Turkish government efforts to reverse brain drain fall short

Turkish Minister of Industry and Technology Mustafa Varak announced a flagship academic funding programme late last year that was supposed to revitalise academia and reverse the widely reported brain drain.

Figures show, however, that the number of academics drawn to Turkey by the programme are a drop in the ocean compared to the number of driven away by legal persecution or the oppressive academic environment.

The Technological and Scientific Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK)’s International Fellowship for Outstanding Researchers offered large incentives to draw researchers in the field of science and technology to Turkish universities.

The programme announced a lavish outlay for researchers and their universities – two to three-year contracts worth $4,200 per month for experienced researchers and $3,500 for younger postdoctoral researchers, research grants worth up to 1 million liras ($175,000) for academics carrying out research in Turkey and up to 750,000 liras for the universities or institutions accommodating them.

It also promised a monthly benefit for academics moving to Turkey with their families worth $394, and promised to pay for their flights, accommodation, health insurance and similar needs.

TÜBİTAK’s July 18 announcement revealed data on the three-month application period, including a breakdown of the fields and which universities applicants had applied to.

Varank had already announced in May that the programme had received 242 applications from 36 countries, including a professor who had been a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

The largest number of applications came from the United States, followed by Britain and Germany, and the applicants included former workers from world-leading universities and prestigious companies and institutes including Intel and the leading particle physics research institute CERN, Varank said.

“After evaluating the applications, we have selected 127 scientists from 21 different countries, including 98 Turks and 29 foreign nationals, to take part in writing this new success story for Turkey,” Varank said.

Yet even as this extravagant scheme drew high-profile scientists to Turkey, the country’s universities are on the verge of complete collapse under the pressure of emergency decrees that purged thousands of academics and fomented an atmosphere of fear.

The decrees, issued by the government during a two-year state of emergency after the 2016 coup attempt, dismissed 5,896 academics from universities and left many of them stripped of their funding and unable to work in Turkey or travel abroad, their passports confiscated.

The months following the coup also saw large numbers of educational institutes, including universities, closed for alleged links to the Gülen religious movement blamed for the coup.

In this academic climate, the 98 Turks returning to the country is vastly inadequate to reverse what has been widely called a brain drain. This type of problem cannot be solved simply by throwing money at it.

The free and autonomous environment necessary for academic research is currently nonexistent in Turkey. 

This has been strikingly obvious from the treatment of the group known as the Academics for Peace, more than 2,000 scholars who signed a petition in January 2016 condemning the heavy-handed military response to Kurdish insurgents in the country’s south-east.

So far, 450 of those scholars have faced trials accused of terrorist propaganda, and many more have been dismissed from their universities by decree. Any targeted legally face a kind of civil death, as employers in the public and private sphere reject their job applications out of hand.

University academics were among those targeted in the very first emergency decree promulgated after the 2016 coup attempt – the decree banned them from travelling abroad without special permission. 

Then, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan granted himself the sole authority to appoint university rectors, doing away with the previous system in which they were elected. The new system is still in use to this day.

International academic support groups Scholar Rescue Fund and the Council for At-Risk Academics reported an explosion in applications from Turkey, with some 65 percent of total applications for support coming from the country.

With academics in jail or unemployed and the country facing economic crisis, recent figures from the Statistical Institute of Turkey show a sharp increase in the number of Turks seeking a way out of the country.

The emigration figures for the end of 2018 show a 27.7 percent rise compared to the previous year, with the total number leaving Turkey reaching 323,918 people. Over 136,000 of these were Turkish citizens.

The largest demographic group to leave the country are young and educated people. Almost 16 percent of emigrants were in the 25-29 age group, and a further 13.2 percent were 20-24 years old.

The number of people immigrating to Turkey also rose by 23.8 percent to reach 577,457 people. But the majority of these were not returning Turks, but citizens of neighbouring Iraq. Just over 110,000 of those arriving in Turkey were citizens of the country.

Besides Iraqis, the highest amount of migrants came from Afghanistan, Syria, Azerbaijan, Iran and Uzbekistan. The profiles of many of the migrants from these countries are from low educational backgrounds, with many seeking refuge from conflicts or other dangers in their home countries.

The data shows that a limited number of the young, educated Turks who have emigrated are returning. They make up just one fifth of incoming migration.

In other words, tens of thousands more Turks from well educated backgrounds are leaving than those returning, while many of the incoming migration consists of migrants with low qualifications who lack language skills. The gap this leaves in Turkey’s market for skilled workers will not be filled by a programme like the International Fellowship for Outstanding Researchers, no matter how lavishly funded it is.