Türkiye Merhaba - One Hundred Experienced Scientists from Abroad Wanted

Career strategies for young European scientists
by Ralf Schreck, Labtimes 02/2013



Turkey, as a popular sun and sea destination has a world of culture and history to offer. But scientists from abroad enjoy additional priorities, such as excellent working conditions and state-of-the-art research infrastructure.


Photo: Valérie Labonté

Reports on restrictions of free speech and scientific autonomy as well as on burgeoning creationism in Turkey have hit major news channels recently and are not good publicity for a scientific location. So, it is no surprise that the majority of researchers from abroad tend to steer well clear of Turkey and that many gifted Turkish scientists try to get ahead with their careers somewhere else. A recent survey by the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey revealed that more than half of Turkish expats prefer the United States, whereas Germany and Canada came in second and third place.

Turkey at a glance

To counter the out-migration of the scientific talent, several programmes have been initiated to attract expats or even foreign scientists to Turkey. For example, since inception of the EMBO Installation Grant Programme in 2006, 13 Turkish and two US scientists have been lured to Turkey. The International Experienced Researcher Circulation Support Program, which is funded by TÜBITAK and the 7th EU Framework Programme, is currently providing 100 well-paid two-year fellowships for scientists from international destinations. Here, Lab Times tells you what to expect, if you are looking for a real challenge and are considering Turkey as your next place of work.

Turkey is of crucial geopolitical importance due to its location at the crossroads of East and West. In the 17th century, Turkey reached its largest expansion and covered more than six times of its present area. The Ottoman Empire lasted from 1299 to 1923, when the Republic of Turkey was founded. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk became the first president and introduced a process of secular westernisation, including the unification and centralisation of education, a new alphabet, the replacement of Islamic law and a ban on wearing a fez, which was associated with backwardness. Official negotiations to become a full member of the European Union started in 2005 but there is still a long way to go before all EU prerequisites, including those related to human, women and minority rights, will be met.

Turkey has a growing population, which exceeded 75 million last year. The largest cities are Istanbul with about 13.5 million and its capital Ankara with 4.5 million citizens. Turkey has a developed and emerging market economy, which is currently the 15th largest in the world. It has become one of the world’s leading producers of agricultural products, automotives, ships, textiles and consumer electronics. Main import partners are Russia, China and Germany, whereas the Iraq, Germany and the United Emirates are main countries for exports. The Turkish gross domestic product grew with an average annual growth rate of more than five percent between 2002 and 2011 and the overall economic performance is on the rise. For example, Turkey moved up 16 places to the 43rd spot in the latest Global Competitiveness Report by the World Economic Forum. The survey took into account 144 countries and Turkey’s market size; goods market efficiency and macroeconomic stability were identified as major assets.

A future for hitech?

However, higher education and training, transparency of its public institutions and labour market efficiency were minus points. Moreover, at rank 88, the quality of scientific research institutions was not in the upper half of countries under investigation.

At present, the production and export of high tech goods as well as related research and development (R&D) activities by companies do not constitute a significant share. To address these shortcomings, several new funding programmes, such as “Advanced Technology Product Support” and “Support for Research, Technological Development and Innovation Projects in Priority Areas” were launched in 2010 and 2012, respectively.

Right now, the information and communication technology sector seems to be the most advanced, whereas bio- and nanotech are lagging behind. The pharma sector is considered to have some potential and attracts foreign investments. Many of the manufacturing facilities are already operated by multinationals including Novartis, Sanofi-Aventis or Pfizer. The leading domestic company, Abdi Ibrahim, is listed among the 100 largest pharma companies worldwide. Abdi Ibrahim invests 5% of its annual turnover into R&D and operates one of the biggest Turkish pharmaceutical R&D centres. Its major product is an orally-disintegrating tablet, which can be taken without water and is used for patients with swallowing difficulties. Another important local player is Bilim Pharmaceuticals, which operates one large manufacturing plant established along standards set by the American Food and Drug Administration and another one approved by the German Ministry of Health. In the pharma-food sector, Pakmaya is one of the world leading producers of Bakers’ yeast and bread additives.

