Turkey’s rival scientific academies vie for legitimacy

Pushed to break away from the established Turkish academy by increasing government control, Bilim Akademisi has now been accepted into the European fold

November 22, 2017
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Rivals: ‘we don’t want to present ourselves as part of a feud’ or to get into a ‘mud-slinging competition’ with TÜBA’, says the foreign secretary of Bilim Akademisi

Turkey’s crackdown on academic freedom has spawned a feud between rival scientific academies after scholars abandoned their original academy to set up a new one with more political independence.

Bilim Akademisi (Science Academy) was founded in Istanbul in 2011, and in September it won full membership of All European Academies (Allea), a continent-wide grouping that includes the British Academy and France’s Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres.

It was formed by breakaway members of the Turkish Academy of Sciences (TÜBA), based in Ankara, who objected to laws passed in 2011 that allowed government-controlled bodies to select two-thirds of new members. TÜBA’s president is appointed by Turkey’s prime minister.

Sevket Pamuk, the new academy’s foreign secretary and a professor of economic history at Bosphorus University, recalled that “the government’s restrictions of academic freedom, freedom of speech and democracy were already growing in those years”. Since then, the situation has worsened drastically: following a failed coup attempt last year, thousands of academics have been dismissed from their positions.

“We don’t want to present ourselves as part of a feud” or to get into a “mud-slinging competition” with TÜBA, he said. However, “most” of TÜBA’s new members are academics “without much national or international recognition”; their “most important merit” has been support for the government, Professor Pamuk argued.

TÜBA disputes these claims. Gulzade Kahveci, an international relations spokesman for the academy, said in a statement that the bodies that appoint most of its members are “autonomous institutions guaranteed by law” that are made up of “eminent scientists”. Nevertheless, he acknowledged, “The present system is not ideal, and we have been working to reform it.”

Set up with the help of a private individual who provided the academy office space in Istanbul, Bilim Akademisi has for five years run a scholarship for researchers under the age of 40 – as TÜBA has also done – using funds from private individuals and institutions.

It now has 165 members, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Daron Acemoğlu, as well as four Nobel laureates as honorary members.

Operating in Turkey is currently “a delicate thing”, Professor Pamuk said. However, “to this date, it’s fair to say that we have not been subject to any political or administrative pressure by the authorities”.

“We try to be careful and objective,” he said. However, “we do not refrain from examining…cases where academics have been fired or terminated without due process…we do make our views public.”

The academy publishes annual reports on the state of academic freedom in Turkey. Its most recent report decried the closing-down of universities and the firing of many academics after the coup attempt.

The establishment of Bilim Akademisi has also posed a question for Allea – how do you approach an academy set up in protest against an existing member? The European group sent a fact-finding mission to Turkey in 2013 to investigate the rival academies, an Allea spokeswoman explained, and the new academy was accepted as an associate member the following year by majority vote.

Earlier in 2017, Bilim Akademisi sought full membership, which was approved by a “large majority” of members at a general assembly in September, a decision fiercely opposed by TÜBA. TÜBA opposed membership for the new academy because it was guilty of “false statements, distortions and partisan allegations” and also lacked a “significant record of serious scientific work”, Dr Kahveci said.


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