The model imposed on TÜBA contradicts international consensus

The model imposed on TÜBA contradicts international consensus

Science, Industry and Technology Minister Nihat Ergün defines the criticisms against the recent restructuring of the Turkish Academy of Sciences, or TÜBA, as “debates made in haste.”

According to Ergün’s statement on Wednesday, the government wants to direct TÜBA to become “a place where more organized studies are made instead of a place where famous scientists only carry out individual studies.” The minister said that while the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey, or TÜBİTAK, would focus on technological research, TÜBA would be made an active component of research in basic sciences and in this framework, new institutes would be formed; at the same time, appointments would be made “based on scientific criteria, not ideological ones.”

Scientists select members

The government can very well head for a policy of supporting the basic sciences and set up institutes for this. Also, the government may not be content with the performance of TÜBA and its operating style. But all these thoughts do not change the essence of the problem.

A simple question lies at the essence of the problem: In selecting a member to an academy of sciences, who has the mandate to make a selection according to universal criteria? Scientists or those in political power?

The precise answer to this question is that this mandate belongs to scientists. In fact, when the statutes of the leading academies of the world are reviewed, from the perspective of protecting the autonomy of such institutions, we see that in all of them, the selection of members is absolutely left to the jurisdiction of the scientists. This basic principle is also valid for the Iranian Academy of Sciences.

It is possible to summarize the world consensus on the main criteria about the statutes of the academies of sciences. A) New members are selected by current members on the basis of competence; B) To limit the number of members; C) These institutions are run democratically from bottom to top and D) they are independent of political power, the business world and professional associations…

There are entirely independent academies in terms of resources but one of the sine qua non principles that is also valid for the academies that receive government funds is that their independence is strictly respected.

For a government to appoint the members of an academy is unimaginable, especially in the Western world. An incident was experienced in 2007 in Putin’s Russia when the government introduced an initiative to form a council with powers above the Russian Academy of Sciences; the move was repelled with strong resistance from the academy.

Reaction starts in outside world

Well, is TÜBA a flawless institution? Hasn’t it made any mistakes? The former rector of Sabancı University, Professor Tosun Terzioğlu, said, “TÜBA may have questionable decisions and practices – and it had some… For example, I think the rejection of Professor Şerif Mardin’s membership was wrong. There could very well have been solutions found to eliminate such drawbacks and problems. But the solution to these is not the method introduced by this decree. The fundamental principle is that scientists should select the members.”

Terzioğlu drew attention to the fact that during the current government’s reign, substantial rises have occurred in funds allocated to scientific research; for example, TÜBİTAK’s budget has been increased eight-fold. But after this, he voiced concern that “the positive atmosphere created by this situation in the international science community could be reversed with the recent arrangement.”

As a matter of fact, serious publications addressing the international science world such as Science and Nature have already started publishing critical stories of the government’s move targeting TÜBA.

But the most important development has been that 11 members of the executive committee of the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies based in New York sent a letter to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the other day to convey the message that they are “deeply distressed” about the development.

The staff of the Committee on Human Rights of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine in Washington, D.C., serves as the network’s secretariat. Its mission includes support for the independence and autonomy of academies of the sciences worldwide. The letter of this network, in short, said, “Any legitimate, respected national academy is self-governing. It elects its own members based on their scientific achievement... [These institutions] remains independent of ... political belief and influence.”

This letter is like a harbinger of more reactions to come from the outside world. It seems inevitable that the government’s TÜBA move will have a negative effect on the views of respected international science communities toward Turkey.