Missing the train

“Turkey continues to miss the biotech train” was the headline in Turkish newspapers upon the release of the latest Worldview Bio-Innovation Scoreboard. Fifty countries were evaluated in several categories including intellectual property, education and workforce as well as enterprise support. Whereas the US, Denmark and Singapore were at the top, Turkey came in 42nd behind Thailand and Mexico. Very poor ratings were obtained for education and workforce as well as for the efforts of Turkey to enable innovative biotech activities. Overall, there are very few biotech companies in Turkey with a high R&D intensity. Funds provided by the EU to improve this situation were allowed to lapse and were cut back thereafter. Traditional strengths exist in agrobiotech but its further expansion is hampered by the novel biosafety law and additional regulations on genetically-modified organisms (GMO), which introduced excessive bureaucracy and intransparent approval procedures for the import, generation and use of GMO of all sorts. One example for a successful company is Ars Arthro Biotechnology in Ankara, which was the first Turkish company with a tissue-engineering lab built according to good manufacturing practice.

Not at the forefront of science

Especially in the Middle Ages, Muslim scientists and scholars, including Turks, have made significant contributions to the advancement of astronomy, medicine, engineering and philosophy, which were sadly often not perceived or even ignored by the Western world.

In today’s Turkey, it is not that easy to pinpoint scientific breakthroughs or inventions of particular significance. Noteworthy exceptions are the Volitan, a lightweight boat using both wind power and solar energy for propulsion, which received international awards for design and eco-friendly technology. Another example is the development of the BorPower technology, which was developed by the National Boron Research Institute as an additive in lubricants to reduce friction, fuel consumption and CO2 emission. Finally, in 2011, a Turkish group from the National Nanotechnology Research Center at Bilkent University made it onto the cover of Nature Materials. They developed a new method for the production of indefinitely long nanowires, which might have a far-reaching impact on the next generation of computers, semiconductors and other appliances. There is only one laureate, the writer Orhan Pamuk, who received the Nobel Prize under Turkish citizenship.

Turkey’s scientific output is gradually increasing, as is evident from the SCImago Journal and Country Ranking. Whereas in 1996 Turkey was at rank 26, it had improved to rank 19 by 2011 with respect to the overall number of publications. It is doing best in the fields of clinical medicine, agricultural sciences and engineering. A different picture emerges, if the impact of Turkey’s publications is measured by the h-index. In the period covering the years 1996 to 2011, Turkey is listed close to Argentina and Chile but not among the top 35 countries of the world. This may be due to the fact that Turkey is less present in international research networks and, thereby, its achievements may not be widely appreciated by the worldwide scientific community. For example, less than a fifth of its publications and less than 6% of patents, filed internationally as so-called PCT patents, are based on international collaboration.

Moderate performance globally

Another way to gain some insight into the Turkish research system is to have a closer look into international funding programmes and rankings of research institutions. For example, the European Research Council is funding primarily outstanding individuals and applies scientific excellence as the primary basis for its assessments. So far, more than 3,500 scientists became grantees since 2007. In the first five calls just two out of 2,034 Starting Grants and zero out of 1,412 Advanced Investigator Grants were awarded to scientists choosing Turkey as host country. This is not due to a lack of effort, since according to data provided by the ERC, 282 Starting and 87 Advanced Grant applications have been submitted. There are, however, seven Turkish ERC grant holders, who are hosted in the UK, the Netherlands, Switzerland or Spain.

Turkish institutions display only mediocrity in the latest SCImago Institutions Excellence World Ranking, in which more than 3,000 research institutions have been analysed. The best-positioned institution was the Gebze Institute of Technology at rank 1,436, which was founded in 1992 and has a strong research focus on materials science, engineering and physics. The second-best institution was Koç University of Istanbul at rank 1,605, which was established as a foundation university by the late Vehbi Koç, one of the wealthiest in Turkey’s history. It charges the highest tuition fees in Turkey – up to €20,000 per academic year at the Faculty of Medicine – and offers teaching almost exclusively in English.

