Turkey’s science and technology policy

Eğer bir gün benim sözlerim bilimle ters düşerse, bilimi seçin.

– Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

As the 2018 presidential election is closing in, the promises from the candidates are started to fly out, and floating in the media like patches of cloud in the air.  There is a promise floating around in the AK party that they will launch a spacecraft; the AK party candidate Recep Tayip Erdogan mentioned ‘space’ while the opposition CHP candidate Muherrem Ince says ‘Quantum’ and ‘Industry 4.0’.  These words are new in Turkish politics, and catchy and popular, especially among the ~30 million young (15-40 years old) Turks.  These words are presumably meant to energize the public, create hope in them about the future, and more importantly, entice the public to vote for the respective candidate. However, theses fancy promises, as most political propaganda do, lack details and timeline in the narration.  More importantly, those fancy words are spelled out without any accompanying verbs, thus casting doubt on the candidates’ promises to take any concrete action.

Even if lack details and planning, one clear message we can extract from the CHP and AK party candidates’ promises are that both want to invest in science and technology.  This message is very important especially so in this century. If a country or nation wants to survive and prosper, then the people should embrace science and knowledge and the political leaders should encourage the public to do so, and also should invest in science and technology which always pays off well, as history has shown.

It is clear from Figure 1 that the countries with the largest investment in research and development (R&D) as percentage of gross domestic expenditure (GDP) is, not surprisingly, also the countries that mostly export high-tech products that able to generate high profit margin (able to sell the product at higher price than it actually costs to produce it.)  These countries are South Korea, Israel, Japan and United States.  It is also worth to note that these countries’ spending on R&D has been high, the spending of USA and Japan has been above 2.5% (of GDP), and the spending of Korea has been steadily increasing since 1970s. China, as can be seen (figure 1 and 2) has been slowly increasing investment in R&D, from below 1% in 1995 to close to 2% in 2016.  We all know that today China is the second largest economy in the world.

Dashboard 1

Figure 1. Hostoric data of R&D investment in Turkey and other selected countries, regions as % of GDP. R&D spending

Human and Financial resourses for R&D

Figure 2. R&D investment intensity of selected countries and regions in 2015. Turkey spent 0.882% of GDP on R&D in 2015 and there are 357 researchers per 100,000 employed people.R&D employment

What I want to say with these figures and numbers that investing in R&D has been paying off, at least with regard to China and Korea.  Now let’s look at Korea and Turkey from historical data.  The GDP of Turkey and Korea was similar up until 1980 s. The R&D spending of Turkey was below 0.3% while that of Korea was above 1%. After 10 years (1990) the GDP of Korea surpassed that of Turkey and almost twice of that. In the following years, the GDP of Korea has been larger than that of Turkey, as the R&D spending. (In 2015, Turkey spend 0.8 % of its GDP while Korea spend 4.2% of its GDP on R&D)  It is also worth to mention that Turkey has 50% more population than Korea.  The historical GDP and R&D spending of Korea and Turkey clearly show the importance of investment in research and technology.

Historical GDP data of Turkey (orange) and South Korea (dark blue).

Now let’s get back to the promises of the Turkey’s presidential candidates. If they really mean what they say, then it is good sign and a prosperous future awaits Turks. In this case, the candidates should provide some details and timeline about their plans with regard investing in science and technology sectors.

In order to able to launch spacecraft or sending Turks to space, Turkey should build research and communication centers, and space observatories. As of now Turkey, does not have that kind of facilities and personal to achieve the task. Turkey has less than 10 universities that offer degrees in astronomy, astrophysics or related fields; there are only ~5 observatories in Turkey and most of them do not have modern advanced equipment. The tiny religious country Vatican has much better telescope (1.8 m) than does Turkeys’ best observatory! (In Antalya, 1.5 m, and build by and also used by Russians). If want launch some aircraft or send Turks to space, you must have observation and detection facilities. Otherwise, the aircraft will hit something along the way or could not able find back home. Good news, though, a 4 m infrared telescope is being build in Erzurum. Hopefully it opens new era in space exploration in Turkey. There is one big research center (TARLA) being built in the Ankara University. This is the place where ‘quantum’ actually works.  But due to various reasons, it has been more than 10 years since the project started and has not completed yet. If the candidates really mean what they say, then they should support these kind projects and clearly say so. Otherwise, what they say is like a mom putting a soother into a crying baby’s mouth; yes, the baby does stop cry, at least for a while, but he/she does not get any food.


Mahmut R. Karahan    June 18th 2018


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