The airy, architecturally striking building that is the brand-new Izmir Biomedicine and Genome Center (iBG) could have been anywhere in Europe. But when Turkey’s science minister, Fikri Işik, turned up to speak at its inaugural ceremony last month (see page 171), surrounded by an ostentatious swarm of dark-clad security guards, the cultural differences were apparent.
Turkey, with its toe-hold on the European continent and a landmass stretching nearly 2,000 kilometres to borders with Syria, Iraq, Iran, Georgia and Armenia, is familiar with difference. Mediterranean cities such as Istanbul and Izmir are westernized, but eastern cities are conservatively Islamic and the southeast is plagued by violence rooted in cross-border Kurdish separatist movements.
Politicians everywhere view the country as a potential bridge between the West and the war-torn Middle East, but some Turks fear that renewed Kurdish conflicts could degenerate into civil war. They fear also that the national election in three weeks will see president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan change the constitution to give himself still more power.
Can science thrive in this environment? Erdoğan has blurred the constitutional separation of state and religion. Under his regime, scientists have witnessed state-condoned rejection of Darwinism and imprisonment of academics on trumped-up terrorism charges.
There are some positive signs, however. Turkey’s negotiations with the European Union for membership stalled after troops violently dispersed political protestors in Istanbul’s Taksim Square in 2013, yet the country continues to align its science policies with those of the EU. Accordingly, last year it passed two laws to improve and expand the research environment in strategic areas.
One law creates a slew of institutes across the country, some of which will provide regional services such as genome sequencing to ill-equipped universities. Others will be national research centres which, like the iBG, will aspire to carry out internationally competitive research and successfully compete to host major EU research facilities. Along with the advantage of secure funding, the national research centres will operate under new rules. They will be relatively free to manage their operations and budgets — a sign that the government recognizes that it should not micromanage research if it wants it to thrive.
The other law creates a Turkish National Institutes of Health, which will comprise 6 institutes, with the creation of 400 jobs in science.
All of these new centres must be allowed to develop free from political interference — scientists are particularly concerned that the government will seek close control over the health institutes.
Researchers in other Middle Eastern countries often find it simpler to collaborate with Turkish scientists than with westerners — travel is cheaper and usually visa-free. An improved scientific environment in Turkey may serve as the desired bridge, creating an intellectual network that can continue to converse, whatever the political tensions. Science can, in its limited way, be a force for peace.