R&D a must in all fields, says scholar
Barçın Yinanç - firstname.lastname@example.orgTurkey’s feel-good story of the year has been the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Mardin-born professor Aziz Sancar, but further success in the sciences will require more investment in research and development, according to a professor at Sabancı University.
“If we want to further progress in science and technology we need to further invest and make sure to expand the base so that we are not limited to one or two such examples,” Ahmet Tosun Terzioğlu recently said, noting that basic sciences like mathematics, physics and biology had been passed by.
A scientist born in Turkey was one of the recipients of the Nobel Prize for chemistry. Some argued that he would not have received this prize had he not left Turkey after university.
I was very happy he received the Nobel Prize, as I was happy when Orhan Pamuk won the prize for literature, without any ifs and buts. Aziz Sancar won the science prize for TÜBİTAK (the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey) in 1997 when I was its president and I recall some members in the science board to have said, “Inshallah [God willing], he will win the Nobel Prize.” I find debates on his ethnic identity ridiculous and useless.
So he was not totally ignored, he was appreciated here in Turkey too.
Of course he later won the Vehbi Koç prize too. One of the two persons who won the prize with Sancar was a Swede who studied in the (United) States and now lives in London. That does not tell us that Sweden is backward. The mobility of scientists has increased tremendously. In my youth, it was very difficult to convince foreign scientists to come to Turkey. Today, some of them become resentful when we do not invite them. Let’s not have such inferiority complexes.
What shall we deduce from this development then?
First, we need to be proud of it. Second, if we want to further progress in science and technology we need to further invest and make sure to expand the base so that we are not limited to one or two such examples.
More money is earmarked to R&D. The budget of TÜBİTAK has increased sevenfold. This is good but my criticism there is that they pay less importance to basic sciences like mathematics, physics and biology.
While the increase in its budget is good, obviously, it is not enough and we have to pay more attention to science and technology and to innovation.
We are talking about the middle income trap for Turkey. One of the basic tools to overcome that is innovation. We have to create new designs in almost every field. That means we have to have more funds but also we have to have more patience. We should not expect overnight miracles. Progress in science and technology requires patience.
It seems there is not much interest in science among young generations, as some universities had difficulty getting enough students to enroll in basic science departments.
The university entrance examination system is really misleading. One needs aptitude, one needs to love the subject one wants to study; an entrance exam does not measure that.
The entrance examination system and everything connected to it must change. It is misleading young people very much.
So when you look at Turkey’s overall picture in its approach to science and technology, how do you see Turkey’s potential for future Nobel Prizes?
It is not so much Nobel (Prizes) which are so important. It is very important for Turkey in order to become much more economically stable to improve its industry and to be innovative in almost every field.
There is something which is misleading in Turkey and sometimes TÜBİTAK falls into that trap too. We announce these fields are the top priority and others are not important; that’s not true.
Today the disciplines are becoming more and more interdisciplinary. Aziz Sancar was trained as a medical doctor but he got a prize in chemistry. That’s normal. To define certain fields as important and others not as important can be very misleading. We need people researching agriculture as well as material sciences as well as nanotechnology.
How do you see the government’s project to build a “national car?”
It is a symbol. Whether it is a right symbol or not; let’s not discuss that. In my youth, we used to say, “Oh, we can’t do this in Turkey.” Admiring the Greeks, we used to say, “Turks can never be good at tourism.”
Things can change. Also in my youth, some Turkish firms started producing refrigerators or kitchen wares and people used to say, “Look at the German products; our products are awful compared to that.” But now we are competing with German products in Europe.
For the car project, we need to be patient. We tend to see the empty part of the glass immediately and start to talk about it, saying it is empty. The first product is never the best.
There was discussion on what the car looks like. That’s not important; that can change overnight. What is important is technology. Does it have new technology? Is it promising? Those things are important, not how the car looks.
You compare everything with your past but we need to perhaps compare ourselves with our peers.
Yes, but when did the carmakers in America or in England start this business? More than a century ago. But then is our case hopeless? No. The Japanese car industry started in the 1960s but they caught up with hard work and innovation and became one of the market leaders, but it took them years.
Some argue that we should not concentrate on a new car but focus on a new invention, on software for instance.
Software is important but it enters into the manufacturing of cars too. There is still research being done on cars; for instance, electrical cars.
So what is your general view on this project?
I am not that excited about it. But I don’t think it should be thrown in the garbage immediately.
Because it will give us confidence that we can accomplish something?
Sure. We kept saying in my youth we can’t do it, etc. There is a shipyard nearby where fast petrol boats for the Turkish Coast Guard are constructed. It is a pure Turkish design. When it started, they wanted to collaborate with shipyards and manufacturers in other countries like Sweden. They refused. But now the Swedes seek to collaborate with them. So it can be done.
How about the role of the state? Should the state be the motivating engine?
It depends on the field. In the field of science and technology, state policy has a very important role, not as a manufacturer but as support given to R&D. For example, the state in Japan has been the leader of every major innovation in Japanese industry.
But when it comes to manufacturing, it is left to the private sector.
The private sector should be in the development process, even as an outsider, so that when it comes to manufacturing, they should be ready for it.
In Turkey, it is a bit like the Japanese model, but I would wish the private sector would initiate more. Some of them are doing that but some not enough.
Why is Turkish industry a bit lazy?
No, they are not lazy. Turkish industry has grown with a high tariff barrier which protected them from competition and that made them lazy. But after the customs union in 1994, Turkish industry flourished on the whole. For the next step Turkish industry has to be more innovative and has to look to the future… not just seeking new markets, which is important of course, but also seeking new product and new production methods and be courageous.
What is your assessment of Turkey’s approach to innovation?
All political parties in Turkey now pay much more attention to innovation than before. They have seen that this is the road to an economically strong Turkey. There should be more cooperation between the private sector and the state. If we continue to see the empty part of the glass, this will prevent progress.
Who is Ahmet Tosun Terzioğlu?
After graduating from Newcastle upon Tyne University’s mathematics department, Ahmet Tosun Terzioğlu went to Frankfurt University for his post-graduate studies.
He then taught between 1968 and 1994 at the University of Michigan, Wuppertal University and Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ). He served consecutively as the head of the mathematics department and dean of the science and literature faculty at ODTÜ.
Terzioğlu was the head of the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK) between 1992 and 1997.
Terzioğlu worked as the founding rector at Sabancı University between 1997 and 2009. He was one of the first three emeritus members of the university and continues to teach in the engineering and natural sciences department.
He was also the president of the board of the Mathematics Association between 1989 and 2008. He is the author of more than 50 academic articles and four books in the field of mathematics.