The Turkish research and innovation system is highly centralised and mainly directed by the Supreme Council of Science and Technology (BTYK). BTYK is in charge of the overall coordination of innovation policy and headed by Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan. The 18 permanent members and about 100 members with advisory function from Government, higher education and the enterprise sector meet two times a year. The relatively new Ministry of Science, Industry and Technology (MoSIT) is responsible for developing, implementing and coordinating science, technology and innovation policies, and of promoting R&D and innovation projects, activities and investments. In frame of MoSIT’s establishment, the Government took tighter control of two affiliated bodies, the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBITAK) and the Turkish Academy of Sciences (TÜBA). Additional important players are, for example, the Ministry of Development and the Ministry for Food, Agriculture and Livestock.

Turkey continues to increase its investments into R&D, with €4.7 bn being spent in 2011, which corresponds to 0.86% of its gross domestic product. With respect to the source of funds almost half of R&D expenses is shouldered by enterprises, whereas the Government is providing about a third and the higher education sector roughly a fifth. Perennial research strategies are in place. The increase in research output, needs-driven research and public-private cooperation are major objectives of the National Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy (2011-16). Priority areas include automotive, machinery and production technologies, information and communication technologies, energy, water, food, security and space. The long-term perspective of Turkey’s research and innovation is outlined in the foresight study Vision 2023. Based on key data from 2010, the ambitious and presumably out-of-reach targets set for 2023 are a significant growth of the R&D intensity to 3% of the gross domestic product and of the number of researchers by a factor of five to 300,000. The 2012 progress report by the European Commission in preparation for Turkey’s EU membership attested Turkey’s good progress in the area of research and innovation policy. Good participation and success rate in the running EU Research Framework Programme were emphasised but at the same it was reminded that further steps are necessary to improve the quality of researchers.


Edirne, in northwestern Turkey, once hosted one of the earliest medical schools, the Sultan Bayezid II külliye. Today, it is a health museum dedicated to the history of medicine. Photo: Valérie Labonté

Turkish scientists lose their voice

The Turkish Academy of Sciences (TÜBA) was established two decades ago as a scholarly society with the mission to support scientific activities in Turkey by the promotion of young talents, awarding prizes for scientific merits, the formulation of science policies and international networking. The budget for TÜBA was about €3.6 million last year, which is provided almost exclusively by the Government. Members of the Academy receive financial assistance for their research activities. Besides a limited number of fellowships for PhD students and postdocs, the Young Scientist Award Programme (GEBIP) should be mentioned here. Financial support in the lower five-digit-euro range is provided for a three-year period. Awardees become Member of the Young Academy of Scientists and are assigned an Academy Member as mentor. Applications are made either in person or by Academy Members or by heads of universities and public institutions. Since the inception of the programme, 266 awards were granted with an overall success rate of about 17%.

In the past, Academy Members as well as TÜBA’s President were elected. However, this was changed in 2011 by a Governmental decree and the overall number of Members was increased from 140 to 300. Two-thirds of Members are no longer elected but determined by the Governmental agencies TÜBITAK and the Council of Higher Education YÖK. This and additional changes were seen as a loss of academic autonomy and independence, and urged more than half of previous Members to resign. In the aftermath, a new independent and scientist-driven academy, the Science Academy (Bilim Akademisi), was established. In addition, the International Workgroup on Academic Liberty and Freedom in Research in Turkey (GIT, www.gitinitiative.com) with branches in several countries was launched.

Turkey’s one-stop-shop for research

The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBITAK) with headquarters in Ankara has the status of a Governmental agency acting as policymaker as well as main research funder and research performer. TÜBITAK was founded in 1963 to drive basic and applied research, preferentially in natural sciences. Main activities nowadays include the development of national science and technology policies, the support of the Supreme Council of Science and Technology (BTYK), the promotion and support of academic and industrial research and development activities, the operation of own institutes doing research along national priority areas, the provision of contract research and technical services, the promotion of international cooperation, the award of prizes for scientific excellence and the publishing of journals and translation of text books.

