Could Sancar have won the Nobel Prize had he stayed in Turkey?

Could Sancar have won the Nobel Prize had he stayed in Turkey?

A Turkish-born scientist made the headlines yesterday for winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, while also raising the question whether it would be possible had he stayed in Turkey instead of moving to the United States.

Aziz Sancar, whose works on mapping how cells repair damaged DNA, earned him a Nobel along with Sweden’s Tomas Lindahl Paul Modrich of the United States, studied medicine at Istanbul University in 1963 and moved to the U.S. after graduation, just like many Turkish scientists who want to focus on research in fundamental sciences.

Had he stayed in Turkey, Sancar would have most probably been included in political debates when it came to fund allocations or assignments. 

Turkey’s top science body, the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK), has turned into a battleground between the government and the followers of its ally-turned-nemesis Fethullah Gülen, a U.S.-based Islamic cleric. The first criterion to being appointed a university rector, a dean or a department head is now your political views. Most rectors spend more time praising President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the government than dealing with problems in their universities, let alone encouraging academic research.  
While the political pressure and lack of transparency in the majority of Turkish universities force many academics to seek their fortunes abroad, the education of fundamental sciences – physics, biology, chemistry – and mathematics in high schools and universities is in a dreadful situation. 

The country’s students are among the lowest scorers in PISA, a worldwide study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in member and non-member nations of 15-year-old school pupils’ scholastic performance on mathematics, science and reading.

In addition, the youth are no longer interested in university education in these fields, with dramatic drops in the number of students.

The number of university students studying biology dropped by 83 percent in 2014, compared to the number of students in 2010. The drop was 86.7 percent in physics, 80.7 percent in chemistry and 62 percent in mathematics.

In 2015, no new students were accepted into the chemistry departments of 36 universities, physics departments of 31 universities, and biology departments of 22 universities. The total number of fundamental sciences and mathematics programs in Turkish universities dropped from 241 to 145.

The situation we are in is the direct result of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) education polices.

While the party led a boom in the number of state and private universities during its 13-year rule, every new university was required to launch physics, biology, chemistry and mathematics departments. The graduates of these programs rushed to become teachers – after months-long pedagogy formation-- since there were already too few jobs requiring such skills and even fewer places in the universities for academic research. In fact, only a handful of graduates want pursue careers as research academics, mostly due to financial worries.

And now, many of them are members of the “army of the unemployed.”

We might have problems in the fundamental sciences, but we are in a much better shape in religious education, thanks to the AKP. Like President Erdoğan said last week, the graduates of imam-hatip schools are even capable of washing their own dead.

I don’t expect a Turkish academic to win the Nobel with his/her work on “the mechanics of dead washing” soon, but I hope that Sancar’s achievement will encourage the Turkish youth to focus on scientific research.

The question is, should they stay?