Friday, December 30, 2011

Freedom of science

On May 3, 2011, the Turkish Parliament with the AKP absolute majority, gave the Cabinet the right to issue decree law for six months. Accordingly, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet didn't have to pass any law from the Parliament, and were equipped with the power to pass decrees on their own. On 27 August, the government issued a decree law, announcing the change of the structure of Turkish Science Academy [TÜBA] and ending its autonomy; rather than merit-based appointed members, the appointments would be done by the government. Because the Science Academy is publicly funded, it was hard for the Academy to reject these changes. Consequently, after a few months of struggle, about seventy academics member of the Academy resigned and formed an association of their own.

While the government did not offer any explanation for these changes, the former President of the Academy Yücel Kanpolat and others believe this change was done with more utilitarian purposes. In Science Insider, Kanpolat states that the government is on a campaign 'to penetrate into the independence of institutions. … TÜBA has been one of the last of those institutions.' (The independence of Turkey's Scientific and Technological Research Council had already been 'gutted,' says Taner Edis, a Turkish physicist at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri.)"

Also in Science Insider, "Ayse Erzan, a physicist at Istanbul Technical University and a TÜBA member, agrees. 'I don't think this has anything to do with science versus religion,' she says. Erzan believes it may be a 'naïve' attempt to make Turkish science more 'utilitarian.' The decree stipulates that TÜBA can start and run new research institutes, and Erzan suspects the government wants the academy to get more involved in applied research leading to technological innovation."

Considering how Prime Minister Erdoğan has recently addressed the Higher Council for Science and Technology and laid out a historiographical project, one that supports the "Turkish case" in the international discussions on the Armenian Genocide--as recently addressed on GIT-North America, it may not be wrong indeed to believe that an extreme centralization of power and governmental control over these institutions are geared towards putting the production of knowledge and science at the service of governmental needs.

Independent from any operations or previous works that the Science Academy might have had, when primary allegiance is not to research and the production of knowledge itself, and governments start meddling with such institutions by turning them into government agencies, the reliability of any research or reputation of any scientific decision-making process is damaged. Many nation-states did this, which is why social scientists and humanities scholars, for example, are still writing volumes about silences in history, collective memory, and offer analyses of manipulated production of knowledge.

Ironically, the recently-arrested academic Büşra Ersanlı, whose case got plenty of coverage here on GIT-North America, is one of those scholars. She wrote about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's "historians with mission"--whose primary allegiance were to the nation and who thus sought to iron the creases in Turkish history and built the Turkish History Thesis in the 1930s. In that respect, whether the Prime Minister Erdoğan's and AKP's latest move on the Turkish Science Academy are also in part to manipulate environmental policy making as some speculate or not, the result is the same: the primary mission will be to the state and--under the current circumstances, duly to the government.

In fact, those who worry about the environmental policy-making might not be completely unfounded, as another decree law on 17 August, only ten days before the Science Academy decree, had annulled commissions to protect national environmental sites and appointed the Ministry of Environment and Urban Development [Çevre ve Şehircilik Bakanlığı] to decide whether or not nature sites need to be protected or can indeed be open to construction instead. Also recently, Professor Onur Hamzaoğlu, Chair of Public Health at Kocaeli University School of Medicine, "who was investigating heavy metals from mining found in the breast milk and feces of infants," in other words, health impacts of industrial pollution, "was sued by local mayors and faces a two- to four-year jail term for ‘threatening to incite fear and panic among the population'," as the New York Times recently reported. It is also reported that upon the request of AKP's Ministry of Health, the government-appointed Council of Higher Education [YÖK]--a legacy institution of the military coup times--urged the Rectorate of Kocaeli University to take "necessary action" on Hamzaoğlu, and a disciplinary proceeding was launched by the University.

In all cases, one thing is certain: the government keeps moving fast and strong in absorbing autonomous institutions and increasing control over institutional practices, one of the latest examples of which were the stock market (also decided with a decree law hidden in another decree on the Ministry of Family and Social Affairs). The issues of scientific and academic autonomy and freedom are therefore only telling examples of a bigger picture.