TÜBITAK operates on an annual budget, which amounted to €913 million in 2010, and has about 3,800 employees, of whom more than half are classified as scientific staff. The number of TÜBITAK’s research centres and institutes varies in different sources from 10 to 15. Two main research centres exist: the Informatics and Information Security Research Center (BILGEM) and the Marmara Research Center (TÜBITAK-MAM). BILGEM has about 1,200 employees and six different institutes. TÜBITAK-MAM was founded in 1972, operates a technopark and is composed of seven institutes including the Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology Institute (GEBI), the Materials Institute and the Chemistry Institute. The TÜBITAK-MAM annual budget was about 133 million in 2010.

TÜBITAK is headed by the electrical engineer Yücel Altunbaşak, who was nominated by TÜBITAK’s Science Board and appointed by the President of Turkey upon the Prime Minister’s recommendation. He is assisted by three Vice-Presidents. The Science Board is the highest-level management and decision-making body of TÜBITAK. The Government took control over its composition by way of the highly controversial decree from 2011.

TÜBITAK has also been zinged by the scientific community for its past anti-evolutionary attitude. Earlier this year, a story run by ScienceInsider revealed that several books on evolution, which have been translated into Turkish and were previously available via TÜBITAK’s popular science book programme, are no longer available. TÜBITAK responded to criticism with flimsy excuses and argued with copyright issues over the obsolete content of the no longer available publications. TÜBITAK provides only limited details in its English web presentation with many dead links. Several emails from the author to the Council to obtain up-to-date details on funding programmes for international scientists remained unanswered.


Frustrating results, working long hours, again? Sugar is what you need right now. Luckily, Turkish delight has lots to offer. Photo: Valérie Labonté

Outcry for more academic autonomy

The oldest Turkish University in continuous operation since 1773 is the Istanbul Technical University. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk introduced a state-supervised and secular national education system in the 1920s. Nowadays, Turkey has about 170 universities, of which less than 70 are foundation universities, which are private and non-profit. Academic staff at public universities have the status of civil servants, whereas the academic staff at foundation universities are considered as private sector employees, which allows a better remuneration. About one percent of permanent positions in the higher education sector are occupied by foreigners. Overall, the number of universities and students has more than doubled over the last decade.

Enrolments at private institutions make up roughly five percent of the close to four million students in Turkey. There are about 45,000 PhD students. The 27,000 foreign students account only for less than one percent of all students and their main origins are the Turkic Republics, the Balkans or the Middle East. Turkey has set a target of 50,000 international students by 2015 and internationalisation has become a priority. Two-year programmes leading to an Associate’s Degree, four-year programmes leading to a Bachelor’s Degree and Graduate Schools offering two-year Master programmes or four-year doctoral programmes are major elements of the Turkish education system.

The Council of Higher Education (YÖK) is in charge of the coordination, governance and supervision of higher education. Some elements of performance-dependent funding of universities have been implemented recently but the introduction of quality assurance and of a transparent allocation of funds is uphill all the way. Inadequate budgets and other serious shortcomings have provoked protests, which have, in some instances, been suppressed by crude force. Calls for decentralisation of the higher education system and for full autonomy of individual institutions do not come to an end.

In addition, corruption at universities is no isolated incident. For example, the Turkish hacker group “RedHack” attacked YÖK’s website earlier this year and got access to more 60,000 documents, which contained confidential correspondence on hundreds of cases of corruption and misuse of funds. For example, a former rector of Firat University was under investigation for having used tuition fees to purchase his €200,000 Audi and the administration of Giresun University was questioned for the whereabouts of €285,000 earmarked for lab equipment that was never purchased.

Main drivers of research

More than 50% of research in Turkey takes place at universities, which spend about a fifth of their total budget on R&D activities. Centres of Expertise and Centres of Excellence have been installed at universities with financial support from the Ministry of Development. In addition, more than 30 technoparks have been established at or close to universities, which foster research cooperations with the public or private sector and facilitate the creation of high-tech spin-off companies. Companies and R&D personnel at technoparks benefit from tax exemptions and the use of university research infrastructure. There are different funding and cooperation models in place including the former University-Industry Joint Research Centre Programme (USAM) that was used to set up pre-competitive research clusters, such as the Biomedical Technologies Centre at Hacettepe University. Technology platforms are now supported by the “Support Programme for the Initiative to Build Scientific and Technological Cooperation Networks and Platforms”.

