Can Turkey’s new space agency curb brain drain?

Turkey has set its eyes on the stars, following President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s executive order to create an official space agency, reported the international science journal Nature.

“Scientists welcome the move and hope the agency will provide jobs and reduce Turkey’s brain drain, even as they wonder about the feasibility of its ambitious goals,” Nature said on Monday.

Details are still being sorted out, but the agency’s creation is a historic moment for a country whose flag shows the moon and a star, Mustafa Varank, the Minister of Industry and Technology, said in a speech at the National Space Workshop in Gebze, Turkey, on Jan. 19.

The Space Technologies Research Institute of Turkey and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, a public body that regulates civil aerospace, will see 20 percent of their budgets redirected to the new agency, totaling about 30 million Turkish liras ($5.7 million).

The new agency will coordinate these agencies, as well as Turkish Aerospace Industries; Roketsan, a major Turkish rocket producer; and TÜRKSAT — a semi-private satellite organization, according to the executive order. 

“Space research requires the contribution of many nations and this is a great opportunity for Turkey,” Betül Kacar, a Turkish astrobiologist at the University of Arizona, told Nature. “This can be an impetus for Turkey to invest in fields that have the potential to guide the future of global economic development, such as space-based solar power and asteroid-mining technologies.”

Zafer Emecan, the director of Kozmik Anafor, a popular astronomy website in Turkey, notes that Turkey’s proximity to the equator and its many flatlands might make it an economical alternative to current international launch sites. Hosting launches by other nations, he said, could provide the agency with an extra source of revenue. Emecan also thinks the agency could generate much-needed jobs for graduates of aerospace engineering and astronomy.

Indeed, several scientists hope the agency will help keep researchers in the country, which has faced substantial brain drain.

“There are considerable numbers of students who are very much into space and science in Turkey,” says Umut Yıldız, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “A well-established space programme might be just what the young generation needs to have hope for the future.”

But if the agency is to thrive, Turkey will need more astronomers, which could pose a challenge given the government’s poor record on academic freedoms and ongoing brain drain. “The number of Turkish people who have a professional career in space science is quite low,” added Yıldız.

Turkey’s contributions to global space science will probably be modest given overall funding levels. The science ministry’s entire budget for 2019 is around $400 million, a tiny fraction of the $20.7 billion the U.S. government appropriated for NASA in 2018. It should be noted that a Turkish-American NASA scientist remains imprisoned in Turkey on terrorism charges.

Ankara hopes the agency will deliver economic and social benefits.

“Aerospace technologies intersect with many subsectors and they encompass various important technologies,” said Varank. “The expertise we will gain in this field will be a feedback loop for those subsectors and contribute to the overall socioeconomic development...Space technologies will allow us to expand in a novel and unique dimension.”