of TÜBA. 'This is interfering with the independence the Academy, thus destroying the most important aspect of this scientific institution. This is also against the universal tradition of the Academy, which needs to be free and independent to elect its own members and president.'       

Aras, a former secretary general of the Association of Academies of Sciences of Asia, says: 'It basically makes the Academy of Science just another organisation of government.' Aras says that, in his opinion, only scientists are qualified to appoint members to a science academy, adding: 'The government does not choose members of the Presidential Symphony Orchestra.'   

Some academy members have suggested that if the government's decision is not reversed, they might resign and form a new academy. 'This is an option,' says Aras. However, he says this would be a 'last option,' noting that establishing a new academy without government funding would be difficult.   

 

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