But what about the overall performance of Turkish universities? In different rankings, no single Turkish university popped up as being competitive at the international level. Five Turkish universities are placed in the third-quarter of the top 400 list by the THE World University Ranking 2012-13: the Middle East Technical and Bilkent Universities at Ankara and the Koç, the Boğaziçi and the Istanbul Technical Universities at Istanbul. Even nine Turkish universities light up in the top 700 of the latest QS World University Rankings, with the Middle East Technical University as the leading national university in Natural Sciences at rank 320 and in Engineering & Technology at rank 197.

Opportunities for incoming scientists

Several funding opportunities exist in frame of international programmes and agreements. For example, Turkey has been participating in several EU programmes as an associated country for the past 20 years, primarily via the framework programmes and additional programmes such as EUREKA and COST. Turkey also participates in the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) and in various inter-governmental organisations such as the European Space Agency ESA or the European Molecular Laboratory Organisation EMBO. About 30 bilateral cooperation programmes on science and technology are in place with 25 different countries. A temporary inter-ministerial International Researcher Committee was established in 2008, which identified main problems of international researchers, such as exaggerated bureaucracy for obtaining and renewal of work permits, unequal treatment when it comes to academic promotion or poor conditions for the education of researchers’ children. The overall conditions seem to have improved since then and additional targets have been formulated in the National S&T Human Resources Strategy and Action Plan (2011-16).

TÜBITAK operates the EURAXESS Turkey portal, which gives a good overview on research funding in Turkey and also publishes an English newsletter. In addition, some guidance for matters of everyday living in Turkey is given. The TÜBITAK Science Fellowships and Grant Programmes Department (BIDEB) is in charge of several fellowships for incoming scientists. Main programmes are the Research Fellowship Programme for Foreign Citizens (code 2216), the Visiting Scientists Programme (code 2221), the Global Researcher Programme (code 1010) or the Co-Funded Brain Circulation Scheme (code 2236). The maximum duration of programme 2216 is 12 months and applicants have to be enrolled either in a PhD programme abroad or be a postdoc below the age of 35. Provided are a monthly living allowance of €950, a travel allowance of up to $1,000 (ca. €770), a monthly contribution to health insurance of up to $100 and about €2,100 for research-related costs such as consumables. There are two deadlines a year. More experienced scientists may apply for an up to one-year fellowship with a monthly contribution of up to €2,300 in frame of the Visiting Scientists Fellowship Programme. Applications are possible at any time and have to be processed via the Turkish host institution.

The most lucrative fellowship right now is the Brain Circulation Scheme, which is funded by TÜBITAK as well as by the Marie Curie COFUND action of the 7th EU Framework Programme, which co-funds national mobility programmes. A maximum of 100 up to two-year fellowships for expats or foreign scientists at academic or industrial research institutions in Turkey are made available via four calls. For the last call in September 2013 the duration will be limited to 12 months. Applicants must have at least four years of full-time equivalent research experience or be in possession of a doctorate. Within the last three years applicants must not have spent more than 12 months in Turkey. Scientists with more than ten years’ experience will receive up to €4,792 per month and experienced researchers with less than ten years’ experience up to €4,167. The annual contribution to research-related costs is €7,200.

Outlook

A thriving economy provides means for additional investments into the Turkish research landscape. Ambitious goals have been set for the centenary of the Turkish Republic in 2023. The European Commission attested Turkey’s good progress in the area of research and innovation policy, recently. Also, scientists sense that more research funds are in the system, although the support of basic science is increasingly neglected. Scientific institutions with high international visibility and reputation are more or less missing. The percentage of foreign students and permanent academic staff with non-Turkish nationality at universities is around one percent but at least in the lab, survival without any knowledge of the Turkish language is guaranteed. Whereas foreign scholars in the humanities become increasingly attracted to Turkey, scientists from abroad involved in high-tech and resource-intensive research should think twice, as to whether Turkey at the moment is a good career choice.


Istanbul from the Bosporus. Photo: Valérie Labonté

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